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The Lord is my Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the life of the Church by Richard S. Briggs

by
01 April 2022

Anthony Phillips reviews a scholarly reinterpretation of a much-loved psalm

THERE is no better known nor beloved piece of the Hebrew Scrip­tures than Psalm 23, a regular feature in one form or another of funeral services. Yet as a result of modern critical study its association with death rather than life seems problematic. But on page 2, this conservative scholar nails his colours to the mast: “One purpose of this book is to set the study of Psalm 23 back about one hundred to one hundred and fifty years, which is when it began to go off the rails.”

He begins by studying the back­ground to the Psalter: author­ship, the identity of the speaker, shep­herd­ing, and the place of the Psalm in the collection as a whole, and, while he argues that the ascription to David cannot be ignored, he con­cludes that there is much we do not and cannot know.
Briggs then subjects the Psalm to a very detailed examination of the Hebrew text verse by verse. Its overall message is clear. One can have confidence in God as both carer and provider whatever lies ahead.

But, true to his stated purpose, Briggs accepts the traditional trans­lation of verse 4 as “the valley of the shadow of death” rather than the contemporary understanding of the use of “death” here as a super­lative as in English, giving the rendering “a valley of deepest dark­ness”.

For the shepherd and his flock this would mark the most dangerous part of any journey where wild beasts or robbers might lurk. Even here the shepherd will protect them and lead them safely through the dark ravine.

On this new understanding, the Psalm is about protection and pro­vision throughout life’s journey and can be recited whenever travails afflict one. As verse 6 indicates, its purpose is to reassure the wor­shipper that despite anything hostile that may be encountered, he will always be able to enjoy God’s good­ness and love and so be enabled to reside in his temple for life. Such is the Psalm’s importance for regular recital whenever difficulties confront one, that it needs to be rescued from its narrow funerary association for which it was never intended.

Finally, Briggs considers how Psalm 23 speaks to Christian min­istry today. Despite the Psalm’s being hardly mentioned in the New Testament, he sees the development of the shepherd imagery as inviting Christians to go back and read it again and see that it is about Jesus. He goes on to argue that the value of the Psalm today is that it addresses stress, confronts both the challenges of death and enemies, and provides hope.

But, in my view, it is Christ’s death and resurrection that allows Paul to bring death into his theology of non-separation from the love of God (Romans 8.38-39) and makes the Psalm appropriate for funerals. It should, though, be remembered that, as conceived, Psalm 23 is about life.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

 

The Lord is my Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the life of the Church
Richard S. Briggs
Baker Academic £17.99
(978-1-5409-6185-3)
Church House Bookshop £16.19

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