The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the C… (2024)

January 20, 2022

Few biblical passages are as well-known or as beloved as the Twenty-third Psalm. Perhaps only the Lord's Prayer ranks with this Psalm in the hearts of Christians. So, as a pastor, I've turned to it time and again in funeral services. In fact, I've tended to use the King James Version of the Psalm. Sometimes that has been the request of the family, but more often it is because that form is so well-known. Even if you're not a church person, you likely know this particular version of the Psalm.

While numerous devotional books, such as Philip Keller's A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 have used the Psalm as the starting place, could it warrant a scholarly book devoted only to its verses? The answer is yes, as is seen in Richard Briggs' The Lord Is My Shepherd. This commentary on the Psalm is the opening volume of a new series from Baker Academic titled Touchstone Texts. This series asks authors to dive deep into a specific text, offering theological exposition. In this case, it is Psalm 23.

Although Psalm 23 is one of the most familiar passages of scripture, it presents its own challenges when it comes to interpretation. The challenges emerge from the complexity of the psalm. Authorship, though traditionally attributed to David, is unknown. The purpose is also unknown. Dating is unknown. Thus, it lends itself to multiple forms of interpretation, some of which can stray far from the actual text. What Briggs desires to do here is "allow the picture that Psalm 23 actually paints to shine forth more clearly and constructively" (p. 2). While he seeks to come to the text with a fresh set of eyes, not over-interpreting or reconstructing the text, he often finds that traditional readings and translations might have it right. Though this is a scholarly venture, Briggs brings not only a critical eye but a pastoral one as well.

There is a lengthy and detailed introduction that sets out the parameters of the study, offering insight into the ways in which the text has been read and utilized. Then, in the three central chapters, Briggs examines the "world behind the text." That is, the background information. Here Briggs talks about language, noting how the text appears in Hebrew, in Greek (LXX), and Latin (Vulgate). There is the question of authorship (it's unknown though the Davidic attributions have meaning depending on how it is translated and interpreted). There is a word about titles of the Psalms, as well as questions of who is speaking in the Psalm. He spends time exploring the significance of shepherding in the Psalm. What does this mean that the Lord is the Shperhed? What does Shepherding involve? Since this is an image regularly used in preaching, this is worth the preacher's attention. Finally, he discusses how the Psalm fits into the larger Psalter. All of this is helpful to understanding the passage.

From there we move to exegesis -- "The World in Psalm 23." In chapter 3, Briggs takes us verse by verse, line by line, exegeting the Psalm, showing us how these words are translated, giving us new insights. One of the most fascinating is the discussion verse four, which the KJV translates as "though I walk through the shadow of death." He goes into the various of rending the Hebrew, and in the end, comes out suggesting that the traditional view that involves the presence of death might be on target. This section will be of great interest and assistance to preachers who choose to bring the passage to their congregations. At the end of the chapter, he offers his own fresh translation. Interestingly, he chooses the traditional rendering of verse 4: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me . . . " (pp. 128-129).

Chapter 4 focuses on the way this passage is used within ministry. The chapter is titled The World in front of Psalm 23." As you might expect one of the central concerns is the role this Psalm plays in funerals and in worship. He also addresses the question of how the psalm is read in Jewish and Christian contexts. Thus, he explores how the passage might be interpreted to refer to Jesus. He also explores how the Psalm might offer comfort to those in need of it. Ultimately, he sees this as a call to pilgrimage, such that the Psalm "envisages all of life as worship and invites us to orient our whole lives toward hope in the Lord as we travel onward." (p. 170).

As this book is directed at preachers, the conclusion takes up that area of concern. The word of encouragement here is to let the text speak for itself. In other words, try to get out of the way of the text so that we might see what God is up to.

I do believe this is a book worth engaging. In my later years of ministry, having worked through the lectionary passages, I decided to preach from the Psalms. They have much to say, not just as worship songs but as teaching moments. This book helps us engage in that kind of work.

The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the C… (2024)
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