Valley of shadows

 Most everyone is familiar with Psalm 23.  Here it is, in its most familiar form, from the 1611 translation commonly called the King James Version:

      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.

      Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

      I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

      Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

      Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

      Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

      Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

      And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Psalm 23 is an example of biblical poetry and has been the subject of endless commentaries and devotional books—though not in either of the devotional books that I wrote.  A Year With God, published by Thomas Nelson in 2010 was limited to actual quotations by God; likewise, A Year With Jesus which came out the next year was limited to quotations by Jesus.  Thus, Psalm 23, being a poem composed by King David, is not a direct quotation of either God or Jesus.

            Psalm 23 is not hard for most people to understand.  It is familiar and comfortable, even though most readers today are unfamiliar with its cultural setting.  Very few people today are shepherds or even come in contact with sheep.  In fact, most of our clothing isn’t even wool anymore.

But no matter how familiar we may be with this poem, there are some things that might still be confusing about it.  First and foremost, readers should remember that Psalm 23 is a translation of an ancient poem more than 2500 years old. King David did not write in English.  He wrote in Hebrew.

Secondly, the poetry of the Ancient Near East, of which ancient Israel was a part, is not like the poetry one would see in today’s song lyrics or like what one might remember from high school English classes.  There is no rhyming or rhythm, neither in the English translation nor in the original Hebrew text.  Instead, the authors of Hebrew poetry used a technique that scholars call parallelism: a repetition or rhyming of ideas rather than sounds.  Thus, two lines will often say the same thing using different, synonymous words—or the succeeding lines in the poem may simply build upon and expand on the concept expressed in the earlier line. This second way of using parallelism—expansion on a topic—is what we see in Psalm 23.  For instance, the first line of the poem is “Yahweh is my shepherd; I lack for nothing” (my own translation). What follows after this first line expounds on the two ideas that God is a shepherd and that, as a consequence, I have everything that I need.

            The fact that Psalm 23 is a translation means that some subtleties are going to be missed.  For instance, consider the phrase that the King James Version renders “the valley of the shadow of death.”  People are very familiar with this phrase, it is popular, and since Bible publishers want to sell Bibles, most modern translations don’t fiddle with it.  But “shadow of death” is not really an accurate rendering of the Hebrew word being used here.  The Hebrew word is a compound made up of two words, and yes, one of them means “shadow” and the other means “death.”  However, the combination means “shadow of death”  in the same way “butterfly” means “something that you put on pancakes that annoys horses”: not at all.  Instead, the compound word means “darkness,” “gloom” or “despair.”  So Psalm 23 is not limited to just those facing death; it can apply to any sort of trouble one might face in life, whenever one is passing through darkness and misery, such as sickness, war, financial problems, or family conflict.

            The next to last line of the poem, rendered in the 1611 translation as “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me” is a bit more intense that it comes across in English.   The Hebrew word that is usually rendered “follow” in most translations elsewhere in the Bible appears in the context of an army in pursuit of its foes, a predator hunting its prey, or a hunter chasing game.  It is a word that usually has a rather negative connotation.  The poet has taken a negative word, a word that implies being hunted or chased, and he has twisted it into something positive.  Rather than an enemy in pursuit, a dog nipping at our heels, it is “goodness” and “mercy” that are out to get us.

            Of course that then raises an interesting question: why are we fleeing from “goodness” and “mercy”?