Legendary psalm of comfort. The comfort flows from the central metaphor of the lord being a shepherd. The beautiful calm of an animal that is safe and has material needs looked after is extended quickly for us to our souls.
That phrase “refreshes my soul” puts words to a feeling that humans crave and means human society can’t seem to leave spirituality alone. That sense of a contented soul is probably one of the most underrated benefits of Christian belief. It’s so naggingly un-concrete it drives atheists mad.
You can trust the lords advice. If he says don’t lie and put others first, you can do it confident that it’s going to work out, even when the reverse seems like the only thing that will fix the situation. No more crooked webs to weave! And we don’t have to fear death.
It’s about the simplicity of being loved and having someone greater than you look after your needs. Our psychological dread and moral complexity comes from feeling like shepherdless sheep, weak and alone, trying to carve safety and order out of chaos. Having god to trust unburdens us of layers of complexity, and makes us OK with our vulnerability and mortality. The psychological and philosophical power of the metaphor is harnessed with such economy.
No wonder this psalm is so powerful. Form follows function. It’s a simple psalm about simplicity. And with each calm pastoral phrase it precisely knocks down our deepest existential fears like nine pins one after another.
I’m not the only one who thinks the feast is a clanger. I don’t feel like food is sweeter if my enemies watch me eat it and go hungry, it sounds just awkward. It sounds like crude triumphalism or schadenfreude and quite out of character with the god who in humble human form on earth told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek before giving up his life for us.
But the truth is we are chosen for abundant blessing. We’re anointed, which is like a special relaxing welcoming treat for a guest, and a signifier of priesthood and kingship, and our cup overflows. We live our lives with this fact. Despite and during the apparent success of our enemies, a place of honour in God’s kingdom is prepared for us.
Should we punish ourselves with survivor guilt? We certainly should never feel too much like the victim, just as Jesus didn’t. In fact, it’s because of God’s ridiculous grace that we can indeed love our enemies and turn the other cheek. The worst, the very worst they can do to us is make us suffer temporary pain before despatching us to be with our creator. How much worse it is for them, cut off from the author of life. So it’s not triumphalism I suppose, it’s perspective.
The rest of the psalm is like cream in our coffee. Goodness, mercy eternal rest in God’s presence. Thank you, thank you father for your gift of grace. May I use it wisely.
It do still stand by what I said back in psalm 20. Perhaps these aren’t designed to go together, but they do make a good set: two guidance psalms, one wishing it in advance like a benediction, the other quietly celebrating it as an ever present comfort; sandwiching a victory song and a disaster cry. Next we go to meet him on the holy hill.