“Psalm 23—What does it mean?” – Sermon on Psalm 23

You’ve heard me say before, you’re going to hear me say it now, and you’re going to almost most definitely hear me say it again. The Bible is not a book that fell out of heaven fully formed as we have it now. The Bible is, in fact, the product of centuries of contentious discussion, debate, and dispute over what particular writings would be included in our Scripture as Christians. The Old Testament is the Scripture for the Jews, and it would’ve been the Scripture for the first Christians. The writings of St. Paul, which we hold as authoritatively Scriptural today, weren’t approached as Scripture for quite some time until after Paul had died. Add to that the Bible is not a monolithic text. That is, it’s not like a novel written from beginning to end to be read as a novel. There are different kinds of texts included in the Bible. Take the novel. There are several novels in the Bible—Daniel, Jonah, the Acts of the Apostles. There are letters—the letters of Paul. There are history books—Kings, Chronicles. There are prophetic books. There is wisdom literature, what we might call “self help” today—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, James, Jude, and the books of Peter. There is mythic literature—Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And no—“myth” doesn’t mean “untrue,” but that’s an issue for another day.

All this to say that the Bible is chock full of different kinds of literature that, when read as the literature it’s supposed to read as, helps us understand what is intended to be understood—namely, the revelation of God’s merciful and gracious relationship with his people, with us. The reason that we consider these books Scripture is because they reveal to us this truth—inspired by God, useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. But that is not—that is not—to say that all Scripture is to be approached the same way. We must be careful consumers of God’s Word in order to digest it properly, that it might nourish us as God intends.

And so as we go into the sermon today, I challenge you to open your mind to considering Scripture, not as some divine discourse, but rather as a lively library meant for us to wrestle with and keep coming back to over and over again to grow in understanding of our relationship with God.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Those are the opening lines, and the closing lines, for that matter, to one of my favorite poems—entitled, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Despite its macabre title, the poem is rather comical. The setting of the poem is the Yukon Territory, during the gold rush. On the night before his death, Sam McGee, who, the poem also tells us, “was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows”—on the night before he dies, he makes a “last request” of Cap, the one relating this morbid tale to us. The request? “To swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.” Cap knows that “a pal’s last need is a thing to heed,” and he swears he will not fail his friend. Sam McGee dies the following day, and Cap winds up hauling the body clear to the “marge of Lake Lebarge.” He finally finds a way to complete the vowed cremation aboard a derelict steamer called the Alice May by lighting the ship on fire. After some time, Cap thinks—“I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked.” He opens the door, “and there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar; and he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: ‘Please close that door. It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.’”

Poetry is one of those things, one of those types of literature, that can intimidate people. The reasons for that probably could fill tomes in and of themselves. I’m sure there’s plenty of research on why people say they dislike poetry, but I’m sure one of the biggest reasons is that when we’re in high school, when we’re in college, we have to analyze poetry—break it apart, study its bits and pieces in minute detail. Poetry is a type of literature based on the interplay of words and rhythm, and that interplay is used to convey a meaning beyond the words on the page or the words spoken.

There can be very strict rules for some forms of poetry, while other poetry is freer. Some languages lend themselves to certain types of poetic forms, while others would struggle to capture the whole depth and breadth of meaning imbedded in the poetry of another language. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, don’t translate well to French because of the very cadence of the French language, and most of Catullus’s poems, with their Latin hendecasyllabic meter are nearly impossible to translate into English and maintain the poet’s original word picture—a pictures he creates with the interplay of words and rhythm.

It’s hard to say which is the most famous line from Scripture. It’s a tossup between John 3:16, or the opening lines of Psalm 23—“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.” People the world over know both these lines, and given that it’s shorter than John 3:16, the opening verse of Psalm 23 is likely more well known because it’s less to remember. It’s often read as the final Scripture at funerals. Many cite the whole psalm as their favorite passage from the Bible.

Suffice it to say, it’s well known, popular, and much beloved. And for all that love, it’s almost ironic that it’s poetry—given how averse folks are to approaching poetry, reading it, listening to it, or exploring it. And yet Psalm 23 is a poem that, when we read it, when we listen to it, when we explore it—we come to a deeper understanding, a deeper appreciation for God’s love for us. Because at the end of the day, that’s what this poem is—a psalm of praise for God’s love for us, a love so abiding that nothing will ever separate us from him.

We encounter Psalm 23 in English, but this poem was originally composed in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry, unlike much English poetry, doesn’t generally rhyme. In fact, much of the world’s poetry, throughout history and to this day, doesn’t rhyme. Psalm 23 relies on the rich interplay of words and rhythm to convey meaning. When you hear Psalm 23 read aloud, you can tell, just by the cadence of the words, their rhythm, that it’s a poem. You don’t even have to understand the Hebrew to know that this is poetry. And yet—there is much beyond this that the poem offers us in the way of interpretation, and no single sermon, no single listening, no single reading, no single exploration is going to open to us the fullness that this poem offers. Perhaps that’s another reason that it’s a favorite. It always has something to give. Today, we’re going to focus on just three small parts of the poem—three small parts that pack a big punch.

Many of the psalms rely on repetition to convey their meaning—repetition of words, repetition of phrases, repetition of images. And yet Psalm 23 comprises a total of 55 words, and there is little repetition whatsoever in the psalm. Only the words “Lord,” in verses 1 and 6, “day,” twice in verse 6, and in verses 3 and 6, arguably “restore” or “return”—which is more often translated as “dwell”—only these words are repeated. The psalm is replete with wide-ranging imagery—green pastures, anointed heads, cups running over, feasting, dark valleys. Not repeated. This psalm covers everything from the simplicity of country life to the decadence of heavenly banquets. It’s as if the fullness of life is encompassed in these six simple verses.

When we look closer at the psalm, we see that the first word, at least in Hebrew, is “Lord.” The beginning of the poem is God. And it ends, both in Hebrew and many English translations, with “forever.” And interesting, thoughtful way to bookend everything about life. God—the beginning of everything, the source from which all things comes. And to end this poem with the word “forever” suggests to us that what begins with God never ends. With God all things are endless. With God all things are everlasting. With God all things are infinite. With God is eternity.

And yet, this still isn’t the most fundamental small part of this poem that tells us what we really need to know—what we really need to know about our relationship with God, the source of everything, of everything that has no ending. In the middle of this poem, in the middle of these 55 words in Hebrew is the word “attah”—the word “you” directed at God. In English, when we read this psalm, right in the heart of all this is the phrase “you are with me.” The very heart of this poem of praise for all of God’s faithfulness is this very strong confession of faith—“you are with me.”

God, the source of all things, God whose goodness and mercy go on forever—this God is with me. This God is with you. At its most fundamental, its most basic, Psalm 23 tells us who God is and why that matters for us. God is our beginning, God is our provider, our protector, our comfort, our defender, and our future. God is our companion who accompanies us through all manner of life’s ups and downs—even to the very end, and beyond. God accompanies us up to and through death itself, and promises us that, because he is with us, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life long. That is, forever—because life with God knows no ending. Life with God is forever.

We Christians can’t help but read this poem in light of God’s Word fulfilled for us in Jesus—who literally came down from heaven and entered into life with us, who literally is our companion who accompanies us through all manner of life’s ups and downs—even to the very end, and beyond. For us, because of Jesus, we can confidently confess, even when everything seems to be against us, that indeed God is with us. Jesus is our Emanuel, a new testament of God’s unshakeable, unbreakable, unparalleled love for us.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God—he is our Good Shepherd who leads us through everything in life, who’s there when we feel alone, who gives meaning to our relationships with one another, who gives purpose to our acts of kindness and charity. Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, is our beginning, our present, and our forever. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise and our confession—“you are with me.” And for his sake, we know, we believe surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, in this and the next.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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