Psalm 23 is a beautiful psalm. No, seriously, bare with me here. I know you’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s the one that starts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Growing up in the church, I’ve heard it literally hundreds of time. I’m pretty sure I’ve memorized it on three different occasions between Sunday school and the Christian school I went to as a kid. I’ve read or heard it most commonly in the NIV translation, and every time I see it I tend to glance over it, because I’ve known it for most of my life.
Or at least, I normally glance over it.
But yesterday, I got stuck.
While reading through Psalms yesterday morning in the New Living Translation (potentially for the first time in this translation, I’m not even entirely sure), I got completely hung up on the last verse of this single entry in the largest book of the Bible. Hung up in a good way, to be clear. But I found myself staring at the final verse of this chapter, reading it in different translations, and journaling about it for nearly an hour. There are two big reasons for this being the case, the two of them being somewhat unrelated, while simultaneously completely connected. But I’ll take some time to explore both of those as I’m processing through them here. But first off, for context’s sake, here is Psalm 23 in the New Living Translation:
1 The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3 He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
4 Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
5 You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
For anyone who’s read or heard this psalm countless times before, this translation may read a little differently. Now, people may start the debate on literal and non-literal translations of the Bible. That’s not what I’m getting at or even trying to start a conversation about. What I’m talking about is simply how God can use word choice to completely change the way you read something. There was something that jumped off the page when I was reading this psalm this time, specifically in verse 6. Most people, myself included, likely grew up reading Psalm 23:6 in the NIV, which reads this way:
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
It’s a slight difference, sure. But there was something in that simple difference that completely shifted my perspective and made this passage jump out at me in a completely different way.
And that simple difference was this: The word “pursue.”
I have nothing against the NIV’s reading of this passage whatsoever. The ESV, NASB, and NRSV, among other literal translations, read much the same way, meaning that they are “more directly” translated from the original meaning of the passage (Again, I’m not trying to start a debate of literal vs. non-literal translations). But there’s something wildly, and outrageously profound about the use of the word “pursue.”
Similar thoughts are expressed in other similarly-written translations of the Bible, two of which I read being the Message and the Passion Translation:
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life. (MSG)
So why would I fear the future?
For I’m being pursued only by your goodness and unfailing love.
Then afterwards–when my life is through,
I’ll return to your glorious presence to be forever with you! (tPt)
I don’t know what it is, but surely I can’t be the only one who’s had this jump out at them for the first time. And sure, I’ve heard this message and similar sentiments countless times. But there was something about recognizing it in such a familiar passage of Scripture for the first time that made it distinctly profound:
God pursues us every day. His love chases after us. It doesn’t just “follow.” It never. Stops. Running.
It’s something that I’ve heard numerous times, even more so in the past two years since leaving a spiritually abusive church. But there’s something beautiful and particularly enlightening about finding it in a familiar passage after a lifetime of missing it. It wrecked me in the best way. And still is.
But there’s still something else about this psalm that blew my mind yesterday. Yesterday morning, I was planning on blowing through five psalms or so as I’ve gradually been trying to make my way through my favorite book of the Bible. I started on Psalm 21 and was planning on getting through Psalm 25. So, right before I started reading Psalm 23, I read Psalm 22, known for being one of the clearest prophecies of the death of Christ, written by King David centuries before Jesus’s birth. For context’s sake, here is Psalm 22 in the New Living Translation:
1 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
2 Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 Our ancestors trusted in you,
and you rescued them.
5 They cried out to you and were saved.
They trusted in you and were never disgraced.
6 But I am a worm and not a man.
I am scorned and despised by all!
7 Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
8 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”
9 Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb
and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast.
10 I was thrust into your arms at my birth.
You have been my God from the moment I was born.
11 Do not stay so far from me,
for trouble is near,
and no one else can help me.
12 My enemies surround me like a herd of bulls;
fierce bulls of Bashan have hemmed me in!
13 Like lions they open their jaws against me,
roaring and tearing into their prey.
14 My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
15 My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
16 My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced[a] my hands and feet.
17 I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
18 They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice[b] for my clothing.
19 O Lord, do not stay far away!
You are my strength; come quickly to my aid!
20 Save me from the sword;
spare my precious life from these dogs.
21 Snatch me from the lion’s jaws
and from the horns of these wild oxen.
22 I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.[c]
I will praise you among your assembled people.
23 Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!
Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!
Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.
He has not turned his back on them,
but has listened to their cries for help.
25 I will praise you in the great assembly.
I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied.
All who seek the Lord will praise him.
Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy.
27 The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him.
All the families of the nations will bow down before him.
28 For royal power belongs to the Lord.
He rules all the nations.
29 Let the rich of the earth feast and worship.
Bow before him, all who are mortal,
all whose lives will end as dust.
30 Our children will also serve him.
Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord.
31 His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born.
They will hear about everything he has done.
Before I even reached Psalm 23, this psalm was already messing me up (again, in a good way). This psalm, foretelling the experiences and words of Christ on the cross, takes a dramatic shift three verses in. David, and ultimately Jesus, are crying out to God in the first two verses, desperately trying to understand why God has abandoned them. And then in verse three, there is a sudden, drastic, beautiful shift. The entire psalm spins its heel on the phrase “Yet you are holy.” This psalm, though it prophecies the most gruesome, brutal death experienced by any human being in history, is the ultimate representation of worship in the midst of suffering. That Jesus, while bleeding, dying on the cross, taking on the sin of the world, would declare that God, his Father, is holy, enthroned upon the praises of Israel, is mind-blowing. It is worship in the darkest hour, the bleakest season. And even from this point, the psalm goes on to further describe the suffering and death of Jesus, and even still declares that God is worthy to be praised.
Then the psalm ends. And Psalm 23 begins.
A psalm that prophecies the death of the Savior of the world is followed by a psalm that reflects on the character of God. In the midst of tragedy, what follows is Psalm 23, a representation of the goodness, mercy, and love of our Father. In the midst of suffering, God still pursues us, chases after us, provides for us. Suffering and tragedy doesn’t change who God is. Nor should it change how we view him. He is still good. He is still holy. He is still worthy of all praise.
I will never know in this lifetime exactly what Jesus was thinking as he died for the sin of the world. But what I do know is that even as he breathed his last, Jesus’s sufferings didn’t change who he knew God was. Who he knew his Father to be. It didn’t shift his perspective.
So why should I let it change mine?