Metaphor is a powerful tool in Old Testament poetry. One-third of the Bible can be classified as poetry. Sometimes the rational mind wants to gravitate toward hard facts, but the Lord chose to reveal who He is and who we are in prose that contains metaphor.
While teaching a Psalms class, I realized some of the most familiar psalms were unfamiliar to my students. I wrongly assumed all would be familiar with Psalm 23. Some had a distant remembrance of a grandparent reciting it. Most everyone who had heard it, associated it with funerals.
I asked for honest reactions from their first read. A student asked, â€œIs God calling us dumb sheep?â€ Another said, â€œI grew up knowing stagnant water was contaminated. Why would God lead me by still waters?â€ A young girl who mentioned her abuse said, â€œWhy would God ever place me in front of my enemies? That does not seem like a protective shepherd.â€ At this point, I asked the Lord to intervene and help me to lead them through the psalm in a way the metaphors were intended to nourish the reader. Their understanding was based on their experience and understandably so. They just needed a little encouragement to look back and focus on the authorâ€™s worldview a bit, which is quite different than a 21st-century perspective.
In modern Bible translations, brilliant scholars are trying to help us with the meaning by providing more than what is in the text. Such decisions are made for sound reasons. Therefore, itâ€™s helpful to compare the original Hebrew translation with the English.
To further complicate matters, body symbolism in Hebrew poetry does not match the Western understanding. For example, in ancient Israel, when one thought of an organ, one thought automatically of its abilities and activities all at once. This isnâ€™t true for us. When we use heart in a poetic sense, it expresses emotions. For the Hebrew, it was the epicenter of all of life, intents, intellect and will.
In the case of Psalm 23:3, the English translation reads, â€œHe restores my soul,â€ which is a good translation. But if you take it literally in Hebrew it reads, â€œMy throat, He brings back.â€ For us Westerners, what does that mean? Nephesh is a Hebrew word that can be translated â€œsoulâ€ or â€œthroat.â€ In poetry, throat is a more accurate metaphor. The throat is what gives life and breath to the person. It allows the soul to live. Itâ€™s not just the visible body part, but where hunger is satisfied and thirst is quenched. Good and bad flow from the throat. It is where breath turns to an audible language to praise the Lord. The Greco-Roman world severed the wholeness of a person and made divisions between the soul and the body. But in Jewish and Christian thought, resurrection of a person includes both body and soul together. The cohesiveness of the person is bound up together.
At first glance, Psalm 23 can appear to be about the afterlife. But in reality, very little is mentioned about the afterlife in the Old Testament. This has been pegged as the funeral psalm because of the phrase, â€œEven though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deathâ€¦ ,â€ However, in Hebrew itâ€™s translated more like, â€œEven though I walk through a valley of death-like shadows, I will fear no evil.â€ In the land of Israel, shepherds had to take their sheep from one feeding pasture to the next, which meant going through a dangerous crag where wolves lurked in the shadows, waiting to pounce. This metaphor is really the psalmist declaring when lifeâ€™s path is dangerous, The Lord is shepherding us through darkness and life-threatening danger. The parallel line that follows, â€œHe prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies,â€ reinforces His desire to protect, no matter where we find ourselves.
The last verse we have learned to read, â€œSurely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.â€ Again, we see the focus moving us more toward the afterlife â€” forever. However, the Hebrew words â€œle-orek yamim, translate, â€œfor length of days.â€ Therefore, to dwell with Him means right now, not later. The truth is both: We live in His house today and forever.
When we can see more fully the poetâ€™s intent, we can skip around more freely in the backdrop of our own lives. As we consider King Davidâ€™s prayerful viewpoint, Psalm 23 shouldnâ€™t be reserved just for funerals. â€œFather, thank you that You are Our Shepherd, through darkness, for the length of our days. You lead us to safety when danger looms. You restore my throat so that my soul is nourished, Hallelujah! Amen.â€
â€” Tracey D. Lawrence is an adjunct faculty for biblical studies at Colorado Christian University.