This past Sunday in our Episcopal Church, the 23rd psalm, it seems, was everywhere. We read the psalm itself aloud and sang two or three hymns that were versions of it. The gospel lesson dealt with the parable of the lost sheep, a comforting passage given its assertion that “the good shepherd” loves and cares for us. Attributed to King David, the psalm names our fears, gives us images of peace, protection and plenitude, and concludes with a magnificent burst of reassurance. I shall “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” David proclaims.
The imagery explains why the 23rd Psalm is read frequently at funerals. It assures us that, even though we walk “the valley of the shadow of death,” and death itself, we can rest confident.
My wife tells me that, when members of their flock came to them with problems, rabbis used to prescribe different psalms (depending on the situation). “So you’re feeling lonely and besieged and beset upon, as if the whole world’s against you? Read the 23rd psalm and call me in the morning.” Imagine if people approached English teachers that way. ”It sounds like you’ve been working too hard. Read “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and take a long walk in the closest state park.”
The version of the 23rd psalm that I usually hear at funerals is from the magnificent 17th century King James version. For those of us who grew up reading and memorizing these words, nothing else quite measures up. If your are currently experiencing a rocky spell, take a few moments to let the words wash over you:
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.