A Reflection on Psalm 23

I originally wrote this on 14 July 2009…

Yesterday I was troubled by some of life’s challenges, and on my way into work I was trying to think of scripture that could help me through. Without my Bible to hand, and with a limited memory of specific verses, my mind gravitated towards ‘old faithful’ Psalm 23. Maybe it was the Israel Houghton CD (The Power Of One) playing in my car, that led me to focus on the first part of verse 6:

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”

This has always been such a comforting line in such a comforting Psalm, but now I felt that there was something wrong. It was the phrase “follow me.” Goodness and mercy weren’t “with me” they were following. It was like walking in a rain storm, with the sun’s warmth following some way behind. That’s no good to me! And even worse, they weren’t going to catch up. No, they would follow me all the days of my life. I know that there are better things to come. I know I shouldn’t care too much for the pleasures of this world. But still it didn’t seem right that I should be asked to walk in the rain for the rest of my life.

I wondered whether this was a reference to David’s position as King of Israel. Whether his subjects would be blessed with the Lord’s goodness and mercy as a reward for faithfully following him. But I am not a king, I am just a man needing some words of solace.

So then I asked myself if the translators of the King James Bible had picked that word “follow” for some poetic reason. I wondered what the original text said. I had never delved so deeply before in my quest for understanding, but at http://net.bible.org/ I found the passage in many translations, including the original Hebrew. There the word is “radaf” (or “radaph”), which actually means “to chase, to pursue.” It is usually used in the context of being chased by your enemy. The notes in NETBible suggest that there is a pleasant irony about it being used here to show God, in the form of His goodness and faithfulness, chasing the one He loves.

I still wasn’t satisfied though. The idea of being chased all my days, even by such a wonderful pursuer, didn’t give my heart the peace it needed.

Then I thought about the very first words of the Psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd”

And suddenly I saw verse 6 very differently. My mind went back to the 1980s, watching “One Man and His Dog” on BBC television. I thought about how the sheepdog would use its instinctive behaviour of stalking, chasing, pursuing the sheep, in order to direct them where they needed to go, and to round up any that went astray. This made so much sense to me, I would have happily just accepted my own interpretation of the scripture without further questioning. But I also wanted to share my insight with others, so I felt it was best that I did some more research.

I wanted to know how long sheepdogs have been used by man. A quick check in Wikipedia suggested that it has been the case for thousands of years. I searched the Bible directly but couldn’t find specific references to sheepdogs. But then through broader enquiries I found a book called “David and the Psalms” by Fr. Joseph Ponessa and Laurie Watson Manhardt. Chapter 5, “David the Shepherd Boy” contains this paragraph:

“The shepherd boy has to keep the sheep together. For this purpose, there may be one or two sheep dogs to assist him. The shepherd boy and the sheep dog are a team, and the boy directs the dog. When a sheep begins to stray, the dog will anticipate the boy’s wishes, pursue the sheep, and proudly deliver it back to the safety of the flock.”

I don’t think I could imagine a more beautiful interpretation of verse 6. Not only is the Lord my shepherd, but His goodness, His mercy, His faithfulness, are his herding dogs. They don’t merely follow me, but they are actively guiding me toward my Father’s house. And when I go astray it is they who pursue me and proudly deliver me back to the safety of the flock.

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