Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psalm 23, take 2

For Good Shepherd Sunday I've looked at Psalm 23.  Given people's emotional resonance with the Psalm, this week does not call for one's "exegetical underwear."  Reading the actual Psalm presents more "earthy" image than the bucolic landscape scene the Psalm often conjures in our minds.  There is wet grass to be eaten, wine to be poured, death to be encountered and God's disciplining rod to be felt slamming into our side. To put it another way, God doesn't simply want to paint pictures, but truly revive our soul that we might return to his temple, time and time again, even in our everlasting life, made possible by the Good Shepherd.

Translation and commentary (I changed the format for this week, next week back to key words/grammar review!)

Verse 1:
"Yahweh shepherds me.  I do not lack."

The word "LORD" in Hebrew is Yahweh. This most of us know. But I think two things are worth reflecting on here. First is that in English we always put the word "The" in front of the "LORD." In Hebrew it simply reads, "Yahweh is my shepherd." Second, we read the "LORD" with a certain complacency unimaginable to early readers of this.  The Hebrew reader replaces "Yahweh" and always says, "Adonai"


The word "Shepherd" is a verbal noun in Hebrew, that is, it is a participle (shepherding) that has been fixed into a noun. Thus, every time you read the word "Shepherd" in the OT, you are reading something much more akin to, "The one shepherding." If you notice the Vulgate and Septugint translation of this verse actually leave the word as a verb: "The Lord shepherds me."  Although telling people their favorite Psalm has been mistranslated, it is worth noting that God's work as a shepherd is an action!

The word for lack here, K-S-R, is also used in Deuteronomy 2:7, when God says the people lacked nothing.   At this point the people were in the wilderness and had been for years.  A reminder that what God says we need is probably different from our own estimatation.

The Greek (and Latin) add the word "nothing."  The Hebrew simply reads: "I am not wanting..."  The nothing is implied though, so I don't consider this a translation foul!

Verse 2:
He makes me rest in meadows of lush grass; he leads me beside still waters.

I've translated this as "lush grass" and not "green pastures."  The word "green" as in "Green pastures" does not appear in the Hebrew. The word is "grass." God is not simply giving us a pretty picture, but food!


The second half of this verse is often translated, "He leads me besides to still waters."  However poetic, this does not fully capture the idea.  The Hebrew here means "waters of resting place." As Bible Work's TWOT dictionary says: "Basically the root nûaµ  (which means resting place) relates to absence of spatial activity and presence of security, as seen, e.g. in the ark which "rested" on Mount Ararat (Gen 8:4),"  The NET prefers the more active "refreshing" but I think the words, "still waters" captures the sense of rest that comes from utter trust.

Verse 3:
He restores my soul.  He leads me in paths of righteousness for his glory.

The word "restore" is the reason I find Hebrew so wonderful but so frustrating. If you look at the word in English, you might have no clue that its root is Sh-U-V, which means to turn, even to repent. The sentence could read, "He turns my soul."  This is the verb used in the phrase, "Return to the Lord your God!"  Here God is returning our soul to him.

Soul, here N-PH-SH, can mean a variety of things, but certainly not the idea of a wispy part of us that lives on after we die.  The Hebrew is trying to get at the core of our being; the NET tries to get at this by saying, "He restores my strength."  I think soul is fine, but you can see how the English ends up making this whole Psalm more "spiritual."

The word "name" as in "Name's sake" might be a little weak here. The word of name in Hebrew "SheM" means name, but in the sense of "reputation" or even "glory."

Verse 4:
Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

How does one translate "Valley of the shadow of death"?  I again defer to the TWOT dictionary, which is so helpful here: "It describes the darkness of eyelids tired from weeping (Job 16:16), the thick darkness present in a mine shaft (Job 28:3), the darkness of the abode of the dead (Job 10:21ff; Job 38:17), and the darkness prior to creation (Amos 5:8). Emotionally it describes the internal anguish of one who has rebelled against God (Psa 107:10-14; cf. Psa 44:19ff [H 20f]). Thus it is the strongest word in Hebrew for darkness." Shadow of darkeness is probably too weak a translation, but the idea here is that it encompasses more than death.  The NRSV tries to get at this by writing, "Though I walk through the darkest valley" but really, for the average reader, "Valley of the Shadow of Death" gets at this...

The Hebrew here juxtaposes two words:  rod and comfort.  Neither one in Hebrew has a strange meaning.  N-K-M (comfort) is a lovely word, but I'd like us to slow down and considering Bible Work's BDB definition of a rod (SH-B-T):  rod, staff (evidently common article), for smiting; for beating cummin ; as (inferior) weapon; fig. of  chastisement; national; individual. b. shaft, i.e. spear, dart. c. shepherd's implement, club; used in mustering or counting sheep.
Strange that this would be comforting!

Verse 5:
You prepare a table in the presence of those wishing me harm; you annoint my head with oil; my cup is full of wine

The phrase "in the presence of my enemies" delights the investigator!  It has the sense of "in front of my enemies."  I have read this Psalm many times but it never caught me that the table is not simply prepared privately amid trouble but literally, in the presence of enemies the person is having the table set!  Also the word for enemies is another verbal noun.  Much like shepherding, this word has an active connotation; the enemies are actively seeking your down-fall!

(heehee) The word here for "oil" is also "fat" and the word here for "overflow" is "saturate," so here we have a feast with saturated fats :-)  In fact, the Greek uses the word "made drunk."  There is something a bit almost vindicative about this verse:  "I am getting drunk thanks to you in front of those who hate me!"

Note:  The NET Bible has a long commentary on the word "anoint" and why the use "refresh" instead.  I will save that for the very hungry, but suffice to say, the Hebrew literally reads, "He fattened the oil on my head."

Verse 6:
Surely goodness and love will pursue me all my days and I will continue to return to the house of the Lord for all my days.

Sometimes translated, "faithfulness" K-S-D means "love-in-constant-action-over-and-against-people's stupidity."  To avoid a mistranslation, translators often avoid "love" because that is such an emotional word.  However, it is more than faithfulness.  Also, that it is K-S-D means that the subject (or possessor) is God! 

"Follow" is too passive for R-D-PH.  It means pursue, like pursue enemies!

The Hebrew literally reads, "I will return in(to) the house of the Lord," however everyone translates this "I will live" (amending the text).  I like the image not simply of dwelling but of returning to the house of the Lord.  The verb is in a continuous tense, so the idea here is that just as God's goodness and love pursue the person, the person returns to God's temple.  Furthermore, the continuous nature of the verb allows us to imagine, in a way that is probably untenable to the Hebrew mind, always returning to the house of the Lord, even after death!  The literal translation probably leans more toward "all the days of my life" instead of "forver" but again, I think this continual tense of the verb allows us to imagine the idea of a forever returning to God's holy presence.

4 comments:

Lars and Katherine Olson said...

Rob, I knew I wanted to preach on Psalm 23 but I was feeling stuck. Lars recommended your blog post to me, and it has been so helpful. I need to come back here every week. Thank you!

RJM said...

Glad some of my suffering with the Hebrew was helpful :-)

GMSteve said...

this is great, Rob, I had a vision today about preaching Psalm 23 -- it is a statement of faith, that might not all make sense or seem to fit, but it is our community confession that we do have the Shepherd to get us through ...

GMSteve said...

maybe God's temple house is God's goodness and mercy -- when we recite this Psalm -- even in the darkest times -- we are returning to that place where God is shepherding us -- I don't think we can ever leave that place, but god sometimes has to pursue us to remind us of where we are and whose we are ...