Lie Down!

Psalm 46
June 25, 2017
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Union University Church

I am preaching a 4 week series on the psalms of which this is week two. The Psalms have had a central place in both Jewish and Christian worship for thousands of years and Jesus himself undoubtedly recited the same psalms in his synagogue as we recite today. The psalms were originally written in Hebrew but after Alexander the Great hellenized the ancient world in the 300s BC, many Jews used a Greek translation of the scriptures and so our word “psalm” comes from the Greek psalmos meaning “song sung to a harp.” In actuality, the psalms may have also been accompanied by drums, flutes, or other instrumentation, but they were always given a musical setting and probably chanted as they are today in many Catholic traditions. The simplest way of thinking about the psalms, then, is to see them as akin to our hymnal which means the Protestant tradition of reading the Psalms is like someone taking the words of our hymns and reading them as responsive readings instead of singing them. It wouldn’t be wrong, and might even help us focus on the words of those hymns more, but most of us would agree that saying “All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall,” doesn’t quite convey the same spirit as singing, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall…” When reading the psalms, then, we should always try to hear in the back of our minds the beat of a drum and the strum of strings.

Another way in which the psalms are similar to our hymnal is that just as our hymnal includes hymns written over a period of several centuries by many different writers, so too the psalms were a collection of pieces that had been gathered over hundreds of years for use in the liturgical life of the Jews. In fact, the book of psalms is more likely a collection of collections, a compilation of several different psalters that had been in use in Jewish worship at different times and in different places. Some psalms are attributed to King David, who the Bible tells us played the harp; some psalms are attributed to the sons of Korah, Levite priests, and others to Asaph, a court musician. Scholars aren’t sure, however, if the attributions mean that those people wrote the psalms or if they were commissioned by those people, or dedicated to these people, so a Psalm of David, for example, could mean that a psalm was written by David, or that it was dedicated to David, or that it was from the psalter used by King David’s court. And many psalms are simply anonymous. In fact, the psalms appear to be deliberately vague about the historical details that prompted their composition. (Any historical details that are given in our Bible under the title of a psalm were added later by an editor.) The psalms themselves resist specificity. It is as if the writers of the psalms wanted to write in a way that invited every person to share in the experience and the struggle they were describing. The fact that these psalms continue to be read and embraced by people living in the 21st century thousands of years after they were written attests to the psalmists’ ability to capture the human longings and hopes that transcend time.

Today I want to look at the most familiar of all of the psalms, Psalm 23. The 23rd Psalm is often read at funerals because of its reference to the valley of the shadow of death and the comfort that the psalmist gains from the presence of God’s “rod and staff,” but in my sermon today I would like to focus on the verses of the psalm that precede that. I want to see what this psalm says to us not just as we confront death but as we journey through life.
So I’d like to begin by asking you to listen to the first three verses of the psalm very carefully as if you are hearing them for the first time, and to help you do that, I’m going to read them from several different translations.

First, the most familiar, the old King James version. Even those of us who don’t use the King James version any more probably still have this version of the psalm in our heads:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Next, listen to the New Revised Standard that we used for the Responsive Reading. It’s pretty close to the King James except it takes out all of the eth’s that trip up our tongue. So again, try to listen as if you have never heard these words before. Get a picture in your head of what is going on in these verses.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Both of those versions are pretty accurate translations of the literal Hebrew and we’ll look at that in a second but some versions use what is called “semantic equivalent” in their translation which means that the editors choose phrases that may not be word for word translations but which the editors feel summarize the gist of the psalm. These translations are often helpful in revealing not the intent of the original Hebrew but the way in which we today have come to think about the psalm’s meaning, so I’d like to read to you now from the Good News version and as you listen to the way the editors have chosen to translate these two verses, see if you can catch a slight shift that occurs in the meaning of the psalm as a result:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in fields of green grass
and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
He gives me new strength.
He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised.

Now, you probably caught the difference in the first verse between the statement that “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” and “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.” If you caught that, give yourself a star because I think that there is a nuanced difference between “not wanting” and “having everything you need” and we could spend the rest of my sermon dissecting that difference but that’s not actually what I want to talk about today. At this point, my homiletics professor would take points off this sermon because I’m not supposed to ever say, “Hey, here’s something interesting but don’t think about it now,” because inevitably, your brains are all going to be thinking about what I just told you not to think about and I’ll have lost you for the rest of the sermon, so if you need to, take a second to make a note that on the way home you will think about the difference between ‘not wanting’ and ‘having everything you need,’ then put that note in your pocket and let’s move on to verses 2 and 3 where I think there is an even more significant difference.

Listen again to just verses two and three, first as the Good News Version translates them and then as I read them in a very clunky but literal translation of the Hebrew, and see if you can hear where I think the Good News version has shifted the meaning.

The Good News version:

He lets me rest in fields of green grass
and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water.
He gives me new strength.
He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised.

And now the Hebrew:
In oases of vegetation, he is making me recline.
On waters of resting places, he is conducting me.
My soul, he is restoring.
He is guiding me on rounds of righteousness on account of him.

The Good News Version paints a picture of a weary person who seeks out God for comfort and rest.

“He lets me rest in green pastures,” the Psalm says in the Good News Version. “What a nice God we have. God lets me take breaks when I need them and helps me find calm water when the waves have become too much.” The Good News translation paints a picture of a good and faithful servant who seeks God’s presence when things have just become too much to bear. God gives that faithful servant a place of quiet rest and points to the right paths that will lead to wholeness and peace. That’s how we usually think of the 23rd Psalm We think of this psalm as a psalm that reminds us that God is there when we need God because the world has become too much for us. It’s a psalm of comfort, right?

But you know, the Hebrew is a little more forceful. Listen to the verbs again in the actual Hebrew and think about the relationship that they describe between the subject of the action — God — and the object — us:

God is making me recline.
God is conducting me.
God is restoring my soul.
God is guiding me on rounds of righteousness on account of him.

In the Hebrew, the person in the 23rd Psalm sounds less like a faithful servant and more like a child who is ramming around the yard that God has to corral and get to focus. If we wrote this psalm from God’s viewpoint instead of the psalmist’s, these verses would say something like, “And God said, “Get over here and sit still for a second. Take a break, for Pete’s sake. Why are you running around willy nilly in every direction? You are burning yourself out. I need you fresh and focused because we’ve got a lot more rounds of righteousness to get through!” (That would be the Laurie DeMott Revised Standard Version translation.)

I don’t want to take away that wonderful tradition of using the 23rd Psalm in times of weariness when what we most need is comfort for our grief, but I think that there is also a very vital need in our lives for this more forceful interpretation that is conveyed in the original Hebrew. Because in today’s world, it isn’t always external events that cause our soul weariness; often it is our own fault as we try to take on too much, do too much, help too much, and carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Because we are bombarded constantly with news on our social media streams and appeals from organizations with crisis warnings emblazoned on the envelope, we come to believe that if we don’t act now, whales will go extinct, children will die of starvation, epidemics will rage around the globe, and our society will collapse. As compassionate people concerned about the future health of our earth and communities, we can’t bear the thought of such wide spread suffering, and so, like a frantic game of whack-a-mole, we run around reacting to every crisis, but the crises keep coming in an endless stream of need and our frenzied fractured focus leaves us burned out and feeling hopeless.

God tells us in Psalm 23 that there is a profound difference between reacting to the world and responding to the world. Reacting to the world requires only speed but a faithful response to the world requires that we take time to consider where our energies are best used. Reacting to the world requires only speed but a faithful response requires that we think about which strategies will be most effective and which are just blustery noise. Reacting to the world requires only speed but a faithful response requires that we humbly confess that we cannot save the whole world and instead will focus just on the bits we can save. Reacting to the world requires only speed but a faithful response sometimes require that we take a few moments and do …. nothing.

“Get over here and sit still for a second,” God commands. “Take a break, for Pete’s sake. Why are you running around willy nilly in every direction? You are burning yourself out. I need you fresh and focused because we’ve got a lot more rounds of righteousness to get through!”

A 19th century missionary to Africa reported that converts to Christianity in the village where he taught would each choose a spot in the surrounding bush where he or she would go every day for prayer. Over time, the paths to these places became well worn with frequent use which also meant that if any member of the young church began to neglect their prayer time, others could see that as well. Members of the church would kindly remind the negligent neighbor to take a break from their busy-ness by saying, “Brother, sister, the grass grows on your path.”

In Psalm 23, God is saying to you, “Brother, sister, the grass grows on your path. Take a break and spend some quiet time with me so that we can plan the best way forward.” God needs you to slow down, even stop for a second, because God needs you fresh and ready for the work ahead. There are a lot of rounds of righteousness to get through if God is going to be able to ease the world’s suffering, if God is going to bring justice to the oppressed, and peace to the people. You may be heart sick with all of the need out there right now but you are simply not going to be useful in helping God correct the world’s sickness if you yourself are running around stressed out about everything like a chicken with your head cut off. If you try to do everything, you accomplish nothing. God needs you to focus on the one thing that you with your unique personality and individual passion can do well at this moment, in this place. And if you are to understand the right path forward, God needs to stop for a moment, rest in the quiet pasture, beside the still water, where you can breathe, where you can listen, where you can re-group, where you can focus, and where God can restore you so that you are ready for the next round of righteousness.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
In oases of vegetation, he is making me recline.
On waters of resting places, he is conducting me.
My soul, he is restoring.
He is guiding me on rounds of righteousness on account of him.