On the Other Side of the Ditch

From “Psalm 23” (1919)

My friends, it is something exalted and powerful to read, hear, speak, and apply to our lives the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd” — if only we could, if it only were permitted us! If we were allowed to grasp this wonderful comfort, this fullness of promise in the midst of this dark time! If we were allowed to say, “Yes, God will not me mocked. World history is the judgment of the world, and what must come, will come. But we, our people, our community, our congregation today — we turn and look with courage and hope into the future….

But we may not say these words so easily. We may not spare ourselves the recognition that they are not suited to our mouths. The comfort and promise that shine in them are fruits that must first grow, and it is questionable whether this fruit has grown in us…

I do not say that this is impossible. God has not closed the door, not for anyone among us. But none among us has, simply and immediately, the right to think that one can and may look as courageously and hopefully into the future as it is described in the psalm. It is a very foolish thing to misuse the Bible for the purpose of deceiving ourselves about our situation. Whether we may apply the words to ourselves is highly questionable.

But first of all we must confess that we are all caught up in the development that now, so it seems, drives inexorably toward judgment all of us, including the pastor, and prominent, pious, and well-meaning persons. Our interest and our happiness lie in ensuring that everything stays the same as it was before the war. We aid and abet the powers of the old time when we continue to give them our respect; when we constantly yield to them; when we speak where we should be silent, and are silent where we should speak… We have not yet heard the call to repentance that in our time is required of all humanity. And this “not yet” stands between us and the Twenty-Third Psalm.

One can say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” when one is on the other side of the ditch that we have not yet leaped over, on the side of one’s own inner upheaval, rethinking, relearning, even refeeling. Those who can truly say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” have made that leap. They have not resisted God, who judges the world, but throw themselves into God’s arms and become God’s captive. They have not swum with the current of opinion in the world, but against it. In them something has turned from the idols to God; they have submitted to judgment; they have let the truth rule in their hearts. They have at least inwardly separated themselves from the powers of the old world, when they were outwardly not superior to those powers… And this is why they have been able, without exaggeration or presumption, to pray, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The words of the psalm speak to us today both as a question and as a challenge. They say, “Enter into this transformation! Become a persistent, recognizing, responding person, a person who has turned rom the idols to God, who can and may speak with the words of the psalm!

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed theologian, the most influential leader of the Neo-Orthodoxy movement in twentieth century Protestantism. He is most famous for his emphasis on the grace of God, which he connected with a strong doctrine of election and divine revelation. He preached the sermon “Psalm 23” on New Year’s Day, 1919 as a young pastor to a village congregation at Safenwil, in the Argau region of Switzerland. This translation is John Wilson’s, as published in The Early Preaching of Karl Barth (Westminster John Knox, 2009).


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