Monday, November 19, 2012

An Essay on Psalm 23

The Good Shepherd by Henry Ossawa Tanner

I had a small epiphany during the afternoon worship service today. We were singing a hymn based on Psalm 23: arguably the most well-known Psalm by David.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Question: What was the single biggest factor in shaping David into who he is?
This question, not a "What makes XX great?" but a "Given XX is a great person, what were the factors that contributed to it?" has been on the back of my mind for some time, perhaps because of my recent viewing of the great Spielberg film Lincoln. I've always admired Abraham Lincoln (I am going to go on record here to say that for a long time I've been lobbying my wife to name one of our future sons Lincoln), and I've been reading his Wikipedia entry with a renewed interest. What I found myself most curious about was his "Early Life" section. What kind of upbringing did he have? Was there a special event early on in his childhood that shaped his outlook in life? Now, I know that there is no simple answer to this kind of questions, and it might even be foolish to be seeking one, but at the same time I think it is altogether natural for us to think in this way. What makes us great?

In David's case, I believe it was his early personal realization on the very nature of God. At a young age, David came to see that Yahweh, the Almighty and Holy Creator God of his Hebrew tradition, can indeed be described as a personal Shepherd to him, ever present by his side to guide him throughout his life. This picture of a Good Shepherd was something that David could really relate to, because that was his primary occupation as a boy. In the famous David and Goliath story, we see young David say the following to King Saul: “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” (Taken from NIV 1 Samuel Chapter 17)

We learn from the above passage that David had courage. He was not afraid to take on even lions and bears to protect his sheep. What we also learn is that David knew that he was being protected by God. For David, "The LORD is my shepherd" was not just a head knowledge. It was a reality that he lived by day by day for much of his childhood.

It's worth noting here that the notion of God as Shepherd was first uttered by Jacob shortly before his death, in Genesis 48:15. Before going on to bless his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim, Jacob prays to "the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day." By the time David was born, God being the Good Shepherd would have been an idea that was quite familiar to the Hebrews, the shepherd people from across the river.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Unlike his compatriots, David made this analogy his own and took it much further. He would make keen observations as a shepherd boy, and go on to apply them to how he saw God acting in his own life.

He leads me beside still waters.

The long uneventful days of looking after his father's flock presented David an opportunity to reflect on his walk with God in an unhurried and determined way. As a shepherd puts the interests of his flock before all else, David was confident that his God the Good Shepherd was concerned about his best interest in leading him through life.

He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

It was not difficult for boy David to apply this analogy to his spiritual reality. As his own name was on the line (he was accountable to his dad for the wellbeing of his livestock), God was deeply invested in the righteousness of His flock.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

David was a competent shepherd; he was able to protect his flock from the beasts of the field. However, he knew that God was the Ultimate Shepherd. Here was a Shepherd who was not only willing, but infinitely able to protect the interest and wellbeing of his flock. He knew that no matter how bad the circumstances may seem, even unto the valley of the shadow of death itself, he could trust in his Good Shepherd. How precious his years of training in "How to Trust God 101" must have been to him during his dark years later on in his life when King Saul and his entire army turned on him! How invaluable that lesson learnt must have been to him when his own son led a rebellion against him!

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

His level of trust in his God was such that he could see what others could not; even in the very presence of those wishing to harm him, David could see with eyes of faith the spiritual realities set before him by God. This was the source of his strength in his darkest hours.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

In a way, David's life was already set on a course of "goodness and mercy" from that moment out in the field when he was looking after his father's flock one day. The rest, as they say, is history.

What then shall we say? When we sing a hymn based on Psalm 23, and praise God, our Good Shepherd, how can we make this picture more real to us? Or: what other pictures can we find that would appeal to our 21st century mindset?

I end with the words of Jesus, who of course took the Good Shepherd picture (started by Jacob and developed by David) to the final level:

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

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