Sebastian Condon: Psalm’s not so warm and fuzzy as many think

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Frescoes of the Good Shepherd and the four seasons are seen during the unveiling of two newly restored burial chambers in the Christian catacombs of St Domitilla in Rome in 2017.. The Catacombs of St. Domitilla are believed to be the world’s oldest Christian cemetery. Photo: CNS, Carol Glatz

By Sebastian Condon

The Lord is my Shepherd’ (psalm 22/23) must be the most popular psalm chosen for ordinations and funerals.

It even occurs fairly regularly in the ordinary cycle of responses at Mass.

People seem to associate the words of the psalm with warm and fuzzy feelings.

Yet I sometimes wonder whether they have actually read it, or listened to what is being sung.

If they had, they might pause ever so slightly before selecting it as their ‘favourite’ psalm for an approaching liturgical event.

Given that there are a number of ordinations coming up within the Archdiocese between now and the end of the year, I thought I might pen a few words of reflection on this most misunderstood of the psalms.

“The crook that we are accustomed to see in paintings and iconography was employed in controlling the sheep.”

The imagery of the Lord as shepherd draws on ancient Hebrew tradition: the exiles are being led back to the Promised Land out of Egypt, with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21)

But in that context the shepherd is a sovereign Lord and the sheep is clearly a subject vassal.

It is not a cosy image.

Moreover, in the following verse of the ancient song, the Lord makes the sheep/person lie down.

The Hebrew is such that the word is expressive of a causative action.

The fact that the Lord is in complete control of the sheep’s movement and direction is by now abundantly clear; whether through use of club or crook, God is in charge.
The fact that the Lord is in complete control of the sheep’s movement and direction is by now abundantly clear; whether through use of club or crook, God is in charge.

It is actually rather more menacing than it looks in translation.

Similarly, when the Lord ‘leads’ the sheep, the phrase also carries that same causative sense; God is always in complete control.

By the time we have reached the third verse, we are made aware that the psalm (and our lives) are all about the Lord, not the sheep: everything that happens is ‘For the sake of His name.’

The ‘crook’ and ‘staff’ are references to the two implements that shepherds carried with them as they watched over their flocks in the desert pastures of ancient Israel.

The crook that we are accustomed to see in paintings and iconography was employed in controlling the sheep.

But the ‘staff’ was a rudimentary club used in driving off wild beasts, should they approach too near in the dead of the middle-eastern night.

“Occasionally in life it may be that the staff / club is used against us, to lead us back to the paths of righteousness.”

The fact that the Lord is in complete control of the sheep’s movement and direction is by now abundantly clear; whether through use of club or crook, God is in charge.

So why, then, in the next verse do we learn that the animal is walking in a ‘valley of darkness’?

Perhaps the crook and staff are both for use upon the sheep, more than anything else.

Now, I do not know how you feel about being clubbed, but it does not strike me as a homely thought.

This all consummates in the final banquet at the end of all time, where our cup ‘runneth over’ in endless and future thanksgiving for the providence that has led us to that place.

The carved ivory head of a crosier associated with St Gregory I, the pope who sent St Augustine to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons.

In the ancient tradition of the Church, including St Jerome and St Augustine, this psalm has been repeatedly interpreted in a far less bucolic manner than might be the case today.

But, then again, the Fathers of the first few centuries of the Church probably had much more experience of actual pastoral life than many of us.

They saw, quite clearly, that the psalm sung of the fact that the Lord is always with us; to lead us and to guide us.

That much, I think we can agree, is clear.

But they also recognised that He carries two implements; a crook and a staff.

Occasionally in life it may be that the staff / club is used against us, to lead us back to the paths of righteousness.

“We are then able to recognise with trust and confidence that our trials are actually expressions of the ‘goodness and kindness’ of the Lord, leading us to that place where we shall dwell eternally.”

Though this may seem harsh at the time, it is – those saints argued – for our eternal benefit; that we may eventually dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life.

At times, we may not understand why we are being led into dark valleys and made to endure trials; but we ought to trust that these difficulties are actually part of the divine plan for our lives – for the restoration of our soul.

It is for that reason that we are occasionally prodded – with vigour – to return to ‘right paths’.

With that assurance in mind, we can offer up continuous praise to God because, no matter how difficult things may seem, no matter where the shepherd’s crook or staff may lead us, we know that we are being eventually drawn to a perpetual feast within the Lord’s own house.

We are then able to recognise with trust and confidence that our trials are actually expressions of the ‘goodness and kindness’ of the Lord, leading us to that place where we shall dwell eternally.

Which, I suppose, makes it perfect for funerals and ordinations – even if it is not as warm and fuzzy as we occasionally think.