When God moves from being a theological construct to being a divine Thou
Bible text: Psalm 23
I think it’s safe to say that Psalm 23 is the most beloved passage in all of the Bible. It is a hymn of quiet confidence in God. And for that reason it has spoken solace to many an agitated heart.
It is so familiar, however, that we can easily miss its remarkable artistry. Its author is a superb poet.
Two Dominant Metaphors
We see that in his use of metaphors. Two dominate the psalm. One is the metaphor of the shepherd. The psalm starts out with that ringing declaration: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The line is like the mighty bells of a great cathedral reeling out their joy on Easter Sunday.
The shepherd leads his flock into nourishing pastures. He protects them from predators. He is the model of the ideal king, whose chief job is to provide for and protect his people, especially the most vulnerable in society. (For another Hebrew reflection on ideal kingship, read Psalm 72).
The second metaphor the poet uses is the metaphor of the host. God is said to be a superlative host. He welcomes the traveler. He spreads before him a wonderful meal. He grooms his guest’s hair with fragrant olive oil. He fills his guest’s cup with overflowing wine.
You can appreciate why this image would speak so powerfully to its original audience when you remember that travelers in the ancient Near East relied on the generosity of local residents to provide them with food, drink, and shelter from bandits. Inns and hotels were rare.
In the Old Testament when God is described as a good shepherd, he is usually seen as the shepherd of the people of Israel. But in Psalm 23, the poet sees God as more than a national provider. God is MY shepherd. Faith has moved from a community into an intimately personal level.
Trust against a Backdrop of Danger
Both of these metaphors play against a backdrop of danger and potential despair. The psalmist is walking through a valley of deep darkness. He consumes his meals aware that his enemies are jealously looking on. Evil lurks in the shadows, like a tiger just waiting for the opportune moment to pounce. Anxiety enwraps his life.
Yet the poet remains confident. At the moment in the poem of greatest danger, when he is walking through the valley of deep darkness, he sounds out his confidence in these resounding words: I fear no evil, for you [God] are with me.
Here is where we particularly glimpse his artistry. First, this is the point in the psalm where the poet stops talking about God and starts talking to God. The sentence turns from third-person discourse to second-person address. The language shifts from testimony to prayer.
This is the point when God becomes something more than an intellectual construct. God becomes someone whom the poet not only thinks about, but also meets. God as theological It has become God as divine Thou.
God at the Center
But here is something more amazing. The “you” in verse 4 comes at the exact middle of the psalm. The Hebrew word for “you” is atah. And in the psalm in Hebrew, 27 words precede it; 27 words follow it. At the exact center of the poem comes the divine “you.”
At the heart of biblical faith, God is not one who stands on the outskirts of life. God stands at the center of our lives as well as at the center of the universe. Now that needs to be said forcefully in our day and age.
In years past there was an old tradition in science of appealing to God when we confronted mysteries in nature. We looked at a natural process. We didn’t understand how that process worked. So we’d invoke God as the hidden hand behind nature. A scientist as eminent as Sir Isaac Newton did that when he ran up against puzzles in the universe that he could not solve.
But as science progresses and more and more of the mysteries of nature are solved, the God of puzzles keeps being pushed more and more to the margins of life and the universe. After a while, God is no longer needed as a hypothesis to explain the world.
That is the attitude of many people today, especially scientists. They can dispense with God, because they don’t need God as an explanation.
I was recently watching a TV interview by Bill Moyers with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is the host of the new National Geographic TV series called Cosmos. It looks at what modern science tells us about the amazing evolution and structure of our universe.
In the interview Tyson comments that if we look upon God as the answer to nature’s mysteries, then we really have to abandon that kind of God. For that kind of God will be progressively whittled away by the advance of science.
“If you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation,” he says, “God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whom Hitler executed, said something similar in a letter he wrote a friend from his prison cell. As he reflected upon his prison experience, he said:
…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. For the frontiers of knowledge are inevitably being pushed back further and further, which means that you only think of God as a stop-gap…[God] must be found at the center of life: in life and not only in death; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin. [Letters and Papers from Prison, Letter dated March 25, 1944]
The psalmist does what Bonhoeffer says needs to happen. He finds God at the center of his life, not just in its gaps.
If we ask, How do we begin to do this?, I answer: Do what the poet does. Begin to pray. In prayer, we may not yet have truly placed God in the center of our being, but we begin that process. For in prayer, we relate to God as that eternal Thou, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. We not only speak to God, but in contemplative prayer, we also begin to listen to and for God. In this two-directional process of prayer, a relationship with God grows that in time becomes central to everything we are and do.