Ps. 23: A Poetic Interpretation
Marilyn Nelson was Poet Laureate of Connecticut from 2001-2006, has been a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and Poet-in-Residence of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and has been awarded the Frost Medal, the NSK Neustadt Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.
When invited to sit with a psalm for this initiative, my first thought was of the 23rd Psalm, whose comforting words and images so many of us know from memory. I knew I didn’t quite understand all of it, but I remembered scenes in movies in which there is an inescapable crisis to which a character responds either by closing their eyes and reciting those familiar words, or by crying “Mommy!” It seemed clear to me that this was the psalm I should work with, the psalm of faith and hope. I am grateful for being given this opportunity to meditate on Psalm 23, to learn more about it and understand it more deeply. The trust it expresses seems especially encouraging just now, as we pray our way through this pandemic and the centuries-old plague of racism and brutality in this country. Here I offer a reading of the 23rd Psalm. I hope it will be a balm.
Adonai, my shepherd:
I know no need.
In lush meadows
you invite my soul to rest and recline; together
we walk beside the dance of light on quiet waters.
You give me back myself,
point me to the road toward justice,
one of your sacred names.
Even when I walk in a valley
dark as the shadow of death,
I know no fear, for you are near me
with your staff and crook, and I am safe.
You spread out a feast before me
with those who were my enemies.
You touch my head with fragrant oil;
my thanks overflows.
May goodness and mercy
follow me all the days of my life,
and may I make my home
in the house of the Lord forever.
Once, on a brief but impactful bus tour in the Middle East, I glimpsed by the side of the road a Bedouin (I supposed) shepherd, holding a shepherd’s crook, with a grazing flock. That remembered moment, along with little echoes of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” whirled in my mind as I worked on this offering. I also had in mind Jesus’ essential last commandment (to everyone human, I’ve always thought, through his disciples): “Feed my sheep” (John 21:1-22).
In preparing my interpretation, I found two comments by Rabbi Richard N. Levy in his translation of the Psalms, Songs Ascending, especially helpful:
Commenting on the last line of verse 3, Levy writes that the Hebrew expression l’ma’an she’mo, “for the sake of [God’s] name” usually means that “God does something for no ulterior movies but ‘for its own sake.’” He adds that it may also mean “for the sake of proclaiming God’s name in the world,” that is, “to help people understand the glory and the goodness of God.” Levy led me to think about the ways the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King showed us that walking toward justice is a way of proclaiming, hallowing, one of God’s names.
On verse 5, Levy observes that the image of the royal feast set in the presence of enemies “is usually understood as a flaunting of one’s wealth and self-confidence.” He continues, “But one of my students once suggested that it might be neither a hostile nor a flaunting image but an image of forgiving hospitality. God sets a full table so that the poet might invite his enemies to sit down and break bread with him.” Levy translates that line as “along with my enemies.” I’ve taken it further, making them no longer “my enemies,” but “those who were my enemies.” My adaptation suggests that, if we’re sitting together at God’s table, we must all accept the responsibility and gift of forgiveness.
Finally, I read several discussions of the Hebrew word yird’funi in verse 6. Translations of this idiom include, “goodness and mercy shall follow me,” “goodness and love will run after me,” “…shall be with me,” “… pursue me,” “will manifest.” I read the phrase as an aspiration, not a statement of fact: a hope that by modeling virtue, I will be followed by people who perform virtuous actions modeled after my actions, so goodness and mercy will follow me, like apple saplings followed Johnny Appleseed.1
Peace (in every language),
1I want to thank Rafael DeStella and Rabbi Or Rose for providing me with several textual resources as I prepared my interpretation.