What can one say fresh about a scripture such as Psalm 23, which has become so familiar as to be cliché, almost banal, particularly since it’s the go-to scripture for funerals for someone the pastor doesn’t know? The ideas behind the psalm of trust, rest, shelter and nourishment were understood without saying some 3,000 years ago in the pastoral/agrarian times in which the psalm was written. Today, however, many people without a faith tradition are unfamiliar with the psalm and its connection to this week’s theme, the assurance of God.
For example, its bucolic images, as my colleague Ian Lynch calls the psalm’s metaphor in his post, are almost unknown to urban- and suburban-dwelling Americans. Green lawns, maybe, but green pastures? And still waters? Doesn’t water come from a tap in the kitchen? What’s that bit about “paths of righteousness?” The only “righteous path” known to the students at the middle school across from our neighborhood is the path to the local convenience store.
While there can be disconnection between ancient scripture and contemporary understanding, Psalm 23 has been so rooted in both Jewish and Christian tradition over millennia that other nationalities and cultures have adapted it for their contexts. A quick Internet search turned up several attempts to craft Psalm 23 in today’s language and imagery. Some attempts convey the “busyness” of contemporary life, while others place the assurance of God in a new setting. Following are quotes from some of the alternatives I found.
From Corfe Mullen Family Church, an “independent Bible believing church” situated in the village of Corfe Mullen in Dorset, England:
The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted.
It leads me into deep depression, it hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy for activities’ sake.
A collection of options came from the Nevard Family Home Page, a personal site of United Reform Church ministers Phil and Lythan Nevard in England. The first one is taken from a Japanese translation.
The Lord is my Pace-setter; I shall not rush. He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals.
He provides me with images of stillness that restore my serenity;
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind, And His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day, I will not fret, for His presence is here.
Then there’s this version from Bruce Prewer in “More Australian Psalms”:
The Lord is my drover, I travel well. On outback tracks He finds green feed.
He guides me safely to cool waterholes; His understanding revives my dusty life.
He remembers the best stock routes, For which His name is well known.
In deep gullies, shadowed by death, I am not frightened. You, my Lord, are with me, Your camp fires comfort me. You make sure there is food for me, Even in the times of drought.
You provide midday shade for my head, Your water tanks overflow.
Care and kindness ride beside me every day of my journey, And I will rest in the pound of my Lord forever.
The Nevard Family also include the work of Miss Margaret Rogers, one of the saints at St. George’s United Reform Church in Hartlepool, England, who provided this musical setting:
The Lord is my choirmaster, I shall never be out of step with the music.
He leads me in songs of praise and thanksgiving as I remember all His love and goodness to me.
He causes me to hum softly as I go about my daily tasks.
He sings me a quiet lullaby to bring me rest at the close of the day.
He teaches me a restful, quiet, air to sing which brings peace to my troubled spirit.
At last I came across something that sounded like life in the 21st century, attributed to a writer named Mike Riddell on a forum called “Breaking Open the Head”:
you lead us through skyscraper canyons
past carbon monoxide
and mirror glass
you make us to lie down on park benches
and rest beside sewage settlement ponds
you keep our feet on pavement and escalator
and lift shaft
and guide us through the back alleys
of our city
though we enter the concrete crevasse
we will not fear the chaos
for you are with us
you grant us a site in the sun
at a sidewalk cafe
where we drink cappuccino and are glad
you give us doughnut stalls
and film festivals and neon signs
surely your goodness and poverty
will follow us all the days of our lives
and we will come at last to the holy city.
Why not try writing your own personal Psalm 23? Post your versions in the comments.