December 16, 2010
Reading Psalms 21-23 it seems that they are ordered according to their fame. 21 is not one I know well, though it contains one of my favourite phrases; “the steadfast love of the Most High”. Then we have 22, famous in Christianity especially for its opening words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But even those are eclipsed by 23; “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Surely one of the most well known verses of scripture both within and outside of the Church. And rightly so, Psalm 23 is a thing of true beauty, or perhaps beautiful truth.
Sometimes I find it tricky reading these pieces at the same time. Each Psalm has a different mood. Not only that, but each of these has a different take on God.
Psalm 21, like many others, follows the formula of praise of God followed by affirmation that His justice will reign. I often find the latter section challenging, with its conviction that God will “find out” and “destroy” his enemies. The picture of God we are given here of strength and power (21:13). His is a mighty judge, a just warrior.
In a way Psalm 22 reflects a similar vision of God. The latter half of the Psalm speaks of God as one who rescues, a God before whom “all the families of the nations shall worship”. But for me the profound value of this Psalm is found when it is connected with the words of Jesus on the cross in the gospels (Matthew 27.46, Mark 15.34). The question as to why Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, would cry out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” has troubled many, even leading them to dbout their entire faith. I have heard it answered in many ways, but it wasn’t until I was told that this was a direct quote from the Psalms that it made sense. It is even suggested that Jesus said the whole Psalm on the cross. By including this saying the gospels Matthew and Mark are affirming that Jesus’ death on the cross is part of a wider vision; one which will lead to “deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying he has done it.” (22:31). What wonder, that our God has been afflicted, persecuted, has cried out just as his people do. And that he did all this for us.
And then we meet him as a Shepherd. When I read and reflect on this Psalm it’s like my soul is exhaling. “he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” The imagery of safety and peace seem to surround me as I read. God leads, and when he does “goodness and mercy” follow us; how wonderful. And so we see yet another facet of God; comforter, protector, pastor. In John 10:11 we are told by Jesus that he is the good shepherd and that “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. Here again we see how the gospels interact with the Psalms to communicate the depth and breadth of God found in the person of Jesus.
When I acknowledge this breadth I see that there is no conflict between these Psalms. Rather they come together to bestow a richness to our ideas of God. And the more open we are to God’s complexity, the wider and deeper our relationship with Him will be. We can never know all of God, but we can always know more. And that man on the cross, that baby in the manger, communicate to us that he is not only mighty but merciful, not only fearsome but fragile, not only just but gentle but just. He is All in One.