The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
We can read the Twenty-third Psalm as a drama in three acts. Act one is serene, pastoral. The psalmist feels safe and secure, and he thanks God, his faithful shepherd, for providing him with that security.
Act two turns dark and stormy. The psalmist’s life is interrupted by trauma, tragedy, and bereavement. Instead of dwelling in green pastures by still waters, he finds himself alone in a dark valley. Then he learns that he is not really alone. He comes to see God not only as the source of the good things in his life, but as the source of comfort and consolation in hard times. He comes to understand that only because God was with him was he able to find his way out of the darkness. He learns, as all of us who have gone through hard times learn, that the sunshine we step into when we have found our way through the valley of the shadow is infinitely sweeter than the sunshine we had basked in during our carefree, cloudless days.
In act three, he realizes that his understanding of God, his relationship to God, has matured as well. God is no longer just the one who follows him through his travails. God now offers him something more permanent, an invitation to dwell in His house.
What does it mean to dwell in the house of the Lord? “Home” is such an evocative word. It speaks of love, of an enduring relationship. Robert Frost defines it as “something you somehow don’t have to deserve.” It is the ultimate expression of the promise, “I will be with you.” Home symbolizes safety, security, a refuge from the dangers of the world outside. God’s house is also a sanctuary in the sense of a holy place (sanctus means holy).
But there is also a sense in which it is uncomfortable, even intimidating to live our days conscious of the fact that we are living them in God’s presence. A Hassidic tale tells of the rabbi who hired a horse and carriage to take him to a neighboring village. The carriage was making its way along a road with fruit trees and orchards on either side. At one point, the coachman stopped by the side of the road and told his passenger, “I’m going to climb over the fence and steal some of that fruit. You sit here and keep an eye out for anyone coming. Let me know if anyone sees me.”
He had just crossed the fence when the rabbi called out, “Someone’s watching!” The driver jumped back into his wagon, drove a bit farther, stopped, and said, “I’m going to try again. Make sure I’m not being seen.” Once again, as soon as he crossed the fence, the rabbi called out, “Someone’s watching!” The driver was puzzled. He said, “I don’t understand it. The road is empty; the area is deserted. I don’t see another human being for miles. But every time I try to grab some fruit, you tell me someone’s watching. What’s going on?” The rabbi pointed heavenward and said simply, “Someone is watching.”
For the author of the Twenty-third Psalm, dwelling in God’s house, having the sense that every moment of his day is being lived under God’s watchful eye, is the most reassuring, most comforting thought he can have. For the rabbi’s coachman, it is a major inconvenience, keeping him from doing things he would like to do. What might it mean to us? The answer may depend on where we are in our lives.
For a young child, there are few things more important and reassuring than the knowledge that his parent is there watching out for him, and few things more unsettling than the fear that the parent might not be there. That is likely why very young children play peek-a-boo; its message: Mommy may go away out of sight, but she comes back a moment later. That may be why young children in a playground “push the envelope,” going to the brink of doing something dangerous or forbidden, not in the hope of getting away with it but in an effort to elicit the reassuring cry of “Stop that, I’m watching you.” And maybe there is a part of us that never quite outgrows that childhood need.
But a few years later, that young child grows into a sulky, withdrawn teenager. “Momma, come see what I can do” is replaced by “Stay out of my room” and “Will you just get off my back and let me live my life?” What has happened? One of the defining characteristics of adolescence is self-consciousness, the feeling that people are looking at you and judging you. For the first time in their lives, adolescents are making ethical decisions, making choices about their values and their behavior without parental guidance and authority. They are making choices about dress, relationships, and money, and because they can never be sure they are doing it right, they are manifestly uncomfortable, hypersensitive to being judged. If you have a fourteen-year-old daughter at home (or if you can remember being a fourteen-year-old girl), how much time does she spend on the phone with her friends every evening deciding what to wear to school the next day? It is important for her to know that she won’t stand out as the only one wearing the “wrong” clothes.
Go back and reread chapter three of Genesis, the puzzling story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Note that before Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they are described as “naked but feeling no shame” (Genesis 2:25). But the very first thing that happens after they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that they realize they are naked, feel embarrassed by it, and try to hide from God’s sight. Why are they ashamed when there is literally no one else in the world to see them? My understanding of the story is that acquiring a knowledge of good and evil marks their transition from childhood to adolescence.
Isn’t that the difference between a child and a teenager, that a child can only be obedient or disobedient to parents and teachers, but a teenager has to make his or her own moral decisions about right and wrong a thousand times a day? I see Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit as adolescents, brand-new to the world of knowing right and wrong, new to the challenge of making moral choices, insecure about their body image, uncomfortable at the prospect of being judged, risking being told that they had done wrong and would be punished.
According to some classical Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve were capable of sexual activity and reproduction even before they ate the forbidden fruit. Remember, they were commanded to be fruitful and multiply. But after they ate the fruit and acquired a knowledge of good and evil, their attitude toward sexuality changed. It was no longer a simple matter of being guided by nature and instinct, as it is for other animals. It now took on a frantic dimension, a quest for intimacy and closeness, a reprieve from loneliness, a reassurance of being desired. (Sounds very adolescent to me.)
For Adam and Eve, for the rabbi’s coachman, for the typical adolescent, living in the presence of God is intimidating, a source of potential shame and imminent condemnation. When Job’s friends try to comfort him after a series of disasters have made his life miserable, they speak to him in the accents of childhood: Don’t despair, our heavenly Father is watching over us constantly. And Job responds like an adolescent: You’re right, God is always watching over us — to catch us in a mistake and have a reason to punish us (Job 7:20).
As we grow older, we carry with us fragments of both views, the child’s sense of reassurance that his parents are there for him and the adolescent’s need for a life free of watchful eyes and judgmental authorities. Ultimately we come up with an outlook that reconciles the two. We come to realize that God invites us into His house, into His presence, not simply to protect us and not only to judge us, but to establish a relationship with us, and the basis of that relationship is God’s expectation of moral behavior.
God says to us, as one might say to a child who is no longer a child, If you are going to live in My house, I expect certain things of you. God says this not in order to restrict us or to punish us when He catches us in a mistake, but to show that He takes us seriously and to invest our lives with significance by telling us that He cares how we live.
In the view of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great souls of the American Jewish community, God gave Israel the Law at Mount Sinai because He sensed the existential loneliness of the average human being in what can often be a lonely world. God who created Eve as Adam’s mate because “it is not good for man to be alone” sought to cure an even deeper feeling of loneliness by reaching down to enter into people’s lives, freeing the Israelites from Egypt and forming a covenant with them.
For Soloveitchik, as paraphrased by one of his disciples, there comes a point in a person’s life when he or she realizes that one’s “work does not suffice to define [one's] personality. Human dignity is now seen in the quest for purpose, meaning and relationship.” With the sound of God’s voice addressing man by name (that is, when we feel personally commanded to do something we might otherwise not be inclined to do — being generous, forgiving, in control of our emotions), “God, whom Man has searched for along the endless trails of the universe, is suddenly discovered as standing beside him.”
God, who is pure righteousness, seeks to establish a relationship with human beings by summoning us to do righteous deeds. In that way, God connects with our soul, our conscience, the little bit of Himself that He breathed into us, that inner voice that should have told the coachman that it was wrong to steal his neighbor’s fruit even if he didn’t have a rabbi as his passenger. God tried to do that with Adam, giving him one command. But Adam, too much the adolescent, was unprepared for a mature relationship with God.
When God called Noah, Abraham, or Moses to do things that were challenging but right, promising only that He would be with them, promising to guide Abraham to his unknown destination, telling Moses “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:11-12) when he asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?,” that was more than an assignment. It was an invitation to a relationship. For the person who asks, “Why should I be good? Why should I respect my neighbor’s property? Where is my reward for being honest?,” the Twenty-third Psalm gives us the answer. The reward is “I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” The reward is that you will be redeemed from the existential loneliness of wandering aimlessly through life, without meaning or purpose. You will have God as your friend and neighbor.
And what will be the punishment for the person who chooses to live a selfish, deceitful, exploitative life? I don’t need to picture him tormented in Hell and cast into fire and brimstone. It is punishment enough that he will live out his days alone, perhaps feared, perhaps envied, but ultimately alone where it matters most, while those around him live out their days in the presence of God.
Can you remember a time when you went out of your way to help a neighbor in need, and how good that felt? Can you remember a time when you reluctantly gave money to a good cause because you could not say no to the person who asked you, and later you realized what a bargain you had gotten? The feeling of satisfaction you got from helping those in need was worth more to you than the money. That is what it means to live in the House of the Lord, to have a relationship with God based not on our need and not on His might but on the capacity for righteous living that God has planted in each of us.
There is a part of us that wants to live in the presence of God, not only for the comfort but for the challenge. There is a part of us that wants to be summoned, that welcomes the demands of morality and righteousness. When God summons us to act justly and righteously, it is His way of telling us that He takes us seriously enough to care about how we live. When He tells our neighbors not to harm us, not to harm our marriage, our property, our reputation, He is giving us the message that He cares about our wellbeing. When He speaks to us through the voice of our conscience and through the words and deeds of inspiring teachers and leaders, He is assuring us that we are not alone in a dangerous and distracting world. When we come to understand that, we learn to see our lives differently. We learn to see our pain and our problems differently. We learn to see the world differently.
The author of the Twenty-third Psalm, who has been meditating on all the good things that God does for him, has saved the best for last. God, who has provided him with a peaceful, livable world, who has stilled the raging waters around him and within him, who has led him through the valley of the shadow, has also given him this ultimate gift: He has invited him into His home, into His presence, that he might live all of his days in the presence of God.
God has said to him in his bereavement, as he languished in the valley of the shadow, You have lost someone you love, but you have found Me. You have discovered what I am really about, not the God of fairy tales and contrived happy endings, but the God who said to Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to the saints and strivers in every generation, “Fear not for I will be with you.” You have found Me, and I will not abandon you. Like the shepherd who watches his flock by day and at night, I will be with you in sunshine and in shadow, in happy times and in tragic times. My house is your home.
The psalmist, I am sure, repaid God with prayers of gratitude and with acts of righteousness. But in addition, he repaid God for all of His kindnesses by writing a psalm, so that future generations would come to know what he had come to know about God. And this is what he has to tell us:
When we are frightened because the world is a scary place, God is with us. If He cannot always protect us from harm or from our own mistakes, He can ease our fears and our pain by being with us.
When we are exhausted because the world asks so much of us, God gives us times and places of refuge from the claims of the world, to calm and restore our souls. God renews our strength so that we can “mount up with wings as eagles” and continue tirelessly to do what is right.
When we are terrified at the prospect of losing control over our emotions and doing ourselves serious harm, God is with us to help us do things with Him at our side that we were not sure we could do alone.
When illness, bereavement, and the losses that come with age cast a shadow over our lives, God is there to fill the empty space, to remind us that shadows are cast only because the sun is shining somewhere, to take us by the hand and lead us through the valley of the shadow and into the sunlight.
When events in our world bring us dismay and we fear that evil is prospering, God reminds us that evil acts invariably carry the seeds of their own destruction.
When people disappoint us, when they cannot give us what we need, whether because our needs are too great or because their emotional resources are too meager, God is our reliable friend, an inexhaustible source of love and strength.
And when we find ourselves wandering aimlessly through the world, wondering why we are here and what our lives will have meant when they are over, God blesses us with a sense of purpose, a challenge, a list of moral obligations and opportunities, every one of which will give us the sense of living our days in His presence.
There is pain in the world. If we are to be truly alive, we cannot hide from it. But we can survive it, and God’s caring presence lessens the pain.
There is death in the world, robbing us of the ones we love and one day robbing them of our presence. But God who is immortal assures us that death may take a person out of our future but cannot remove him from our past, that all the things we loved a person for have entered so deeply into our souls that they remain part of us. The Lord gives, but the Lord does not take away, and their presence is every bit as real as their absence.
There is fear in the world. There is vulnerability and uncertainty. God cannot tell us that nothing bad will ever happen to us. But God can tell us that we need not be afraid of the future, no matter what it holds. He cannot protect you from evil without taking away from other people the human power of choosing between good and bad. He cannot protect you from illness or bad luck. He cannot spare you from death and let you and those around you live forever. But He can give you the resources to transcend and overcome those fears, so that bad luck never causes you to lose faith in yourself, so that bad people never cause you to lose faith in humanity, so that the inevitability of death never causes you to give up on the holiness of life.
There will be dark days, days of loss and days of failure, but they will not last forever. The light will always return to chase away the darkness, the sun will always come out again after the rain, and the human spirit will always rise above failure. Fear will assault us, but we will not be afraid, “for Thou art with me.”