By Jeremy Worthen
Who are my enemies? Don’t worry – I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, or read out a list of people you may or may not know personally. I only ask because it’s a question that occurs to me when I read Psalm 23 and come to the verse on which we’re focusing this morning in our sermon series on that psalm, verse 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” A couple of other questions occur to me as well, in fact, and I’ll come on to those in a minute, but that’s the first one: who are my enemies?
Now, the reason for asking that question is because I want to make these words that I read in the Bible my words; I want the praises and the prayers that I find in the book of Psalms to become my praises, and my prayers, and that’s a different way to treat the Bible than how we generally read other parts of it. And reading the Psalms like that – making these words our words, these prayers our prayers – is actually something that Christians have done throughout history, sometimes more and sometimes less; indeed we live in an age when Christians probably do it a lot less than they used to, by and large, but we still do it, and when we do we connect with some very ancient traditions.
Way back in the fourth century if not earlier, Christians were writing about how special this book was among all the books in the Bible, in that usually we listen to Scripture as God’s word to us, but here, while we do also receive the Psalms as God’s word to us, we take them and actually speak them back to God, so that God’s word to us becomes our word to God. And they thought that what was special about the Psalms because of this was like the Incarnation, indeed flowed from and pointed to the Incarnation, where God’s eternal Word becomes flesh so that through him, flesh as we are, we can come to God and speak freely to God and live in his presence for ever.
But while it is a proper Christian instinct to want to make the words of the Psalms our words, this word of God to us our word back to God, it’s not always easy and often something seems to jar. We’re unlikely to find it altogether comfortable to make Psalm 58 part of our worship on a Sunday morning: “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; tear out, O Lord, the fangs of the lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted. Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.” And if you’ve not got a problem with making those words your own, perhaps it would be good to speak with the prayer ministry team later.
But Psalms can be hard for other reasons too – they go on about strange places like Moab and Edom, they go on about how great God’s law is (and on and on, in the case of Psalm 119); they go into so much detail about Israel’s history and Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan, and it’s all rather confusing. So one of the reasons – not the only reason, but one of the reasons – why Psalm 23 has become so much more read and prayed and sung and preached on than any other Psalm in the Bible is because it doesn’t have any of that stuff, we don’t have to look anything up or wonder what to make of the awkward bits, we can just say it, just pray it, without interruption. Except, perhaps, for those enemies.
OK, let me ask another question, my second question. What’s happened to the sheep? We all know that Psalm 23 is about God the shepherd, and us being like sheep. Right? But you don’t, generally speaking, prepare a table for sheep – they’re much happier with the green pastures we had in verse 1. Nor is it advisable, as a rule, to anoint their heads with oil, though I suppose you could try, or to put an overflowing cup in front of them.
No, with verse 5, the verse we’re looking at today, we’ve moved away from the sheep and the shepherd, and the psalmist brings in a different image for how it is between God and the one who trusts in him. And this image is that of host and guest: God as the one who is holding a great banquet, a feast, and us as the ones who are invited, abundance everywhere we look, made a great fuss of (that’s what the anointing with oil would be about). And all in the presence of our enemies.
I’ll come back to them eventually, but let me first try to explain why it would have made sense in ancient Israel to have a short sacred song, a poem, a psalm, with two not quite equal halves, one of which describes God as a shepherd, and the other then describes him as a host.
The clue, I think, is in the other reading we had, where the prophet Ezekiel declares God’s word to the people of God scattered and torn apart in the 6th century BC by military defeat, the destruction of the temple and exile to Babylon. Before the passage that we heard read, Ezekiel has denounced the shepherds of Israel for the way they have treated the sheep – you have ruled them harshly and brutally” (34:4). In Israel as in the Ancient Near East more generally, the shepherd was a symbol of rule and authority and in particular of kingship. As a symbol, it expressed the distance between the ruler and the ruled but also, crucially, the responsibility of the ruler for the ruled.
So God through his prophet declares judgment on Israel’s shepherds – in other words, her rulers, those entrusted with authority – because “they have cared for themselves rather than for my flock” (34.8); “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” (34.1). The phrases “my flock” and “my sheep” run like a constant refrain through this chapter. And with verse 11, God turns from judgment on those who have failed to be faithful co-shepherds of his flock to the promise that having removed them, he himself will come and be the shepherd of his own sheep, without relying on useless and self-serving assistants: “I will rescue them… I will bring them out…. I will pasture them…. I will tend them…. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
Shepherd and host: in the context of ancient Israel, both are images of kingship. Kings are like shepherds, and one of the things that kings do is hold feasts, host banquets, and show favour by spreading a table and issuing invitations to come and eat with them, like David with Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9, or Xerxes with Esther (who, of course, gets to have a meal with the king in the presence of her foe, Haman).
So this is a Psalm about what it means to live under God’s rule, in God’s kingdom, at God’s hand. And the longer first part and the shorter second part we’re looking at today both make it clear that life in God’s kingdom means both the glory of abundance and the reality of struggle. It means green pastures, quiet waters, paths of righteousness – and still having to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, as Barney was emphasizing a couple of weeks’ ago. And it means a table full of food, an anointing that makes me radiant with God’s choosing, a cup that is full of abundant life – and knowing my enemies are still there, looking on.
And because this is a Psalm about living wholly in the kingdom of God and at the hand of God, my enemies can only be God’s enemies: I can only be struggling with that which stands against the fulfilment of God’s purposes. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6.12). These are my enemies, and not any human persons.
So one key thing that Psalm 23 is saying is that the struggle goes on even as we celebrate the feast, and the feast takes place even as we face the struggle. Don’t let the glory of God’s abundance make you think the struggle isn’t real, and don’t let the reality of the struggle blind your eyes to the glory of the gift, the king’s invitation to the banquet of eternal life which begins here and now, and today.
Christian life that can’t hold on to both of these things together quickly loses its balance and falls either into a kind of sentimental and self-deceiving unreality, or into a joyless and stoic resignation. And we need to hold that balance properly when we come together here in church as well as in our personal discipleship; it’s up to worship leaders who choose the songs and intercessors who lead the prayers and indeed those of us who stand up to preach to make sure we don’t lose it.
So I hope we’ve made some progress on my first two questions: who are my enemies, and what happened to the sheep. I’ve just got one more. Whose words are these? I said at the start that Christians properly want to make them our words, and that’s true, and we’ve gone on to see how we need to read them also as the words of the ancient Israelites if we really want to understand them, which we need to do if we are to own them.
Of course, in this case they are particularly associated with David, and that makes the theme of kingship especially powerful: the king sings that the Lord is my shepherd; that is, he is king only as he lives by the kingship of God. And that is how all Israel lives, or should live, as God’s flock, God’s sheep, so all Israel can sing this Psalm of the king. And all Israel is also called like David to take authority, for they are to be a kingdom of priests, God’s anointed servant sent to the nations, but only as God’s flock, under God’s kingship.
It is such a beautiful and rich Psalm, and we find it so easy to sing and to say, as I mentioned at the start, apparently so much more easy than any other psalm, whether it’s “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want / He makes me down to lie” or “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want, / whose goodness faileth never,’”or “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want, / he makes me lie in pastures green.” But can we really sing it, really say it? Do we really live utterly and wholly by God’s hand, in God’s kingdom, lacking nothing, exalting in the Lord even in the darkness of death’s shadow? Can we really dare to sing these holy words?
But then could the ancient Israelites really sing them, stumbling and falling as they constantly were? And could King David himself really sing them, with all his tragic failings and his fearful crimes?
Hence my final question: whose words are these? They are Christ’s words. Yes, they are David’s, and Israel’s, and ours, but only because they are Christ’s. Like every Psalm, this Psalm belongs to the Son of God. He lived, utterly and wholly by the Father’s hand, in the Father’s kingdom, and therefore he can sing these words, for they find their fulfilment in him, and therefore if we live in him we can sing them with him and through him, but only with him and through him, and not of and by ourselves.
And because the Son is one with the Father, the only-begotten Son, he can show the Father with complete and radiant transparency to the world. Because he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, he is the king before whom every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. He is glorified by the Father when he is lifted up on the cross in the presence of the last enemy, which is death and the one who holds the power of death.
Because these words are Christ’s and we are his, they can also become our words to him. Christ is our king, through whom we live in God’s kingdom. Christ is our shepherd, through whom we know God’s protection and provision. And Christ is our host, who summons us to God’s feast of abundant life. But only by the cross.
So these are his words of invitation to the banquet: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you;” “Drink this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” We will hear them again, and remember his death and resurrection again, when we celebrate his supper again in a moment. Are we ready to come to the feast? Are we discerning, are we seeing his broken body and his poured out blood in our gathering around the communion table? Will we be renewed through this awesome meal to live every moment of our lives in God’s kingdom, by God’s hand, and to share with the whole world his amazing invitation, to pass it on, to make it known?
“Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you”; “Drink this, all of you, this is my blood.” “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Worthen is the team rector of Ashton Town Parish in the Church of England’s Diocese of Canterbury.