In a hit list of psalms, this exquisite example of sacred literature, Psalm 23, is surely at the top of the list. The psalmist expresses a timeless level of wisdom in this gem.
Modern man thinks he is so much smarter than ancient man. It is true that we know more stuff thanks to the relentless progression of science. And yet, we are no wiser than our forebears as King David’s 3000 year old masterpiece reveals.
And what exactly does Psalm 23 say to modern man? How can someone working an office job, for example, relate to all of these allusions to sheep herding?
For starters, the Shepherd, Our Lord, cares for us more than any boss ever will. David would know. He was once a shepherd boy. He’d go out of his way to find a lost sheep. Sometimes, he “maketh” a lamb “lie down” for its own good. If a lamb kept running off, putting its life in danger to predatory wolves prowling the landscape, the shepherd would break the lamb’s leg as gently as possible to keep it in the fold.
Just as the shepherd took corrective action to preserve the life of a wayward lamb, so the Lord takes corrective action in our lives in His fervent desire to keep us close to His heart. Does this mean God does bad stuff to us? No, more likely it suggests that He allows life to unfold when we take the wrong path, which sometimes involves painful consequences.
It is in our brokenness that the Lord can do His best work in us. In these dark nights of the soul, we know the Shepherd will lead us back from the valley of death to the restful waters of eternity.
To what does the psalmist refer when he states, “With your rod and your staff that give me courage”?
The shepherd’s rod was pointed on one end to goad a stubborn lamb who wasn’t moving in the right direction or obeying its Master. The other end was a fork put over the head of predatory snakes to protect the flock. In other words, one end chastened, the other protected. Justice and mercy in the name of love!
What happens when we dwell in the House of the Lord? Our cup overflows.
Perhaps that is why this psalm is sung so frequently at funeral Masses. There is nothing we shall want when we depart this life and enter the arms of heaven.
[Lenten psalms are powerful prayers. Tom Quiner, composer of THE FIRE AND THE MERCY, The Pentecost Musical, has set over 100 psalms to music, including all of the psalms included in the Catholic lectionary for this Lenten cycle. This blog will post his commentaries on each of these psalms throughout Lent.]