This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.
What could be added to the long history of all that has been said about Psalm 23?
It’s one of our most beloved psalms. The imagery is well known. The poetry is beautiful.
When the mystery of God becomes tangible through the simple beauty of symbols, when it is not smothered by too many words, then prayer with others, far from exuding monotony and boredom, awakens us to heaven’s joy on earth.
As many psalms do, Psalm 23 slips between perspectives, from talking about God as shepherd (v.1-3), to talking to God as shepherd (v.4-5). In so doing, it leads us from theologizing about God, to speaking to God; it leads us to the very heart of prayer.
And perhaps, for now, that is just where we should leave it. Psalm 23 expresses simple trust in God. All too often we feel the need to clutter our prayer and our worship with many words and overwrought explanations. Perhaps we fear we will be misunderstood. Maybe we just like the sound of our own voice. But sometimes simplicity is best. Simplicity does not mean simplistic or lacking in depth. It means doing only what is called for, and resting in knowing that we are and we have enough. We shall not want.
Here’s a wonderful quote from Brother Roger of Taizé that says it better than I can:
“Nothing is more conducive to a communion with the living God than a meditative common prayer with, as its high point, singing that never ends and that continues in the silence of one’s heart when one is alone again. When the mystery of God becomes tangible through the simple beauty of symbols, when it is not smothered by too many words, then prayer with others, far from exuding monotony and boredom, awakens us to heaven’s joy on earth.”1
Jon Foreman, House of God Forever – One of the simplest versions of this psalm I know. Foreman pares the words down even further, to spare poetry. He combines this sparse paraphrase with even simpler music.
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need– This version of Psalm 23, with lyrics by Isaac Watts, is so simple that it has been elaborated upon by artists and arrangers dozens of times over the last century. But, really, the lyrics are easy enough and the melody singable enough, that this could even be sung a capella. The link is to a contemporary arrangement, with guitar and drums. This could also be done with a choir, on organ or piano, or with a small quartet of singers. Its simplicity leads to adaptability. Whatever you do, resist clutter.
1. Brother Roger of Taizé, Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006, 2012), 61.
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.