Context Matters: Psalm 23

sheep

Sheep grazing on a hillside

 

Most of us realize that the context of a writing is invaluable. Most would agree that the position of the author gives us insight that often aids in our interpretation of any work. Time, culture, personal struggle and audience are a few factors we often use to develop a more accurate understanding about a writing.

We know this intellectually. I was reading through a Psalm this morning, probably one of the most read Psalms in Western cultures. Psalm 23. I was reminded of the first time, ten years ago, that my eyes were really opened to just how much we read Scripture through the lenses of our own cultures. We use our personal experiences from life, which is logical, to help us define information. But, sometimes, or maybe even most times, when reading Scripture this leads to an inaccurate picture. The implications are seen so evidently in Psalm 23, because these verses are often recited to give us comfort and encouragement in YHWH as the Good Shepherd. While these verses are still encouraging, I think understanding the context is enlightening, and gives us a new perspective on YHWH and on our walk with him. At least it did for me.

When you read the first three verses of Psalm 23 that I quoted below, what images come to mind?

YHWH is my shepherd; I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
   He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:1-3

For me, I think of the grand, floor-to-ceiling, stained glass window in my grandparents’ church. A depiction of the Good Shepherd, robed in scarlet and white, sits on a smooth grey boulder holding a little lamb. They are surrounded by kelly-green grass filled with tiny flowers. A quite brook meanders through the scene. The atmosphere alludes to a comfortable and pleasant gentleness.

That is my picture. I am betting, although I don’t really bet, that this is similar to your picture too. Well, my soft gentle window into this Psalm was shattered during a trip to Israel. We stood in overwhelming heat as the sun beat down, brown dust swirling in our faces, dry thorns clawing into our legs. Navigating treacherous terrain, we paused and read Psalm 23.

“YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” These are the green pastures! They have looked this way for thousands of years. This is not the “off” season, but the “green” time of year. Those scrubby little bushes scattered around the stark landscape is all the food for the sheep. There is no water here, but dew collects on the bushes providing just enough for the sheep to survive.

green pastures1

This picture is terrifying. When the psalmist says “I shall not want,” he is not saying he will be supplied with everything he wants, or even what he thinks he wants. YHWH is the Good Shepherd who guides his sheep through harsh and unthinkable territory, with barely enough food and water to survive. When the pasture’s resources are consumed the Shepherd moves the flocks on in search of everything that is needed.

Do you see the tiny cave opening near the middle of the picture? That is a shepherd’s cave. The shepherd would build these and herd the sheep inside, laying his body at the door to protect the flock from predators.

This is a far cry from the idea I had in my mind about the comfort and provision of the Good Shepherd. A simple understanding of context forever changed this truth about YWHW and how he cares for me.

“He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” The context here is two-fold. First, we need to understand “rushing water”, and then we will find infinitely more comfort in “still waters”. Below is a picture of a dry wadi. This is a deep valley that has been carved out by “rushing waters”. Yearly, and unpredictably, the rains torrent down on the other side of the mountains. The rains are undetectable out here but the effect is violent, as you can see from the cliffs. This entire wadi is filled to overflowing with raging waters that come as a flash flood. Even in modern times people are frequently killed by the unexpected “rushing waters” that flow through here.

wadi

In contrast, Psalm 23 uses the illustration of “still waters”. Deep down in the crevice of this wadi there is a small trickle of green, indicating the presence of water. It is not much. But it is “still” and safe. YHWH is the Shepherd who leads us safely, not to an abundance of water that is unpredictable and deadly. He guides us to a trickle of water that revives our souls and brings life again. Again, such a drastically different image than was etched into my brain.

The third, and final, verse from Psalm 23, I wanted to write on today was the most eye opening for me. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” I never really pondered much on these paths. I know from other Scriptural context that the Word is a light to our path. YHWH says he will secrure our footing on the path and make our path level when we acknowledge him. He desires to teach us these paths and lead us in the path of his commandments. All these paths are steadfast love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant. In Proverbs is it written that the way of evil leaves that path of righteousness to walk in the ways of darkness.

paths of righteousness

These, dear friends, these narrow, silvery ribbons on the side of this mountain are “paths of righteousness”. It is like when we say “the golden arches” we are refering to a certain fastfood chain. “Paths of righteousness” refer to these. They are no wider than needed for the sheep to follow single-file. Years, thousands of years, of wear on these trails have carved out the path under the guidance of the shepherd.

We walked along these paths. They are scary. That’s not descriptive enough. These paths are daunting and petrifying. They are breathtaking, in a near panic sort of way. Without the guidance of the one who knows these paths, without his light on the path, without assurance of sound footing it is near impossible to walk this path. But for the sake of YHWH’s name, revealing his power and unlimited abilities, he leads his sheep down these treacherous paths.

The rest of Psalm 23 is packed with other context specific imagery. For now, I just wanted to share with you a few verses through which I was challenged to explore deeper into the context of the Scriptures. Through a more complete and accurate visual connected to these simple verses I feel like my eyes were opened in a new way to see the character of YHWH. As I walked through the “green pastures”, sat beside “still waters” and traversed the “paths of righteousness” I knew my picture of this Psalm was forever changed. My view of YHWH’s provision, security and guidance instilled a fear and reverence in me. I saw clearly the absolute necessity for my complete obedience and my undivided attention upon the Shepherd.

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