For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 4 – Psalm 23
We continue with our series of post-Easter Psalms which continue the theme of thanksgiving and rescue, even from death. Today we come to a Psalm which many people know well, some off by heart, and often in the AV words. It is classified as a Psalm of individual thanksgiving, and Jesus may well have reflected on these words post-resurrection, and used them to praise his Father. Maybe even before his passion he found comfort as he contemplated what he knew was coming his way. But in line with my blogs, I’m less interested in how Jesus might have ‘fulfilled’ the OT, and more in what the original hearers will have got from the words, and in turn what they may say to us.
I was particularly struck by a phrase from one commentator on this Psalm. The trouble with sheep, he said, is that they ‘nibble themselves lost’. They see grass, they want it, then they see a bit more, further away, and go after that, and so on until they fall into a ravine or get eaten by some predatory animal. That clever phrase reflects perfectly what we shall be discovering about Consumerism in a few weeks’ time on my ‘Culture’ series of podcasts. We want stuff, go after it, and before long we are lost. So the opening few words of the Psalm are as significant for 21st century consumers as for 1st century Messiahs. ‘The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want.’
When I was very young I thought this Psalm was a bit rude, translating it in my head as ‘The Lord is my shepherd, but I don’t want him’! I now realise, of course that it means the very opposite, but it is interesting that the job of the shepherd, to prevent the sheep from getting lost, doesn’t just lead to the consequence that we ‘lack nothing’. In fact the absence of lack is the very thing which keeps us close to the shepherd. We have no need to go off nibbling, because we lack nothing by his side.
One of the central motifs of the OT is the presence of God among his people. Other nations had gods who were up there, over there, out there, but Israel had a God among them, and idea which of course comes to full fruition in the incarnation of Jesus, ‘Immanuel – God with us’. It is interesting that the central phrase of this Psalm is in v.4 – ‘You are with me’. In the Hebrew text it is literally the centre, with 26 words before it and 26 after it. It also marks the transition from third person language about God (‘Heleads me …’) to first person (‘You are with me.’). A propositional faith has turned into a relationship, a conversation.
So do we lack nothing? Of course not! Personally I lack a six-figure pension, a few Armani suits, a Jens Ritter fretless bass (Google it!)and a cottage in the South of France. Lacking nothing seems an almost impossible concept, but another commentator suggests that the words really ask the question ‘When God is with me, do I go without anything I really need?’ The Psalm lists some things which God thinks we really need: rest, refreshment, food, guidance, protection,a great party from time to time, and eternal part in the end. So when we realise the riches we have through God’s presence and relationship with us, why do we still nibble ourselves lost? Listen to the Consumerism podcast when it comes out, and I’ll try to explain, but for now the Psalm is, I believe, an invitation to snuggle up and live more closely with God, and enjoy his presence and his presents, and to stop believing that the grass is greener somewhere else, or that our lives will be more fulfilled if we can just nibble a bit more for ourselves.