I have often regretted not having my camera with me. Yes, my cell phone can take pictures. But it simply wouldn’t do–not to capture some of the images into which I’ve stumbled, in what feel like moments of sheer grace.
One image in particular comes to mind. I was on my way back from a speaking engagement, glad to be heading home. The sky was overcast; rain threatened. As I rounded a bend in the freeway, a vision loomed Brigadoon-like before me: rolling green hills, lightly shrouded with mist, set aglow by shafts of sunlight parting the clouds overhead. I nearly gasped.
That memory somehow echoes what Psalm 23 evokes in me: an imagined setting not only of tranquility, but of wonder.
Yet as in so many other psalms, there is also a troubling underside. We have seen it already: life will take us through some dark valleys.
In some ways, it would be nice to read Psalm 23 as being simply about God’s tender care for his flock. But the psalter itself is suffused with the idea of two ways in life: wisdom and folly, good and evil. The Shepherd Psalm is no exception: the psalmist declares that God “guides [him] along the right paths for his name’s sake” (vs. 3, NIV). Moreover, God not only prepares a thanksgiving feast for those who follow him, he does so right in the face of their enemies (vs. 5).
There’s something almost socially inappropriate about that. C. S. Lewis, with his characteristic clarity, has put it this way: “The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it” (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 21). We can identify: revenge seems sweetest when it’s left up to God.
None of it makes proper moral sense unless we inhabit the story of a God who chooses and sustains a people, saves them out of slavery, and leads them into a promised future, that they might be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Kingdoms and nations have enemies, and concretely lived holiness stirs up both the best and the worst in others.
To praise God for setting a table for us in the presence of our enemies is a declaration of trust that God’s goodness must triumph over evil. Here, that trust is a confident one; in other psalms, it is something toward which the psalmist reaches desperately from the depths.
The deep intimacy of Psalm 23 is not a cocoon that isolates us from evil, but one that promises God’s sustaining presence. I don’t think we have to read verse 5 in terms of the vengeful glee which Lewis describes. But neither is that to say that the psalmists know nothing of this. We would do well to admit the us-versus-them mentality in which our own self-centeredness is part of the evil that God must overcome.
After all, such is the nature of the poor creature that needs shepherding. And such is the nature of the Shepherd that we are the beneficiaries of his patient leading.