A new translation and interpretation of the popular Psalm 23
Psalm 23, with its vivid portrait of yearning for and trust in God, is one of the most well known chapters in the book of Psalms. Below, the author offers his own translation of the Psalm, followed by his interpretation, which focuses on the ambivalence inherent in the narrator's wish to serve Adonai (God) fully. Reprinted with permission from Our Haven and Our Strength: The Book of Psalms (Aviv Press).
(1) A psalm of David.
I want for nothing, for Adonai is my shepherd: (2) it is God who lets me lie down in pastures of grass and who leads me to calm waters (3) to restore my spirit, who walks me in level pastures as befits a shepherd of sounds reputation.
(4) Even though I must sometimes pass through dark valleys, I fear no harm for You are with me; indeed, Your crook and Your walking stick are sources of constant comfort for me.
(5) You set a table for me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with so much fine oil that I feel like an overflowing cup.
(6) Nothing but goodness and mercy pursue me all the days of my life; indeed, I feel certain that I shall dwell in the House of Adonai for days without end.
The poet lies down to sleep and dreams of himself as a lamb grappling with the exquisite ambivalence inherent in wanting to serve in God's holy Temple, yet knowing that the lambs who serve God in that place usually do so by being slaughtered, by having their blood poured out as divinely ordained libations, and by having their lifeless carcasses burnt to ash.
Yet what can the poet do if no praise God? His life as a lamb, at least so far, has been good, and he feels deeply beholden to his Shepherd for all the blessings he enjoys, blessings that encompass everything a lamb could possibly need.
And what are these blessings precisely? Plenty of cool water to drink. Endless tracts of grassy pastureland in which to meander and graze. An ongoing regimen of healthy exercise under the watchful eye of a Guardian whose staff is there to fight off wolves, not to strike the sheep when the darkness of a mountain pass temporarily immobilizes them with fear or when the contemplation of their destiny unnerves them and fills them with feelings of crippling anxiety.
Modern readers who feel similarly ambivalent about their own role in the service of God will find it easy to identify with the lamb's dilemma. It is, after all, quite easy to wish to serve God because of the great blessings that come from currying favor with the divine realm, but it is another thing entirely to face the darker side of yearning for God and accept that there will be enormous challenges as a result of choosing to life a life in God.
Serving God means abandoning sin. Serving God means abandoning arrogance. Serving God means not serving other masters, some of whom pay very well. Serving God means being a servant, with all the good and bad that status entails. Serving God means wanting to live forever in God's sacred House--yet knowing at the same time that no sheep ever offers anything of value to God in that holy place other than its life. And serving God also means committing oneself to nothing else--to no other cause or master--quite as strongly or sincerely or passionately as one dedicates one's life to the sacred service of the Divine.
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