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"The Twenty Third Poem," by Zachary Helton

So, I have a confession to make. This isn’t my favorite psalm. I don’t have anything against it, it’s just that when people read the 23rd Psalm, I don’t hear anything. It’s been used so much, and I have so little connection to it, that I just hear static. I know I’m not alone, but I also know our club is very small.

But the thing is, I know that the reason it means so little to me is actually the same reason it means so much to others. I can’t think of another passage of scripture more familiar as Psalm 23. People all over the Western world, people who haven’t been to church in decades, if ever, could probably recite a lot of it from heart. It’s unrivaled in its demand in hospital rooms or at gravesides. It is its own liturgy-in-miniature for comfort in spaces of loneliness or fear.

For some people, it’s remarkably powerful.

For me… I struggle.


I think part of the problem is that I grew up thinking of the Bible as sort of one big ethereal book, written by God on proverbial tablets of stone. In my mind, everything in it was flattened into this one genre: Instructions from God to be de-coded and applied. Of course, the truth is that it is not a book at all. It’s a collection of textured and richly diverse material, spanning every genre from fantasy to correspondence, and it’s only by respecting those unique voices, by approaching them on their own terms, that we can hear what they’re trying to say. I’ve done a lot of healthy work learning how to do that, but for one reason or another, I still struggle with the psalms.


I was talking to my friend Sandra a few months ago when she asked me if I ever took time to read or write poetry. I said, “No, not really. I read a lot of psalms and I write prayers, but I don’t make much time for poetry.” She laughed at me and said, “Zachary. What do you think is the difference?”


This makes me wonder, if we approach it on its own terms, with respect to the poetry that it is… what might we see?


So, whether you’re like me and you have trouble really hearing this psalm, or whether you find yourself turning to it in moments of vulnerability, I’d like to honor it this morning by approaching it as we might approach any other poetry. Some of the most powerful approaches to poetry I’ve heard (once I escaped the classrooms where I was expected to take them apart and pin them down) have happened when the poem is read once, followed by a guide walking through it, sharing what moved them. Then, finally, the poem is read once more, to be heard with new ears.


In that spirit, let’s approach this beloved psalm again this morning, creating a space to hear God anew.

Psalm 23

You are my shepherd—

I shall not want.

You let me lie down in green pastures;

you lead me beside restful waters:

you restore my soul.

You guide me on right paths

for the sake of your Name.

Even though I walk through

the valley of the shadow of Death,

I fear no evil,

for you are with me.

Your rod and your staff—

they comfort me.

You spread a table for me

in the presence of my enemies,

and you anoint my head with oil—

my cup overflows!

Only goodness and lovingkindness will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in your house,

forever.

It’s probably not a surprise that the first thing that stood out to me as I read it were these three beautiful counter-narratives. In scripture, I always try to be in tune with the cultural assumptions or narratives the author was swimming in. That gives me eyes to see how the author might be using certain stories or language to push back against those narratives or disarm them.


I saw that in three places as I read this psalm. First, I recognized language of abundance in phrases like “I shall not want,” or “you spread a table for me,” or “my cup overflows.” I have to imagine that back then, just like now, it was the default posture to think it terms of scarcitythere’s not enough, I won’t have what I needI’ve got to buy more and protect what I’ve got and that will make me feel safe and happy… but in the poet’s language here there’s this sense that, in their relationship to God, there is, for the first time, enough. Rather than craving, they experience gratitude. The effect is that this language re-trains my eyes away from that bottomless sense of want, to recognize that for which I’m grateful. There is sense of ease and sufficiency in that.


Then, the second counter-narrative that stuck out to me was this language of rest and restoration. The popular story, of course, is that you’re only as valuable as what you can produce and what you do, but then there are these phrases like, “You let me lie down in green pastures; you lead me beside restful waters: you restore my soul.” This language is disarming, it’s is even offensive to some part of my ego that wants to be working or producing, but instead, it invites me into a world of Sabbath rhythm. Reading this, I see myself for a moment through the eyes of the Shepherd, who loves and cares for me regardless of what I can accomplish, and so gives a sense of importance to rest and play.


And then finally there is this counter-narrative that addresses fear and insecurity. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” These are words of courage and comfort. They don’t evoke a high-stakes fight, flight, or shut down situation, but one in which we are moving through fear while tapping into a source of peace somewhere deeper than what’s going on out there. The poet is feasting on love and hope, even in the presence of their enemies, which rings true to me especially now. Reading this, I get this sense of surrender to a greater life, being part of a greater body and an expression of a greater consciousness, and I find peace in that. I don’t have to frantically wield my own rod and staff all the time because I’m part of something so much bigger than my own protection and comfort – “though I may die,” Jesus said, “I shall live.”


After those counter narratives, there is something about the “valley” imagery that stands out to me. We live in a cultural moment that can no longer really distinguish the artist from their art – their work is only as authentic as the life it’s coming from. This language seems to demonstrate that the poet is not covering their ears and saying, “It’s fine, it’s all fine!” or a privileged person who has all the money and comfort they need. In this language, the poet reveals themselves as someone who has been through the wringer, someone intimately familiar with suffering and fear. They seem know the feeling of walking through an experience that feels like they’re constricted and claustrophobic, surrounded by shadows… like walking through a valley, and to me, that gives this psalm credibility.


We can believe that this is someone who has been through a desert and discovered the Spirit of God within the temple of their heart, the presence from which they cannot be separated, even by death. I get the sense that the poet was familiar with the hospital room and the graveside, and so keeps people company there even today.

Then, I notice that in the last stanza, there’s a shift in from relating to God as “shepherd” to relating to God as the host of some kind of banquet the poet has been invited to. “You spread a table for me… my cup overflows… Only goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in your house forever.” In these words, I can imagine the psalmist sitting down at the Temple to partake in a sacrificial meal and being overwhelmed by this idea of feasting with God, of feasting on the abundance of God’s presence in God’s house. I imagine them recognizing there that this communion is not limited to a specific religious ritual, but that they can “dwell in God’s house forever,” that “God’s house” was bigger than just the Temple, and that if they could stay with it, they could forever bear this spiritual fruit of goodness and lovingkindness, of joy, peace, patience, faithfulness and gentleness.


Finally, I noticed that this poem made me wonder. Specifically, it made me wonder how much this psalm had an impact on Jesus or the gospel writers.


I wonder if John had it in mind when he described Jesus as “the good shepherd.”


I wonder if Matthew meant to echo its imagery when he wrote that Jesus “instructed the people to sit down on the grass” before he fed them with the abundance of loaves and fishes.


I wonder if, when Mark told his story of Jesus crying out from Psalm 22 on the cross, he counted on his audience knowing about this psalm that followed.


I wonder if Jesus’ imagination had been formed by this idea of the “house of God” in which the psalmist will “dwell” “forever” and how much it influenced his idea of the Kingdom of God, God’s alternate reality of Love that was always “at hand” waiting for us to enter and dwell in it.


I wonder if the disciples thought of this psalm as they reflected on their last Passover meal with Jesus, about how a table had been set in the presence of their enemies.


I wonder if it stuck with them as they continued to break bread and find hope together in the midst of persecution.


I wonder how much their story is still our story, as we continue to walk through that valley of the shadow of death day by day, searching for the shepherd that will lead us into abundance, rest, and comfort.


I wonder how much we still long to commune with the one whose rod and staff are different than the world’s, and who will lead us to true peace, the one who spreads a banquet for us in the presence of our fears.


I wonder how this poem invites each of us deeper into this season of resurrection.

Psalm 23

You are my shepherd—

I shall not want.

You let me lie down in green pastures;

you lead me beside restful waters:

you restore my soul.

You guide me on right paths

for the sake of your Name.

Even though I walk through

the valley of the shadow of Death,

I fear no evil,

for you are with me.

Your rod and your staff—

they comfort me.

You spread a table for me

in the presence of my enemies,

and you anoint my head with oil—

my cup overflows!

Only goodness and lovingkindness will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in your house,

forever.

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