In my triple life of software engineer, executive producer, and serial volunteer for things in Cambridge, one of my favourite activities is a weekly gathering with people from the Christian Graduate Society at Cambridge University. Some people in this particular study (there are many CGS studies throughout Cambridge) are Christians, some are not, but we are all interested in looking at and discusing the canonical texts of Christianity.
Our group recently started a blog, which I am editing. I thought you would enjoy reading this post, which describes a discussion we had about Psalm 23.
The first in a series of poems we have studied from the Psalms this summer, the 23rd Psalm is the the best known. In the English tradition, it has inspired poems by George Herbert, Isaac Watts (3 poems!), Henry Baker (whose version was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral), and hundreds of musical compositions by many famous composers, including Tchaichovsky, Pink Floyd (satirically), Rutter, and Leonard Bernstein (choirnet listing).
Reading poetry from another culture and time is a wonderfully rich experience with significant pitfalls. Our imagination fills in details, as it ought, and can bring up strong memories and ideas that we hadn’t been able to express before. As a piece of writing from another place, it reveals things about the perception of someone from that place. As a result, we risk either letting our personal response overpower the poem itself, or alternatively, keeping the poem at arms-length. When we read translated poetry, we unearth yet more richness and peril.
Since we have spent most of the year studying writings which attempt to explain ideas, we started this discussion with the questions, “what use is poetry to Christians? What role does it play in your life, and what would we lose if we got rid of poetry?” People discussed:
- Songs in public worship gatherings, and how lyrics written by someone else make it easier to affirm a shared understanding of the world, even when we’re too tired to think creatively.
- Particularly well-put phrases that stick with a person
- Moments when we feel like a poem expresses something we often wanted to say but never knew how, and that the poem somehow seems deeply true in a way we instantly recognize
- Ways that poetry gives us new ways to look at the world
- Opportunities to imagine ourselves in a position similar to the narrator, or to draw hope from the similarity of our situation to that of the narrator.
Next, we looked at the poem itself. It is customary in Christianity to focus considerably on David, who is said to be the author, or on the art of shepherding, or on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In this study however, we decided to look closely at the poem itself.
The group made several initial observations about the poem:
- Psalm 23 was apparently a favourite song of religious pilgrims as they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem.
- Two clear extended metaphors: “The Lord” as a shepherd, and also as a host. The amount of detail in the metaphors seemed quite unusual in the Psalms.
- The use of present tense (”he leads”, “he restores”, “he guides”) suggests intimacy, or at least familiarity with The Lord, arising from his repeated goodness toward the narrator.
- The poem isn’t organised in the classic Hebrew couplet form. In fact, only a few parts of the poem follow the statement-and-elaboration form so common in Hebrew poetry of the period.
- He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters
- You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
- Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
- He makes me lie down in green pastures,
- Apparently, “anoint” is not the word used of kings or of the messiah, but rather a reference to fatness and plenty. It can also mean “saturated”, in a probable pun connecting the overflowing cup with the anointing of God.
- “be in want” could also be translated “be deficient”. The Psalm is purposefully generic in ways that could be understood as ( other / more ) than simply material.
- The table “in the presence of my enemies” isn’t an scene of reconciliation but one of antagonism.
- “in the presence of my enemies” suggests that the hospitality metaphor is from a refugee’s perspective.
- The poem shifts from “he” to “you” when discussing the presence of the Lord in difficult times. (this also happens in Psalm 73, which we studied a few weeks later)
- The image of God as shepherd first appears in Genesis 48:12-16, when it is used by the historical character Israel to describe God’s activity in his life.
- Subsequently, the term is used of those who lead the nation of Israel:
- Of Joshua, when Moses hands over leadership to him in Numbers 27.
- Of David, when the people ask him to become king in II Samuel 5.
- Psalm 23 is a political poem, since the king— the “shepherd” of Israel— is declaring the Lord to be his shepherd.
After initial observations, we discussed a wide range of topics relating to this poem.
Some in the group shared stories about times when this poem was especially meaningful to them.
Others were keen to draw correlations to the life of David and specific moments in his life. Some were skeptical of this exercise, since we have no indication of the time the poem was written, and since the poem’s simple imagery and personal pronouns make it seem like it’s written for everyone to identify with, not just the king.
Some excitedly described comparisons between the shepherd and Jesus, who explicitly links himself with this poem in the gospels when he says “I am the good shepherd.”
One person thought that it is invalid to seek learning from the makeup of a metaphor, or from parallels in the text, unless the function of a poetic technique is intentional. Since authorial intentions from antiquity are opaque to us, we should take care building conclusions from features of the text which aren’t explicit statements. While we do and can draw conclusions or sentiments from a poem, it was argued, those outcomes are less valid than carefully constructed theological arguments or cross-referencing and correlating a text with other parts of the Bible.
Someone else, on the other hand, thought the poem illustrates power of literary metaphor to engage with the fundamental difficulty of perceiving God. In this view, this poem attempts to express the love of God, even though the life and thoughts of God are too great to be fully comprehended (Ps 139), and the love of God surpasses understanding (Eph 3). Accepting that the span between God and humans is too great for humans to reach, the poem compares this span to the relationship between a shepherd and sheep, between a refugee and a generous host. This vast difference is spanned by the Shepherd who cares for fundamental needs, illustrated by the water, paths, valleys, shadows, tables, cups, and homes. In this view, the poem demonstrates, by using the rhetorical device of metonymy, how to see an invisible God: just as we understand that “rod and staff” refers to the shepherd, that the table and the wine illustrate a generous host, we know God’s presence through the instruments He uses in the world.
Finally, our group discussed the end of the poem. The narrator expects to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Christians see our current lives as a journey in which we are led by God to follow the paths of righteousness, and hope for a life with him forever. Yet by illustrating the work of the Lord for those on the path of righteousness, the poem implicitly warns about how tragic life can be for those who chose against following him on those paths.
Although this discussion opened up many more questions than it answered, we all agreed that Psalm 23 presents an attractive view of knowing God, and that this Psalm carries special hope and comfort for Christians.