I would like to deconstruct some of the Hebrew thoughts and words of the shortest, sunniest of all the 150 t’hilim in the Book of Psalms, Psalm 23, which King David did, or did not write.
Maybe saying, “The Lord is my shepherd” is out of date. We have no experience herding sheep. Some of us knit, spin, and weave, but that is about it. I eat lamb. The intimacy of that opening is missed. I, personally, have been close to sheep and I don’t recommend the smell. Still, saying “The Lord is my mentor” lacks a little, but it may be the closest we can come.
The translation of I shall not want is better said, I shall not lack. He lays me down — stretches me out, actually — in green pastures. He leads me beside tranquil waters. He restores my soul. I like the translation of restores, because the word ‘y’ shoved also means to bring back something that had been taken away. Peace of mind, tranquility can vanish in a moment — the money’s lost, the key is lost, the kid is lost — and it feels very, very good when tranquility returns. What a blessing! We have all lost bits of our souls here and there and feel the urge for restoration.
The English goes: He heads me in the paths of righteousness — uh oh. He leads me in orbits, in circles of righteousness. We say what goes around comes around and righteousness does have an orbit — from those around you, radiating outward. For His name’s sake. What does that mean? I think it’s the easiest thing in the world to slander God. Every person who makes us say, “How could God have allowed this cruelty, this lawlessness?” slanders God. Every deed that makes people say, “Thank God,” helps us to accept the rightness of law and compassion, God’s good Name.
Though I walk through the valley of death — Shadow Valley, really, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff they comfort me. Oops. A staff, in Hebrew, is a support, a rod inflicts. Is the Psalm saying that we should be comforted by what beats us? Unjust punishment is the worst thing I have ever endured, just punishment has a certain comfort, grace if you will, because it points to order in the universe. Someone is minding the store.
You prepare a table before me in front of my enemies — the word is stronger, oppressors. Anyone can have an enemy — I’ve had three in my life, all carefully chosen and fully up to my standards, worthy of my enmity. They’re all dead, now, and I haven’t replaced them. Slots are open. But the word says oppressor, and that’s another matter.
You have anointed — that’s poured oil on my head. I don’t think having oil poured on my head is a treat, but consider that in those days, as in these, oil is a good cure for scurf, mange, and companions moving in you hair. Every good host in those days welcomed his guests with a little oil so they wouldn’t have to go through dinner picking and scratching. We all want to be alone in our hats. I know I do. My cup runs over — well, is full.
Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. The problem here is with the word follow. The roof radaf means pursue, as in synagogues named rodef shalom — pursue peace — it also means to chase after. What a picture — me running as fast as I can while Goodness and Mercy are pounding after me yelling, “Stop, — wait for us,” and me yelling back at them, “It’s too much responsibility. It takes too much time,” and Goodness and Mercy without time, trouble, and I.Q. land us all in the soup. They’re out of breath and panting. They can’t follow me in a car — gas is getting expensive, but they will chase after me all my life. Maybe they’ll catch up. I’m getting old, slowing down.
And I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. This is the mistranslation that started the whole kerfuffle. It does not say forever — it says length of days. I think that means a lifetime, a lifetime here on earth now. That’s where Goodness and Mercy are, where Happiness is.