16 November 2018

How to Secure Peace in an Anxious World: the 23rd Psalm

YWWH Ra'ah LORD, My Shepherd

Sometime last August, Andrea Castle Engle  handed me her outline for the Thursday Bible Class at SouthwestCentralHouston and asked me to reflect on How to Secure Peace in an Anxious World.
She had chosen a key verse: 
"I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for Thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8 
Andrea focused on the 4th Chapter of Philippians for the semester's study, asserting that it is a toolbox for dealing with anxiety, for finding peace and rest.
She's right! 
Andrea invited me as a guest speaker to conclude the study, asking me to consider how the Pauline Epistle related to the Davidic 23rd Psalm.
 These two texts go hand-in-hand:
(1) Paul urging the Philippians and us to “be anxious in nothing” but to "rejoice in the Lord" and trust God’s provision to meet our needs and
(2) David’s song celebrating the ways that the LORD shepherds us.

This post includes not only my teaching on that day in November 2018 but links to a number of resources I use for Psalms and Hebrew study. It does not include any additional commentary on Philippians.
From early childhood, we learn the 23rd Psalm and are taught to recite it in times of stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty.  My sister repeated it over and over and over on her Careflight to the Emergency Cardiac Unit in Waco after her heart attack.  She said she was never afraid because, no matter what might happen, she was safe because “the Lord is my shepherd.My own husband David often recited the 23rd as well as the 130th Psalm last year as we walked through the dark valley. Many others have similar stories.  
The 23rd Psalm is the standard scripture imprinted on funeral memorial folders. It is known as the American funeral psalm and read at almost all funerals. At my parents' memorials we recited it by memory because our family flock all know and find comfort and peace in these words which echo down the generations.
This song of an ancient shepherd, this prayer of Israel’s shepherd king is still our comfort even in the darkest valley. Saying these words enables us to “lay me down in peace and sleep” for the “LORD only makes me dwell in safety.”

Like many Psalms, the 23rd is very visual and grounded in the day-to-day life of Israel. Here is a link to a 4-minute video to help with our visualization of shepherds and sheep in Israel where you won't find sheep grazing in "belly-deep alfafah... What are those? Rock eating sheep?"

"Worry is dealing with tomorrow's problems on today's pasture."

In most English translations, the psalm begins with what sounds to our ears as a straightforward statement: "The LORD is my shepherd." 
In Hebrew, it begins with a Name of God: 
YWWH Ra'ah LORD! My Shepherd! 
The word that is translated "LORD" is an appeal to the great "I AM" who is the One who keeps covenant and rescues His people.  It is the personal name of God, almost too holy to be spoken aloud. The addition of "Ra'ah" makes it personal to the psalmist; it is an appeal to the One who is "My Shepherd." Yes, He is the shepherd of the flock but He is unequivocally the shepherd of each individual sheep. 
When a sheep falls off a cliff, or wanders from the path and away from the flock and green pastures, or is threatened by a predator, or gets a hoof trapped in the rocks and is alone and in danger, the sheep bleats,  "BAA! BAA! BAA! "My Shepherd! Come! Help me! I'm in a dark valley; you are my shepherd. I know your name; I hear your voice.  I am completely dependent on you to save me." The 23rd Psalm begins with a call to remember that relationship between me and my shepherd. For God to remember; for me to remember.

The Psalms are poetry and poetry is by far the most difficult genre to move from one language to another. Poetry is not literal; it is not word-for-word. Poetry is more like music than it is like narrative. Much of the meaning of poetry happens between the lines, by the sounds of the words, by repetitions, by alliterations, by re-definitions and nuance, and by the structure of the verse. 
Noted translator and author of The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, and Practice (1993) Willis Barnstone said:

 "A translation is an x-ray, not a xerox."

Hebrew poetics are not always visible in our translations. 

Here is link to a gathering of many the translations of the 23rd Psalm into English:

I have recast an English translation of Psalm 23 as a spoken word duet.
I chose to use a less familiar  version (NEB 1966) and have toyed with it a bit, hoping to make it more reflective of the assumptions and emphasis which are obvious in the Hebrew but don’t really translate into English. 
In particular the phrase "for His name's sake" is the central idea of the Psalm. Hebrew poetics make it the unseen modifier of every verse. Every action in the Psalm is "for His name's sake" and flows from the very being of God because of the relationship of the Psalmist to his God, because of the relation of the shepherd to His sheep. I hope you will hear these very familiar verses with fresh ears and perhaps with new understanding.

I am most grateful to Cynthia Byrd Clemmons, my partner in spoken word. 
[I have fine-tuned it a bit since we read it.] 

 YHWH Ra’ah – LORD my Shepherd!
For his name’s sake, I shall want nothing.
For his name’s sake he makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside the waters of peace.
For his name’s sake, He renews life within me.  

He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake,
even though I walk through a valley dark as death.
Even though I walk through a valley dark as death,
He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake,

For your name’s sake, I fear no evil,
for thou, YHWH Ra’ah, art with me,
thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.

For your name’s sake,
Thou, YHWH Ra’ah, spread a table for me in the sight of my enemies;
thou, YHWH Ra’ah, have richly bathed my head with oil,
and my cup runs over.

For his name’s sake, Goodness and love unfailing,
these will follow me all the days of my life, and
because He is my shepherd,
I shall dwell in the house of YHWH my whole life long.

One the tools I use to understand the poetics of Hebrew is to listen to the Psalms as they are sung in the Hebrew. Here is link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn2Tw1IEAF0

 Now for a close reading of the Psalm.

The structure of the Psalm is:
ABCDA'B'C' which indicates a linear correspondence between verses in the first and in the second half of the Psalm. It would also indicate that verse 4 is the main point and the turning point of the Psalm. "Even though" is the pivot  which marks the psalmist's act of remembering who God is and who he is. It is an act of profound rebellion in deviance of current circumstance which moves the sheep nearer and back  into the presence of his shepherd. This movement is reflected in the psalm which moves
  1. from exterior pastures to interior banquet table in the house
  2. from needs of today to all the days and forever
  3. from the Shepherd leading to Goodness and mercy following
  4. from "He" to "Thou" 
 According to the paradigm of my favorite Christian scholar of Hebrew Scriptures, Walter Brueggemann, ABC represent Orientation - I understand my relationship to the Shepherd and have everything I need. D is the event of Disorientation - the dark valley that challenges my understanding of that relationship, the lack that makes me question the Shepherd's provision and maybe his existence, that moment of dissonance  marked by  doubt, despair, and death which forces me to change direction. A'B'C' represent Reorientation - "the faithful self speaks to the doubting soul" and I again trust the Shepherd to provide abundantly, fears lose their power, and my hope is renewed. 
 [Brueggemann's impeccable scholarship and prophetic voice are unsurpassed.
I highly recommend any book by Brueggemann but for the purposes of this blog I'll go with 

I am currently reading: The Gospel of Hope.

I've been privileged to "sit at his feet" several times. Here is a link to the lecture I listened to this morning:
Here is a gathering of Brueggemann quotations:

Psalm 23 NEB 1966 with notes
 1 The LORD is my shepherd;
YWWH -Ra'ah Personal name of God and relationship to psalmist.
The name that is the source of "for His name's sake" and the impetus of all God's action and all my response.
I shall want nothing
 Because the LORD is my Shepherd I need nothing more. All the actions are God’s: makes to lie, leads, renews, guides. I respond to God’s actions.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
and leads me beside the waters of peace;
"lie down" is יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי  carries meanings of rest and to spread out in a safe resting place. It shares a common root with "dwell" which will be echoed in verse 6 
Recall that "green pastures" is a place where the needs of today are met.
It is essentially the prayer Jesus taught: "Give us today our daily bread."
 3 he renews life within me,
All life comes from the breath of God who provides the needs of our lives in food, water, peace, rest. I think "he restores my soul" is the better translation. The Hebrew word translated "life" or "soul" is "nephesh" נַפְשִׁ֥ which also means a living being, a self, a person having desire, passion, appetite, emotion
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake,
Note: "paths' is plural like the grazing paths cross-crossing the Judean hillsides.  While each sheep chooses and follows its own narrow path, the flock moves in the same direction as the shepherd. I think we are often quite arrogant sheep when we criticize another's path.
for his name’s sake,
recalls the opening shout of the psalmist: YWHW Ra'ah!
The poem's structure means that his phrase is the unspoken modifier of every verse. Some English translation move this phrase to the front but in Hebrew it  falls between "paths" and "even though" and it must be there to maintain the poetical structure.
4 even though I walk through a valley dark as death.
The turning point, the pivot of the Psalm. The structure would bear a translation as a mirrored phrase: "He guides me in right paths for his name's sake even though I walk through a valley dark as death. Even though I walk through a valley dark as death, He guides me right paths for His name's sake."
I fear no evil, for thou art with me,
thy staff and thy crook are my comfort.
The pivot from "He" to "Thou" is a turn toward the Shepherd and brings Him near. In v. 1, I want nothing; in verse 4b, I fear nothing. The Shepherd's tools for rescue and defense comfort the sheep. "Thou" also indicates the nearness of the Shepherd and the fact that the sheep knows the shepherd's voice and names him "My Shepherd."
5 Thou spreadest a table for me in the sight of my enemies; thou hast richly bathed my head with oil,  and my cup runs over.
Images echo those of v. 2 but have multiplied to abundant hospitality (a banquet feast and an anointed head) and so much wine that cups overflow.
How safe must one feel to sit at a table with enemies?
We might also see in the presence of "bread, oil, and wine" the liturgical presence of the Holy One of Israel. Christians might extend these images to the Eucharist, the Communion Table.
Goodness and love unfailing,
these will follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
A rabbi once told me that the attributes of God were names of God and proof of His Presence. 
He and I were both waiting for our cars to come from the valet parking at M.D. Anderson Hospital. It was the first night of Chanukah and, after answering my question about the pronunciation of a Hebrew phrase-- "May those in need of healing find refu'ah sh'leima"--the rabbi asked if I would like to hear his Shabbat teaching. Of course, I counted it an honor and a blessing. He reviewed the history of Chanukah and then said that always the greater miracle, greater even than the oil in the Temple lamps, is Shalom because it is one of the names of God.
"Goodness and love unfailing" the attributes of My Shepherd and a sure sign of his presence. 
"Love unfailing" in Hebrew is checed וָחֶ֣סֶד  "the steafast love of the LORD never ceases, His mercies never come to an end." The word is used 130 times in the Psalms. Interestingly it derives from a primitive root which means to bow one's head in courtesy to an equal, to be kind and merciful. Thus, God's checed originates in Creation: "Let us make man in our own image." Any instance of God's checed is an invitation to relationship, to conversation, to friendship with God as Abraham, Moses, and David experienced. It is Immanuel--God with Us!
I have previously taught and blogged on "the house of YHWH" in the Psalms. Here is a link to that blog: 

I was once privileged to sit at the feet of Rabbi Harold S. Kushner as he presented Psalm 23 and post my notes here so I can find them later.
most recognizable psalm,  America's funeral psalm
Rabbi Kushner, calls it a 3-act play depicting one man's story:
            first, peace & serenity; then darkness and grief; finally new relationship with God
            God, the source of strength at a time when all seemed lost.
For Kushner, "the 23rd offers lessons on
            gratitude ("my cup runneth over"),
            direction "he guides me in straight paths, for his name's sake),
            and inner peace (he makes me lie down in green pastures").
"God's promise is never that life would be fair; God's promise is that whenever we have to confront the unfairness, He will be with us."
"The most  important lesson is that in times of trouble God does not explain, God comforts."
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner