“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV, Ps 23:1-6).
Psalm 23 may well be everybody’s favorite. It emits a sense of peace. If we are down, it lifts us up by reminding us that God is with us always. No matter how dark a valley might be, we sense that God is taking care of us.
What makes the Psalms so powerful for us Christians is that they are prayers in God’s own words. The divine words are given to us in human dress, and they express the most fundamental thoughts and emotions of human beings. They express the joys, the sorrows, the ups and downs, and the excitement of the human heart. Even though humans composed the Psalms, they always look to God. While deeply personal, the prayers are seldom, if ever, individualistic. They convey a sense of being one with the rest of God’s people.
The word psalm means “hymn of praise.” The Book of Psalms contains hymns of praise, but also petitions, thanksgiving songs, prayers of confidence, wisdom psalms, and royal psalms. While attributed to David, he probably wrote only a few. In fact, psalms are ascribed to a number of other individuals and groups.
Taken together, the Psalms eloquently tell God’s story. Look at Psalm 104. While the first chapter of Genesis offers us a solemn and stirring dramatization of creation, Psalm 104 takes a beautiful, lyrical approach: “Bless the Lord, my soul! Lord, my God, you are great indeed! You are clothed with majesty and splendor, robed in light as with a cloak. You spread out the heavens like a tent; setting the beams of your chambers upon the waters.” Then we see mountains popping up and thrusting their peaks into the sky and water rushing up and down the mountains. We see God providing food for animals and humans. A nice touch is that God provides “wine to gladden our hearts.”
Psalm 78 takes us through the history of Israel from the exodus to the anointing of David. We hear of the wondrous deeds God performed for his people. We hear of the gratitude, as well as the rebellion, of God’s people. “Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a warrior shouting from the effects of wine. He put his foes to flight [note that Israel’s enemies are God’s enemies]; everlasting shame he dealt them” (NAB, v. 65-66).
Apparently, God does not mind being described in rather earthly language (after all, these are God’s words). The psalm ends with a reference to David: “He chose David his servant, took him from the sheepfolds. From tending ewes God brought him, to shepherd Jacob, his people, Israel, his heritage. He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them” (NAB, v. 70-72). It has always struck me that, if we did not have the rest of the Old Testament, we would have about all we need in the Psalms.
Anyone who prays the Psalms over a period of time is bound to have some favorites. As a Franciscan and a Scripture scholar, I would like to share my personal favorites.
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
As Christians, we especially think of Jesus. He is our good shepherd and pursues us even when we turn against him. The “still waters” he finds for us remind us of Baptism. The banquet he provides reminds us of the Eucharist.
In praying the Psalms, I also like to indulge in some fantasy. The oil reminds me of the oil used in Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. I find a symbolism in the rod and the staff. The rod chases harm from the sheep. The Sacrament of Reconciliation chases evil from our lives. The staff gives support to the shepherd as he walks through the pasture and covers difficult terrain. Through the Sacrament of Matrimony, Jesus supports the spouses, and the grace of the sacrament enables the spouses to support one another.
“Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness.”
This is the most famous of what the Church calls penitential psalms. The psalmist recognizes he has committed serious sin. He admits his guilt before God and confidently pleads for forgiveness. Note the beautiful words: “A clean heart create for me, God; renew within me a steadfast spirit. Do not drive me from before your face, nor take from me your holy spirit.” He recognizes that God is calling him to bring the message of forgiveness to others: “I will teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you.”
As sinners, we can make this psalm our own. I find this psalm an encouragement when I realize that I have neglected God’s grace. God will not give up on me. He even will allow me to bring his mercy to others.
After failing to help someone in need or fostering a grudge, I can go to God and pray, “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness. . . . Wash away all my guilt. . . . A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” It may take a while for this to sink in, but this prayer may be a start in renewing my life with God. It may even prompt me to seek reconciliation with someone I have hurt (or who has hurt me).
“I will extol you, my God and king.”
The psalmist expresses the Jewish appreciation of the grandeur of God, and his sentiments easily become our own. As a Christian, I like to read the psalm with Jesus’ life in mind. So much of the psalm can be applied to Jesus. Jesus is indeed our king, whose name we will bless forever. Generation after generation praises his mighty works. Throughout his public life, Jesus was “gracious and merciful.” He was “good to all, compassionate to every creature.”
His “reign is a reign for all ages.” It is easy to pick up almost any passage in the Gospels and find Jesus realizing these beautiful words.
We might see Jesus’ “wonderful deeds” in feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead. We see his “abounding goodness” in his passion and death. His resurrection speaks of the “glory of [his] reign.” Again, “The Lord is trustworthy in every word, and faithful in every work.” I find Jesus continuing all his work in those who serve the poor, who risk their lives in working for peace.
Blessed Mother Teresa comes to mind, as well as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Those who work to change weapons of war into plowshares work in the spirit of Jesus. There is a gentleman who comes to our neighborhood soup kitchen who has a smile to light up the whole room. I told him I would like to take him to all the leaders of the world. Such a smile would force them to seek peace.
“Blessed those whose way is blameless.”
In the New American Bible, this is entitled “A Prayer to God, the Lawgiver.” It has 176 verses, and all but one mention God’s law. The psalmist displays a marvelous love for God’s law. But this has nothing to do with legalism. The Hebrew author shows his love for God’s law because he sees it as an outstanding proof of God’s love.
God has shown his love by creating and saving his people. The psalmist can only respond by expressing his love for God. Keeping the law is a way of expressing that love, and a willingness and desire to carry out God’s will.
Psalm 119 is a fine expression of this love. It is like a steady rain of love: this is what we want to do—over and over again. This is the way we want to prove our love. Praying this psalm, I appreciate the tremendous love the people had for God.
As we pray this psalm, it is not too difficult for us to enter into the psalmist’s joy at being so loved by God and having such a marvelous vehicle to bear witness to that love. As a Christian, I can go one step further. Jesus has brought the law to its fulfillment, and therefore every mention of law becomes a reference to the Gospel. I can pray, “In your [Gospel] I take delight; I will never forget your word” (v. 16). Or again: “I lift up my hands to your [Gospel]; I study your [Gospel], which I love” (v. 48).
In this way, I remind myself of what my life is all about. I appreciate this all the more as I think of Pope Francis encouraging us to “live in Gospel joy.”