“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … ” When a minister recites these memorable words before a congregation grieving a tragedy that has struck them, that minister is repeating a psalm that has comforted God’s dear children for more than 3000 years.
Psalm 23 is attributed to David, the shepherd king, and has been recited across the centuries in public worship by those rich in faith or whispered in lonely places by the imprisoned, sick, forlorn or betrayed. The shepherd psalm has great power to inspire faith.
But it’s just one of 150 psalms, though likely the best known and most loved of them all. There are many more in this ancient collection that give renewed strength to go on. For example, “The Lord is my light and my salvation — / whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life — / of whom then shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).
You may be curious as I am to know how God used humans to bring this collection of his inspired word into existence. No one knows for sure but one possibility is that Cyrus, ruler of Persia played a role. Late in the sixth century B.C. God moved him to give permission to the exiled people of Israel to return to their native land with the weighty task of rebuilding their demolished temple and restoring their practices of worship.
Certain Jewish patriots among them must have asked from whence would the worship music come for this rebuilding. It is possible that Ezra, the priest, saw the need and set about sorting the thousands of sacred poems of the nation to arrive at the 150 finally chosen.
Another possibility is that a company of cult-prophets may have anticipated the need and set into motion the search, and it was they who did the sorting.
Whatever the case, we know the psalter has selections from many sources composed across more than 1000 years. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses. At least 73 of the 150 psalms are attributed to David, who lived three centuries later. It is believed some psalms were even composed after the exile.
In the 16th century A.D., Martin Luther called the Psalter “The Bible in miniature.” As such, it holds a special relationship to both Old and New Testaments. For example, there are 207 verses from the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament, and 116 of these are from the Psalms.
The psalms are unmatched instruments for worship. Consider how our Lord leaned on them for strength. At the close of his last meal with his disciples, he and the eleven sang together the Hallel, Psalms 113–118. From his cross, and feeling abandoned, our Lord Jesus chose to cry out in the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Despite all this history, we sometimes neglect the psalms, perhaps because they may not meet our sense of what poetry should be.
If this is the case for you, it may help you to understand that in their construction, Hebrew poems follow the major principle of parallelism. That is, a second line often repeats the sense of the first using different words: “I will extol the Lord at all times; / his praise will always be on my lips.” (Psalm 34:1). Or a second line may complete the first line: “Save me, O God, / for the waters have come up to my neck” (Psalm 69:1). There are other variations of parallelisms but this may give you a start.
The themes of the psalms are diverse, yet, diverse as they are, they are gathered together under one title. The word, “psalms” in the Hebrew language means “praises.” The psalms are meant to help us reduce to worship all of life’s experiences — the good and the bad — and in all circumstances to praise the Majesty of Heaven who is always accessible to his people.
It is always good for believers to say, “The Lord is MY Shepherd,” because the God of the psalms has declared himself a personal presence to us and has proven his trustworthiness throughout the ages. So we turn to this rich source of worship to “praise” the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether our faith is ripe and growing, or life’s wounds have left us with situations we don’t understand.
Photo credit: Josh (via flickr.com)