Fifth Sunday in Lent

Eastman Johnson The Lord is My Shepherd
Eastman Johnson’s “The Lord is my Shepherd” was completed in 1863, months after the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, a time when reading the Bible was less innocuous than it may be today.

Whose voice do we hear when we read Psalm 23?

I don’t know how many people ask themselves this question; I have to admit, I don’t always notice this kind of thing myself … but I learned this week that this is an old question, that a lot of famous Christians, like Augustine and Calvin and those people, have asked this question: Whose voice do we hear – or, maybe even should we hear – when we read a psalm, like Psalm 23?

This isn’t actually an idle, academic question, either; it comes up precisely because we understand the Bible as “the Word of God,” – maybe, if we are trying to be precise, the “Word of God written,” as distinguished from the “Word of God made flesh,” that is, Jesus. But understanding the Bible as the Word of God gets complicated by the fact that the Bible speaks with many voices. The Bible is a great work of world literature, whatever else it is, and one of the features of great works of world literature is something people call “multi-vocality” or “many-voiced-ness.” Just as we encounter many genres in the Bible – stories, sermons, legal material, informal and formal discourse, poems, prophetic oracles, proverbs and sayings … and I am probably leaving out a few! – we hear lots of voices in the Bible: the voices of characters or actors in the different stories; the voices of narrators, whether human or divine; the voices of prophets, priests, kings – the bad ones as well as the good ones – and of ordinary people; and also, sometimes, the direct voice of God. That’s just in the Hebrew Bible; when we include the specifically Christian scriptures, with its letters to churches, the gospels, stories about the church, we hear more voices – pastors’, disciples’ or apostles’, Jesus’.

So it makes sense to ask, in relation to Psalm 23, whose voice we hear in this Psalm, and how does that voice communicate the Word of God to us? Because it seems pretty clear that this psalm does not claim to be God’s voice – quite the opposite, in this psalm we hear someone speaking about God, and to God – and, we believe, communicating something true about God in that speaking.

Come to think of it, our situation with Psalm 23 resembles the situation we face every Sunday in church. Because we Christians have developed the idea that in a sermon, what we call the “proclamation of the Word,” we also hear the Word of God. I doubt that anyone today, certainly very few of us, think that the preacher’s words themselves directly constitute the “Word of God.” Instead, I think, we have the idea that in the course of the proclamation of the Word, as we listen to what the preacher says, as we make sense of it in our own minds and as we appropriate that message in our hearts, somehow in that process we receive, by the grace of God and thanks to the activity of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God for us.

So reading the Bible, in this case Psalm 23, also already involves this complex and frankly mysterious communication process, in which we listen for the Word of God to us, and that Word comes to us through another human voice. So it might help us to understand our relationship to that voice, our place, so to speak, in this conversation, if we could identify that voice.

And it turns out that Christians have been asking themselves this question for a long time! Christians have been asking – –how do we need to hear the Psalms, whose voice do we need to be hearing in these prayers of praise and lament and petition and so on, that come from the worship life of ancient Israel? And the main answers seem to have clustered around the voice of the author, who we know traditionally to have been David in lots of cases, and we are told in this case the author is David; so perhaps David, or Jesus – who is the descendant of David, known as the “Son of David,” and the messiah promised to the line of David according to Christian understanding of the messianic promises; or sometimes, because the Psalms are prayers, the Church – originally, of course, because these are Hebrew scriptures, the voice would have been the voice of Israel, but then Christians have had the tendency to think that what belonged to Israel can also belong to the Church. These are the voices that earlier Christians have heard in the Psalms, and in Psalm 23, earlier Christians like the church fathers, Augustine, and the reformers, Luther, Calvin, and more contemporary theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

But I have to confess, the voice I hear, and the voice I have probably heard since I was in first grade and had to memorize this Psalm, is the voice of the little lamb in the picture on the bookmark I got from the Sunday School office.

Warner Sallman's Good Shepherd
A familiar picture from my childhood

Seriously. Of course, I know very well that lambs do not talk, in real life. But this is the Bible, and the psalm does open with the metaphor of someone talking who needs a shepherd, and I would have had something like that classic Warner Sallman picture of the Good Shepherd who is obviously Jesus … as one of the first images associated with Psalm 23.

So in my mind, the first voice I hear is that lamb’s – which is maybe my own voice, from about the age of 7 or 8. And I kind of doubt that only I have this experience – I kind of doubt that only I have this sticky romantic picture in my head, shaped by that image and that experience, and that really concrete metaphor, and after all, the lamb is walking next to Jesus the Good Shepherd, and having plenty of grass to eat and having water that it can easily drink because it is in a little peaceful creek, and getting enough rest for its tiny little lamb legs, and being tenderly cared for and just having a wonderful life, for a lamb.

So what I hear, then, in this Psalm is “I have it good.” “God is good.” Isn’t that the message, the Word of God from Psalm 23?

Funny, though, I am not sure that lambs, or anyone, is actually that good at noticing when we have it good, when good is our whole context. My memory of my brother and me as children, and I think we had it pretty good in our early life – we didn’t go to bed hungry, we had a roof over our heads, we always had clean clothes to wear, our shoes never had holes in them, etc., you get the picture – my memory of that is that we totally took it for granted, it never occurred to us or very very rarely occurred to us that this untroubled condition was anything to appreciate. It was just our baseline. To be honest, We were much more likely to complain when things were a little bit less than satisfactory. So rather than being glad we weren’t starving, we would complain about whatever wasn’t to our liking, we said things like “Yuck, eggplant,” stuff like that.

So already this is an unusual lamb, if it is a lamb, because it notices how good it has it.

The lamb still seems to be with us in this “valley of the shadow of death,” the scary place, because the shepherd is there. I can relate to this. Sometimes, I don’t worry because I am counting on the person I’m with to make everything OK. We have a tour guide, we will not have difficulties getting through customs. My dad is driving the car, I don’t have to think about the traffic, the big trucks on either side, changing lanes and merging, Dad is driving. The parking lot is dark, but Mom is here, walking with me to the car, so I feel protected.

If this is the voice we hear, then perhaps we identify ourselves with this lamb; with this child’s voice, in a way, which views the shepherd something the way a child views a parent – assuming our idea of parents is positive and protective.

This isn’t always everyone’s experience of parents, as we know, possibly from personal experience; sometimes, even as children, we need that good shepherd who isn’t a parent to be on our side, by our side, because the valley of the shadow of death runs through our own home, and we have had some terrible experiences there. In that case, if this is still the voice of that lamb, or that child, this voice may be saying something like: “I don’t fear evil, I can be brave around the evil, I can endure it, I can survive it, because you are with me and that gets me through …”

We probably don’t like having to think about a child who needs to have in her mind, or in his mind, that kind of defense against experience that we would call the valley of the shadow of death, here on a Sunday morning in the spring, even during Lent, when we are called to notice the places in our lives and in our world that need repair … because this is not how the world is supposed to be.

But it does go to the heart of this question, this question of whose voice we are hearing in this Psalm, and how this voice can communicate the Word of God to us … because it strikes me as terribly important whether this voice in Psalm 23 is that of someone we would call … naïve, someone who has only ever had good experiences, that lamb in the romantic picture, or whether this is the voice of someone who has had some real experience of difficulty and disaster … because that makes a difference, it seems to me, in how I hear the declaration in this Psalm.

Because if it is the voice of someone who has only ever had it good, had it easy, then I don’t know how useful this word is to me. It’s easy to trust God when everything goes right all the time. I know that. Where I begin to have difficulty remembering that God is for me, that God loves me, that God loves us, is when things are going badly.

But if this is the voice of someone to whom bad things have happened – who nevertheless affirms that goodness is what we receive from the hand of God – that tells me something different. Because if we hear this voice, this voice of experience, and if we can trust this voice – and I believe we can, I believe if we are hearing the Word of God in this text, and in this voice, it’s surely trustworthy – then it tells us that when we ourselves go through terrible things; when we ourselves go through danger, and even great affliction, we can trust that we will ultimately experience God’s goodness, and steadfast love – they will pursue us, and they will catch up to us, the final image is the one of dwelling in the house of the Holy One.

This makes extra sense of why the church has heard the voice of David, the shepherd boy who becomes King of Israel, in this Psalm – not only is he the named author, but we have in the Bible the story of someone who suffered rejection by his own king, exile, war, threat of death, who later had struggles in his own family … so if this person affirms the hand of God – the table in the presence of enemies, the anointing and the abundance of life – then we hear the Psalm as a more balanced affirmation of good even in a world of adversity.

And then, we know that Jesus would have received this psalm as part of his own scriptural heritage; so this would have been a psalm that Jesus probably prayed in his own life; and as Christians, if we hear Jesus’ voice praying this psalm, then we continue to hear the voice of a lamb in this psalm, but this time, a “lamb who takes away the sins of the world,” a lamb who we know faces suffering and death, and does that with confidence that it is preparation for resurrection and ultimate victory. Not, so much, I think, the lamb of the romantic picture, but the realist of a very different kind of picture.

So the voice we hear in this psalm is the voice of someone who has been through everything, and in light of that experience, in light of having been through terrible things as well as pleasant things, knows they have found themself still with God, still provided for, still protected. So when the church prays this psalm, it stands alongside those, like Jesus, for whom this is concrete experience, and it stands alongside those of us for whom it is not immediate experience – maybe it is still promise, or aspiration, something we hope to be able to affirm from personal experience one day, because right now our personal tragedy or bitter loss or desperate effort to endure feels like our whole context – it has not yet become part of a larger context, that allows us to realize where we are as the presence of goodness and steadfast love, the house of the Lord. And hopefully, it gives us the courage to stand alongside whoever is walking through the valley of the shadow of death – which means we, too, will be walking there – because we can affirm along with that lamb of God “I will fear no evil, because You are with me.”

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