Exploring Psalm 23
Defining sheep and the Shepherd, the host and the guest
Literary language is sticky in a way that ordinary language is not. Although most priests do not think of their homilies as literary language, a homily, at least a good homily, is a sticky text. It can stick to different people in different ways and connect these people in a common experience.
Psalm 23 is arguably one of the stickiest texts in the Bible. I want to begin by exploring why this is so and then ask how it sticks to priests and helps them connect to the people they serve.
Nouns vs. Verbs
Hebrew and English differ in two fundamental ways. First, English favors nouns while Hebrew prefers verbs, and we see this in the opening phrase. The English words “my shepherd” translates the Hebrew participle with its object: “the one shepherding, grazing me.” The Hebrew focuses less on the role and more on the verb’s action for “me.” The shepherd is mine in the sense that he is taking care of “me.”
The second difference lies in the way that the two languages connect ideas. English, like Latin and Greek, likes to indicate the relationship between ideas and subordinate clauses. Hebrew tends to make statements, one after another. While some translations make the connections explicit, the NABRE translation, used here, respects the original and invites the reader to work out the relationship:
“The Lord is my shepherd; / there is nothing I lack.”
The Hebrew text does not explicitly link these two sentences, but it invites us to link the two and affirm the whole statement.
The shepherd is one of the great images of the ancient world and the Bible. In his famous “Codex,” King Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1810–1750 B.C.) calls himself “the beneficent shepherd, whose scepter is righteous … so that the strong might not oppress the weak.” King Hammurabi uses the image of the shepherd to capture this vision.
Though Psalm 23 does not refer to kingship, the link between the two is ancient, and it is no accident that David is among the sheep when Samuel has run through all of the sons of Jesse without finding the one to anoint (cf. 1 Sm 16:11).
The image of the king conjures up strength and power while the shepherd brings the emphasis of care.
Second Isaiah captures these two dimensions in 40:10-11. We hear that the Lord “comes with power” and “rules by his strong arm.” Then the text adds:
“Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
leading the ewes with care.”
Isaiah juxtaposes “the strong arm” with the arms that “gather the lambs.” The Lord, as Isaiah reveals, holds together both strength and care.
This care dominates the psalm in the next four sentences with the Lord as subject and “me” as object: “he makes me lie down”; “he leads me”; “he restores my soul”; “He guides me” (Ps 23:2-3).
Again the Hebrew invites us to find the connections for these sentences. The first two verbs deal with giving rest and movement and so embrace the coming and going of life. The two lines add “green pasture” and “still waters” to suggest abundance and peace and, even more essential, food and drink, the basic needs for being alive.
The third line literally states: “he causes my ‘soul/being/self’ to return.” The Hebrew word for “soul,” nephesh, originally meant “throat,” but it becomes a part of the whole. Hebrew uses nephesh for “the self,” “one’s whole being.”
We recognize this connection between throat and self implicitly in the blessing on the feast of St. Blaise. Without our throats, we would not exist. The Greek translation captures this idea with “psyche,” its word for “soul.”
The word “soul” suggests a larger, existential horizon. Life and self can seep away and even hemorrhage. We need more than physical food and drink, and here the psalmist testifies that God will bring back and re-establish life and self and soul.
The final verb, “guide,” pairs with “leads” to underline God’s initiative, which guides and leads this psalmist “along right paths.” The word “right,” ṣedeq, is the common word for “righteousness, justice” and so suggests more than correctness. My walking this path conforms me to the justice of God, yet the Lord leads “me” along this path, not for my sake, but “for the sake of his name” — that is, for God’s personal integrity.
The first-person voice dominates this psalm and makes the psalm a personal testimony that allows no contradiction. It asserts what God has done for “me.” Unlike some psalms that reveal an ambivalent speaker, the voice here is unequivocal. The psalmist now makes a personal affirmation of trust:
“Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for you are with me” (v. 4).
Statements of trust often appear in the psalms of petition as reasons why God should act and answer a prayer. Here the psalmist is asking for nothing but only stating what is true. The statement is particularly bold because of the future condition that the psalmist envisions.
Some recent translations read “darkest valley,” and, though technically correct, they miss the ominous foreboding of the literal Hebrew: “the shadow of death.”
Death becomes some towering entity able to cast its shadow as though about to strike and annihilate “me.” Even so, the psalmist asserts, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Trust in the presence of God creates the possibility of life without fear. The line is too short for the breadth of its affirmation.
Here also there is a small but crucial shift. Up to this point, the psalmist has spoken about the Lord as shepherd without naming the audience. It could be the community, or whoever will listen, or a word spoken just to hear it said out loud. Now the psalmist addresses God as “you.” This crucial shift adds a new level of intimacy, revealing the psalmist’s ability to speak directly and personally to the Lord.
Quickly the psalmist adds: “your rod and your staff comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod and staff can guide or goad a flock; it can also serve as a weapon against the thieving wolves. The repetition of “your” underlines the intimacy, while “comfort” reinforces the basic theme of the shepherd’s nurture.
Psalm 23: A Psalm of David
Sheep and Shepherd
To protect the holiness of YHWH, the Jewish people avoided this name and pronounced Adonai, “my Lord,” in its place. This title translates into Greek as kyrios (“lord”), the same word used in the New Testament to identify Christ. The Latin “Dominus,” the English “Lord” and the Spanish “Señor” continue that identification of YHWH with Jesus, who also calls himself “the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11). As a result, the Church has always understood this psalm Christologically. The psalm invites the hearer to identify with the speaker and claim the Lord as the comforting shepherd, to claim Christ as the one who leads and restores.
For those of us who are priests, the relationship is more complicated. Our priesthood has also made us the shepherd as we act in persona Christi. Just as we look to God for food and drink, for abundance and peace, for assurance and comfort, so the People of God look to us to act as Christ the shepherd. We are both the one speaking and the one spoken to.
Once, in a fast-food restaurant, a young woman began to wave at me furtively. I had no idea who she was or why she was waving at me. It took me a moment to realize that she was not waving at “me” but at the man in the Roman collar. Those in her life who had worn that collar had revealed to her the priesthood of Christ the Shepherd. She was expecting the same of me though she did not know me.
Paradoxically, my ability to exercise the priesthood of Christ depends upon my strengths and gifts, upon my willingness to give and conform myself to this call. I can be a priest only in the way that I can be a priest. At the same time, this psalm reveals the basic shape of Christ’s shepherding, which I, as a priest, must embrace — in my own way — because people come to me expecting to find the shepherding Christ.
Host and Guest
Many people overlook the second image of the psalm: God as host.
“You set a table before me
in front of my enemies” (v. 5).
The God of green pastures and still waters becomes a host who provides a feast “in front of my enemies.”
Commentators see the reference to enemies as a sign of the protection required of the nomadic host to a guest. Even so, Father Luis Alonso Schökel, SJ, once said in class that the Lord provides this feast “in front of our enemies” so that we can invite them to join us and share the meal.
While this reading may seem to be heavily influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, Elisha does something similar in 2 Kings 6:8-23, where he leads the blinded enemy into Samaria for a feast. In any case, Father Schökel would surely have argued that it was a fair and real understanding of the text as it stands.
Here the host not only sets the table “before me” but also anoints “my head with oil.” Oil served many functions in ancient Israel: food, heat, light, healing, moisturizer, election. Here it represents a hospitality that is more than friendliness. The anointing manifests care for the person, unlike the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-49. The Pharisee invites Jesus to his house but does not show his guest the basic signs of hospitality, as does the woman with the alabaster jar.
A pastor once told me that he wanted his parish to be more than hospitable in the sense of just friendly; he wanted the parish to be a safe place where people from the margins could come and feel safe, feel like they belonged and had a place at the table.
The image of the overflowing cup reveals a bountiful feast — with nothing held back and more coming all the time.
Goodness and Mercy
The feast gives way to the proclamation that “goodness and mercy will pursue me / all the days of my life.” Goodness embraces everything that is good — all creation. “Mercy” translates to the Hebrew ḥesed, which names the emotion of covenantal relationships: loyal and faithful love. These two realities create the possibility of living “in the House of the Lord for endless days.”
The feast of the Lord that we as priests make present fulfills the hope of this Hebrew psalm. Some have found references to the seven sacraments in this psalm, but that feels contrived.
Still, the feast of the overflowing cup necessarily connects to the Eucharist in this Christological context. Again, as priests, we have been called to be the host, to set the table for the guests in front of their enemies.
We have the responsibility to anoint and find them a place at the table so that they can feast on the body and blood of Christ in the house of the Lord. This feast brings days that stretch into the future, life in the house of the Lord, no longer as a guest but as an heir.
Psalm 23 is a sticky text offering many connections to everyone who reads it. For us ordained to the priesthood of Christ, the psalm invites us and even insists that we be both shepherd and sheep, host and guest, and therefore priest and victim, as was Christ himself.
FATHER HARRY HAGAN, OSB, is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, Saint Meinrad, Indiana, associate professor of Scripture at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, and writes texts for hymns.
Lord and Teacher, You Have Called Us
Hymn for the gathering of priests and presbyterates
Lord and Teacher, you have called us
to proclaim your saving Word.
May its roots grow deep within us;
through us may your voice be heard.
One together with our Bishop,
we profess our loyalty
to the preaching of the Kingdom,
to your priestly ministry.
Lord and Servant, you have sent us
to be brothers in this call,
sent to bear the weight and struggle
for the victory of all.
Make us worthy of this service
in a bond of charity
that together we may labor
for the Church’s unity.
Lord and Shepherd, you have joined us
to your unrelenting search
for the lost, the hurt, the sinner,
gath’ring them into your Church.
Grant us mercy and compassion;
heal us, Lord, that we may heal.
Reconcile us to each other;
seal us with the Spirit’s zeal.
Lord and High Priest, you have charged us
to be faithful, holy priests
and to offer at the altar
your great sacrifice and feast.
May this celebration draw us
through the priesthood that we share
ever closer to your Person,
to your saving work and prayer.
Lord and Savior, go before us,
for by You have we been sent:
bearers of your Holy Gospel
and your Holy Sacraments.
In communion with the Bishops,
faithful to your Great Command,
may we find a fruitful harvest
for the Church in every land.
Text: Harry Hagan, OSB. © 2012, Saint Meinrad Archabbey. All rights reserved. Commissioned by Father Ronald Knott for the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates.
Tune: Beach Spring, 87.87.D, or similar.
This text and accompaniment may be reproduced freely under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. https://www.saintmeinrad.edu/priests-ongoing-formation/presbyterates/