In one way or another in his many works, Walter Brueggemann has asked his readers, “Shall we truly hear the Psalms?” I hear in his question a challenge to learn to hear the psalms as they were heard by the first hearers, hearers who were or were living the memories of the threats of exodus, exile and empire. I hear a call to be vulnerable to the history of the texts that we might be immersed in the praise, pain, trauma and urgency resident in these texts.
I hear, too, a charge to not let the profound worship language of ancient Israel be turned by contemporary comfort-driven religious culture into devotional material to make ourselves feel better about our problems – as if Psalm 23 was about burnout and the need to take “me” days.
What if Psalm 23 is really a subversive psalm reflecting both the psalmist’s confidence in God’s goodness in the past and an uneasy hope that God will again “prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies?” The power in the psalm is not in rote repetition but from getting in touch with the reality that for many of us then and now, the “darkest valley” is disturbingly real, and we need desperately for the pivotal words of the psalm to come true: “You are with me.”
Psalm 23 is for people gathered on a Sabbath or any day, in ancient times or today, who face urgent threats of disaster, grief and the horrors of war. It is for honest worshippers hungry for the presence of the God who is near-but-often-silent – God who sometimes shows up to set the table of mercy and safety through humbly willing, risk-taking pilgrims like you and me.
Grace and peace,
Published previously in slightly different form in The Lectionary to Life series, October 14, 2023, the Center for Congregational Ethics.