The Lord 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 right paths for his name’s sake.               (Psalm 23. 1-3)

Psalm 23 is best read with Psalm 22 in mind. Its beautiful imagery and positive energy speak directly into the despondency of its predecessor. Psalm 22 layers lament on top of petition on top of escalating lament, with a faint flickering of trust in God’s deliverance offering its small light in the darkest night. It is the voice of desperation, the cry of a community encircled by enemies, whose life is all but strangled from it.

The exuberant impetus of the 23rd Psalm compels trust in the Lord, no matter what happens. But it doesn’t ignore or seek to wipe out the pain of 22! The deep sense of abandonment, poignantly expressed in those haunting words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22.1),is healed in 23.1-3: “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me … he restores my soul.” Even in the darkest valley, there is nothing to fear, “for you are with me.” The God who seemed to have forsaken the people is really the God who is absolutely and palpably with them even in their deepest despair.

The heart-wrenching suffering of Psalm 22 is met with pain-quenching refreshment for body and soul in 23. The relentless humiliation of the fugitive has left the psalmist “poured out like water,” with a heart “melted like wax” and a tongue stuck to a parched mouth, lying in “the dust of death.” With shrivelled hands and feet and protruding bones, the sufferer is as good as dead in the eyes of the pursuers, as they cast lots for the sufferer’s clothing. The very body and spirit of the sufferer are wasting away. But God, the Shepherd, brings the sufferer to fresh pastures and to still waters. With a rod to protect and a staff to guide, God restores the soul.

God is the host at a feast of thanksgiving, and the sufferer is the honoured guest, whose head is to be anointed with oil (remember Jesus’ teaching on the road last week about the suffering Messiah). But God’s presence and care do not erase evil and suffering. Nowhere in the Psalms do we find such naive faith, but always one that is fully mindful of what has been lost. Divine deliverance does not wipe out evil. It is still in the presence of enemies that the psalmist sits down at God’s table and they have not suddenly become friends. There is pain and suffering in and around all our lives. But our trust, our hope, our belief, as children of God is that there is always deliverance in the midst of it. Whatever preys on us, individually or as community, will not defeat us, because God is with us.

What if we live our lives in the light of this truth? What if we really believe God is with us in every breath? What if we live not in fear but in the indefatigable light of being simply what we are, God’s children, the Shepherd’s flock? What might we do then in God’s holy name for the coming of his kingdom?

~ by Fr Tim Ardouin on May 10, 2014.

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