Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hope in the Shadow of Death

There’s just something about the 23rd Psalm. Comfort, confidence, and hope fill those familiar words. Other than the Lord’s Prayer, it is the only passage of scripture I have encouraged my children to memorize. Whenever I take a funeral, I recommend that the family use the 23rd Psalm as one of the prayers at the graveside because it’s likely the only one we can recite without our prayer books.

Although its words of assurance are perfect for a funeral, it also speaks to many other circumstances in life. Illness, imprisonment, grief, disappointment—the trials of life seem buoyed by the shepherd’s psalm. Why is that? Why are these words still a go-to for people of faith and for people of nominal religious affiliation? I think it’s because Psalm 23 speaks both hope and distress at the same time.

Earlier this week, our Tuesday-morning men’s breakfast and bible study continued its focus on the Psalms by reviewing “prayers of distress” or “individual laments.” Called “the basic material of the psalter” by Herman Gunkel, these are the most numerous and most evocative of the psalms. They are spoken from a place of deep need—illness, attack, imprisonment, etc.—and are petitions to God for help. Psalm 23 is related to this category, but it has been refined into a different perspective, called by Gunkel a “psalm of confidence.” Although its origins are in that place of distress, the prayer has taken on a new focus—of hope instead of turmoil.

Notice in the language of Psalm 23 when and where the calamity is occurring: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and “…in the presence of those who trouble me.” It’s not happening in the past; the trouble is still unfolding around the psalmist. Yet the language of confidence and faith fill the text. In beautiful language that transcends cultures, the poet says, “Even though death itself is lingering over me, I will not be afraid because of you, O Lord.”

I meet a lot of people who are in that place of trouble. Pats on the back and the “there, theres” of well-meaning friends just don’t cut it. In our moment of distress, we need more than a platitude or an empty hope. We need something that embraces the darkness that surrounds us and still overcomes it. The faith of Psalm 23 is not rainbows and daisies. It’s confidence in the place of trouble. It’s “the walls are caving in, but still I trust that God will save me.” That’s the kind of hope that we cling to. That’s the kind of hope worth sharing for thousands of years.

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