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Psalm 23 in a Pandemic

Good morning, again. Welcome parishioners and friends from near and far! We’ve been doing this, worshiping online, for six weeks now. And I remember that on the day we started, the day Bishop Shin joined me here, we read Psalm 23–just like we’re reading today. It’s unusual to have the same Psalm so close together like this. I consider it a small mercy that we’ve had it in these difficult times not once, but twice.

This is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, what we call “Good Shepherd Sunday” because we read each year these lessons that play on the metaphor of sheep and shepherd, a metaphor we Christians know well from the New Testament but that derives from the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 23 is probably the most famous use of it in the Old Testament, if not the entire Bible.

The version we read today from the New Revised Standard Edition is not the one most of us grew up hearing. That would be the King James translation, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” We owe thanks to the brilliant translators of that Bible for many sonorous passages, but this is far and away one of their best, so good No other version has ever managed to replace it in the four hundred years since.

The authors of the King James version were not only translators, they were poets, scholars, priests, sometimes all four. Some were even travel writers, who recorded their adventurers exploring new worlds and trade routes. Their grasp of language came from both scholarship and experience. Some would argue even playwrights were among the translators. There’s a legend (probably just that) that Shakespeare had a hand in some of the Psalms and Gospels.

Up to 93% of the King James Bible comes from a prior English translation, by William Tyndale, who was the first to translate the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew. But it was the King James translators who often, with just a word changed, or moved, one word in a whole paragraph, even a whole page, could turn a passage of Tyndale’s from prose into poetry.

And they did that with Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Tyndale had said, “therefore I can want nothing.”

And compare both of these to another rough contemporary, the poet George Herbert: The God of love my shepherd is, /And he that does me feed./ While He is mine, and I am His,/ What can I want or need?

I Shall Not Want. Four syllables. So simple, and direct. It’s not always embellishment that makes the King James version so beautiful, particularly with this Psalm, but restraint and simplicity. I shall not want.

But this sweet and simple beginning now gives way to the more lush and rhythmic language we think of as the King James style.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Those “eth” endings were actually going out of fashion by the time the King James Bible was made. People weren’t speaking like that anymore. Language changed quickly then, just like it does today. But when you need to slow down a thought, because you’re walking along at peace with God and you don’t want to hurry the moment, that “eth” ending–not once, but 4 times: maketh, leadeth, restoreth, leadeth–is a nice way to slow down, and savor.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

This is the most familiar of all the verses in the Psalm, after The Lord is my Shepherd. It’s what makes this the favorite Psalm for foxholes and funerals – times of stress and uncertainty. The “valley of the shadow of death” is Tyndale, from the Hebrew (of course). But just a small word more, “yea though I walk…” adds peace and assuredness–also some informality, almost like the Psalmist is thinking out loud, developing the thought with us.

Something unusual happens now in the latter part of the Psalm–two things, actually.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

The Psalmist goes from talking about God, to talking to God. From he, to thou, making it now more intimate, more direct. It used to be that “thou” was actually the more intimate, less formal form of address. “You” was how you referred to someone more important, “thou” was what you called your child, your servant, or your spouse–just the opposite of what we think today. Like with the “eth” ending, “thees and thous” were going out of fashion in favor of simply “you.” So when the King James writers chose to keep “thou” in the Psalmist’s address to God, they were choosing to stress the intimacy, and the informality of this relationship. This is tender language.

The other shift at this point in the Psalm is the metaphor. The speaker is no longer a sheep being led and steered by rod and staff, but a person, a man and even a royal figure, before whom God has set a table. A person, speaking directly, and intimately, to God. It is the brilliance of this Psalm (and now I don’t just mean tin the King James version of it, but the original) that it makes this shift so abruptly yet imperceptibly.

Some months ago I read an essay whose author questioned why it is that so many children’s books feature animals as their main characters. Animals that talk, dress in little clothes, sleep in little beds. Have you ever stopped to think about how strange this is? Why not populate children’s books with other children? What do talking frogs do for us at a young age? Jeremy Fisher. Frog and Toad. Moose and Squirrel. Pigeon. Elephant and Pig. I read these to my kids and I’m not even sure it occurs to them that animals don’t get up, have breakfast and get dressed and go to school, like we do (or did!).

The Bible puts us in the place of animals, too, quite a lot. We are sheep, sometimes goats, sparrows, baby chicks, even worms. But we’re also kings, priests (all of us), sons and daughters of the living God. The Psalmist captures with one short Psalm the paradox of being both utterly vulnerable and dependent on God as a sheep to its shepherd, and also as dignified as sons or daughters of God, with heads anointed like kings, speaking as intimately to our Maker as Adam once did in the Garden.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.