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Meditation on Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd

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PSALM 23, the Good Shepherd, is the best known and most beloved psalm, an enduring source of inspiration and consolation.  We should investigate its allegorical meanings with special care.

The psalm is a spiritual meditation on ones relationship with God and on the gifts God bestows.  As its themes are of universal interest, it is suitable for people of any religious denomination, not only Christians and Jews.

The purposes of psalm are to ingrain in faithful souls a firm conviction of God’s unremitting providence and to help one, in all things, to seek God’s guidance at all times, rather than to follow ones own fallible will and pursue ones egoistic thoughts. That is the leading project of the Old and New Testament — a renovation of mind and will — and is most directly expressed in Matthew 6:33: But seek ye first the reign of God and his righteousness.  The word translated as reign or kingdom (βασιλείαν, basileia) can be interpreted here to mean reigning or shepherding — that is, a condition, not a place — of ones mind and soul.

1. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Like a shepherd, God constantly and faithfully guides our thoughts and affections, protects us, and takes care of our needs.

Many important Old Testament figures — including Abel, Joseph, Moses and David — were shepherds. These righteous and holy persons serve as exemplars for us in shepherding our thoughts away from vanities and towards goodness and integrity.  God, though, is the supreme shepherd.  While we ourselves are expected to direct our own thoughts in a holy way as we are able, ultimately we depend on the divine Good Shepherd to direct and transform our interior life.

A shepherd is stronger and wiser than his sheep.  He looks after them, protects them, oversees all that is necessary for their welfare and flourishing.  As God, who is infinitely wise and good is our shepherd, he will anticipate and supply all our needs, inner and outer.

In understanding God as the Good Shepherd we are freed from the burden of having to direct our own life, and the myriad errors that is bound to produce. Therefore we should be confident, not fear about the future, not think unduly to prepare for our own needs, and develop the habit of expecting and discerning the presence and meaning of God’s guidances.

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

The image of green pastures suggests three things: repose, beauty and nourishment.  All of these apply to the pastures to which God leads ones soul. Repose, because arrival at green pastures means a potentially difficult and demanding journey to them is completed; beauty, because these pastures are themselves delightful to behold;  nourishment, because food of the best kind is supplied for the soul.

Once we have ceased the vain, grasping, ego thoughts of self-will and humbly turn to God, we may receive the spiritual gifts he is eager and ready to supply. These include noble thoughts, desires and insights that nourish and build our soul. We are nourished when our mind’s eye is opened to receive spiritual insights and inspirations, and to recognize the deeper meanings of Scripture and of external experiences. Besides nourishing us, the mere act of eating such food is delightful.

In the Bible, water images such as wells and fountains are often used to mean springs rising from the depths of ones soul that bring deep forms of knowledge, including self-knowledge. The verse refers not simply to waters, but still waters. Still water has two attributes, both of which apply here. In a well or deep pool, stillness allows one to see clearly beneath the surface. Still water also produces accurate and beautiful reflections. When our mind is stilled, so that we arrive at the condition the ancient Greeks called  ataraxia (ἀταραξία), meaning undisturbedness, we may discern the subtle thoughts that come from the depths of our soul with greater skill and also perform self-reflection with greater skill.

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

Our soul dies in varying degrees when it goes astray to dwell on worldly concerns, anxieties, thoughts of the future, ambitions, worries and the like. Much of the time our mind is either in acute distress, or else in a state of confusion, unrest, distraction, idleness or undirected attention, flitting from one thought to another.

All such conditions produce a degradation in the clarity, depth and integrity of consciousness.

To the extent our consciousness is not clear and constant, but instead chaotic and disturbed, it may legitimately said we are not fully alive.

In one sense, then, the restoration referred to here is that of the mind from it’s fallen and fragmented condition.  It is of great significance that we have a Good Shepherd on whom we can continually rely to restore us. This is an ongoing process. We must prepared to be restored 100 times a day, or as many times as our mind goes astray.

Restoration here has a second sense as well. In the Septuagint version, the Greek word for “restoreth” is epestrepsen (ἐπέστρεψεν), from the verb epistréphō (ἐπιστρέφω), which means to return, convert, or turn back.  This is same term the Neoplatonist Plotinus uses in the Enneads to describe the return of ones soul to God after it has fallen into worldly-mindedness.  So the restoring of which the psalmist speaks includes how God graciously calls the soul back to the path of return.  That act of choosing to seek God again is itself a restoration. While this is our choice, it is also inspired by God, a grace.  This sense of restoration is much better for us than a mere feeling of tranquility or refreshment.

A recurring and important theme in Psalms is God’s Name. A great discovery we make following the road of sincere repentance is what it means to call upon God’s Name. By God’s Name here we mean his reputation. We are absolutely certain of one thing: God, the all-loving Creator of the universe, wishes to save sinners, and to rescue the lost from the dreadful suffering which accompanies alienation from his grace.

We cannot even comprehend a God who lacks this merciful and loving quality. It is essential both to the definition of a Supreme Being, and to our instinctive, unalterable sense of moral rightness.

Since God, then, wishes to save sinners, it must follow that he values his reputation, for his reputation is of incalculable value in attracting sinners back to the way of righteousness. If God were to do anything that calls into question his reputation as fair, just and saving, it would oppose the very salvific interest which is part of God’s defining essence.  People would not seek him, and would not be saved.  A supremely benevolent, just, loving and powerful God would not permit this.

Hence, when pleading for God to raise us from our fallen condition, with its unhappiness, suffering, and painful alienation, we say with the psalmist, Let my fate not put to shame those who trust in you (Ps. 69:6).  We are certain that as long as we do not actively oppose God’s plan of salvation for us, he will faithfully act.

But if we invoke God’s Name here — if we say to God, “Save me, answer my desperate pleas for your Name’s sake! — this requires something from us as well. For we would be absurd and hypocritical to suppose that God would preserve his reputation were he to rescue us when we are insincere and undeserving.  God will not be made a fool.  Were he to save an insincere repentant, that would harm his reputation as much, if not more, than were he to ignore sincere pleas.  If we invoke God’s Name, then, we must search our conscience, and know we are sincerely trying to reform.  We must not plead with our lips but remain reprobate in our heart.

4. 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.

We may understand the valley here as referring to this life, in which all is passing away, and where what things appear to be real are mere shadows of reality. We have no fear, because it is also a mere illusion to believe God is not immediately and actively concerned with our welfare.

Note carefully the shift here, whereby before God was referred to in the third person (“he”), and now in the second person (“thou”). We are now addressing God himself, and communing with him. More than a prayer, then, the psalm becomes an actual experience of drawing closer to God.

God’s staff pulls us out of the thorns of temptations and back to the right path. When necessary, God’s rod rebukes us; for that we should not feel resentful, but grateful: its presence is proof of God’s active interest and loving care.

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

God prepares a banquet of spiritual goods.  Enemies here — as throughout Psalms — means the inner enemies within our soul. Compared to the exalted nature of these goods, the presence of enemies is no concern.  Nothing is more suitable for dispelling the power of enemies than that one such receive, even in their presence, such wonderful gifts.

Anointing the head with oil is a universal symbol for the opening of the eye of the mind that sees spiritual things and receives divine illuminations.  Speaking of this verse, St. Ambrose tells us, “At this banquet there is the oil of sanctification, poured richly over the head of the just. This oil strengthens the inner senses. It does away with the oil of the sinner that fattens the head.” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms 35.19).

The cup is filled with spiritual wine, referring to a divine stimulation of holy emotions.  The usual English translation loses the explicit sense of inebriation implied.  The Septuagint Greek retains this, saying, τὸ ποτήριόν σου μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον, which means, your cup gladdens like the best wine, or your cup bestows the most exalted form of inebriation.  Our spiritual yearnings are fulfilled in their entirety.

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

The psalm closes on a strong note of optimism, hope and confidence — these words being so clear that no interpretation is needed.  We emerge from our meditation renewed and strengthened.

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Psalm 90, The Prayer of Moses

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Moses and the Burning Bush (detail), William Blake (English; 1757−1827), c. 1803.

THE following meditation,  inspired, wise and beautifully written, comes from the pen of Rev. William Stratton Pryse (1849−1928), an American Presbyterian minister; and a prize indeed it is.  Other homilies of his on the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer which appeared in the same volume of the Herald and Presbyter are equally profitably.

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Psalm 90, A prayer of Moses the man of God. KJV

  1. LORD, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
  2. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
  3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
  4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
  5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
  6. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
  7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
  8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
  9. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
  10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
  11. 11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
  12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
  13. Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
  14. O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
  15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
  16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
  17. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

A
N IMPRESSIVE and beautiful prayer is that of the great lawgiver Moses, which is contained in the 90th psalm. There seems to be no reason to question the correctness of the title, “A Prayer of Moses,” and the psalm therefore is the oldest extant poem in the world, by many centuries older than the other psalms and the poems of Homer.

It is a noble psalm, solemn and majestic in tone and movement, and it fits well our estimate of the character of Moses. It is also a true memorial of the forty years of desert wandering. As has been said, it “faithfully reflects the long, weary wanderings, the multiplied provocations and the consequent punishments of the wilderness.” [1]

The psalm comprises two parts, of which the first is the longer, consisting of a meditation upon human life as contrasted with that of God. In a tone of deep sadness it dwells upon the brevity, uncertainty and tribulations of man’s earthly life. But coupled with this sadness is a firm confidence in God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, and in whom is our dwelling place forevermore. This meditation is a true part of the prayer of which the whole psalm consists, for while it is not in the form of petition it is, throughout, a cry of the soul after God.

Beginning with the 12th verse, the remainder of the psalm is composed of petitions which spring naturally out of the preceding reflectings. These petitions are seven in number, and thus conform to the symbolism which throughout Scripture attaches to that number. For the trend of these petitions is in precise accord with the symbolical meaning of that number, as indicating a work of God for man. Such a divine working for help and blessing is the burden of the petitions from the first to the last. And they conform to the arrangement of the seven units, which is found in every instance of the symbolical use of that number in Scripture.

The seven fall into the two groups of four and three, and the other division of six and one, the petitions in each case corresponding with and illustrated by the significance of these divisions. The order of the four and three however, the world-human number four coming first and followed by the divine number three, reverses the order of the Lord’s Prayer, which is three and four. This order grows out of the previous meditation, which leads up to the petitions of human need. The grouping of four and three is indicated by the pronouns “us” and “thy.” Teach us, return unto us, satisfy us, make us glad; and thy work, thy beauty, thy establishing power.

It is to be noted that Moses in this prayer nowhere speaks of himself alone, but includes all his people with him. It is nowhere “I” but always “we,” nowhere “me” but always “us.” It is as mediator and intercessor for the people that he utters the prayer. Is he not in this an example for every praying Christian? Upon the truly praying heart rests not only the wants of self, but the burden of humanity’s need. So also the Lord in his model prayer taught us to pray.

The first of these petitions is profoundly beautiful, but it is also vitally essential in human life. “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Here is the vital lesson of human life, upon which turns the success or failure of each and every one, not only for time but for eternity. He who learns so to number his days as to acquire this heart wisdom, secures true and high success; he who does not so do makes a disastrous and hopeless failure. And that lesson God, and God alone, can teach us to learn, through his Word and by his Spirit.

But in teaching us God deals with us in discipline, and this leads to the second petition. Out of life’s trials and sorrows we are moved to pray for a turn in our experience, bringing a merciful relief and a happier state. “Return, O Lord; how long? And let it repent thee concerning thy servants.” God “repents” when a change comes from severe trials to peace and happiness.

In the third petition there is progress in definite and positive desire. Not only relief but soul-satisfaction is sought. As the brightness of morning follows the darkness of night, so hope reaches out to such a morning of satisfaction and joy. “Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Only in God, in his love and kindness, can this blessing be realized and become our abiding portion.

One step further in the fourth petition crowns the series, compensation, gladness for affliction. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.” And why should it not be so? Is it not the very purpose of discipline? Is it not a part of God’s plan concerning his people, that by trial they shall be prepared for good? The Master himself gives assurance that it shall be so: “Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you—for great is your reward in heaven.” [cf. Mat 5:11−12] For all life’s sufferings the believer shall receive great and glorious compensation, of which no small part may be hoped for in the present life.

But now the flow of petition turns to things divine, the supreme things of God. The fifth rises to the very pinnacle at once of human aspiration and divine manifestation. “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.” The work and glory of God are inseparable, for his work is full of his glory, and his glory flames through all his work. It is this glory shining in his work that puts all meaning and purpose and hope into all things that exist. And it is the vision of this glory-filled work of God, and of his own glory revealed in it, that puts all exalted meaning and blessed hope into human life. He who is blind to it is poor indeed, but he to whom God has shown it is rich with the unsearchable riches of Christ. And the vision most clearly appears in the person and work of him who is himself the shining forth of the glory of God.

Exquisitely beautiful and in the same line is the next petition, the sixth: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.” All the endless beauty that appears in nature is but his own, the reflection of the ineffable beauty of himself, the beauty that most brightly shines in him who is the express image of his person. The beauty of God, everywhere, in all things, how it reveals him and how it glorifies human life. What a prayer, that this beauty may be upon us, that it may crown us with its radiance, that it may clothe us as with a garment. His beauty upon us for assurance and hope; his beauty upon us for joy and peace; his beauty upon us for strength and power; so is our life exalted and beatified. Beauty is the revelation of divine goodness and eternal glory.

These six petitions lead up to and are crowned by the seventh; “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Here is the final essential without which all our work must come to nothing, with which our work shall succeed gloriously and stand forever. The finishing, confirming touch of God upon our work, what can human effort avail without this? No work conducted without God, in human wisdom and power alone, is completed at all. It is but a house built upon the sand, which can only fall. If men would accomplish any good and abiding results, they must co-operate with God, and look to him to establish their work upon them. The only hope of the world is in the leaders and people of the nations recognizing this fact.

We can not fail to see that this seventh petition is truly Sabbath, in the sense of completing all the rest. The whole prayer would be incomplete without it. In it the prayer reaches its true culmination and completion. God’s establishing touch alone brings our work to a successful end, and ushers us into our hoped-for rest. In all true effort and progress our attitude must be that of “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” [Heb 12:2]

Moses, we are grateful unto you under God for this wondrous prayer. We see that you are not only lawgiver, leader, governor, commander; you are also a true poet, one divinely inspired. Yours is the poetry of the heart and soul, poetry of spiritual understanding, poetry of the profound insight and exalted inspiration, poetry of true sympathy with man and communion with God.

Source: Pryse, W. S. The Prayer Of Moses. The Herald and Presbyter, Vol. XCIII, No. 29 (July 19, 1922), pp.5−6.

Notes.

  1. Smith, William (Ed.), ‘Psalms, Book of’, Dictionary of the Bible, Hartford: Scranton Co., 1908. (p. 775)