How many funeral memorial cards have you seen with a picture of Jesus on one side and the 23rd Psalm on the other? Most Christians seek refuge in this piece of scripture from the Old Testament before they turn to anything Jesus said. Having been asked to include it at nearly every funeral I’ve presided over, I’ve also noticed that grieving people agree this psalm must be read from the King James Version. Everyone wants God to “Leadth” and “restoreth” rather than to “lead” or “restore” them.
If Psalm 23 were a piece of furniture it would be a kitchen table. I’m sitting at my kitchen table right now. It’s so cluttered with keys, bills and empty glasses that I barely see the surface and what’s more I don’t care. It’s my kitchen table and I just want it to hold my stuff. Similarly, we don’t really see Psalm 23 or what it says. Time tested, it’s sturdy and we just want it to hold our stuff: fear of loss, grief and the hope that this is not all there is.
That’s why it’s a surprise to find out that, even though it’s been there right in front of us all along, Psalm 23’s subject is not life after death. If we ever paid more than fleeting attention to it we’d know it’s ninety-five percent love song: the Old Testament version of “I Only Have Eyes for you.” In verses 1-4 the psalmist shows us the green pastures, still waters and paths of righteousness God his shepherd leads him to and declares with God he will want for nothing, come what may.
Then, without missing a beat the psalmist veers out of that lane and makes a U turn right in the middle of the highway, saying in verse 5a:
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
This half verse is why C.S. Lewis described 23 as “petty” ad “vulgar”. This line is like the butter in the psamist’s mashed potatoes: the only way he can fully enjoy the provisions made for him by God is to do so while gloating in the presence of his enemies. The psalmist must revel as he imagines them watching and stewing in their own juices at his moral triumph in writing the most beloved psalm ever, despite them.
Bad psalmist! You and I would never fantasize about something like that. Right?
Psalms aren’t God’s words to us, they are our prayers to God and they mirror our spiritual condition even at its very best which is grateful at one moment and judgmental soon after, crying out for mercy for ourselves with one breath and demanding vengeance with the next.
So when we read them alone during devotions or chant them together on Sunday morning, we hear the psalmist say what we’re thinking and sometimes don’t even know we think. Don’t agree? Then think of the last time you said, “I feel sorry for him”.
No, you didn’t.
Or how about when your aunt said “Bless her heart”.
You know she would have rather kissed a pig square on the mouth than bless that girl.
The psalms have every one of the spiritual ailments we have, but like an inoculation they are the cure too. They help us see the truth about who we are; at all times a mixture of light and darkness, compassion and recalcitrance, holiness and profanity.
You might be able to fool yourself but you can’t fool the psalms. At least one of them knows you inside and out and its more likely most of them do. That’s why they can help you pray unless you think prayer is just a wish list or a crazy eight ball. In prayer we are exposed and vulnerable before the one who loves us most. If we can manage to get to our physical or metaphorical knees in prayer, after awhile we’ll come away looking more like the loved people we are.
That takes time, but the one-hundred-and-fifty psalms in the middle of your Bible have all the time in the world and one thing’s for sure- with all of their beauty and bile hanging out in equal portions for three plus millennia, they won’t judge what’s in you.