Most days and nights, I quote Psalm 23 and a few other passages of Scripture to my son Christopher at his bedside. He has been lying in a comatose state for four months now. Repeating the words of this psalm is even better than counting sheep.
I’ve never met a shepherd, so I have no first-hand experience with this agrarian—and what some might think of as an antiquated—profession. Moreover, about the only time I come across sheep is at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Still, I take great comfort in knowing that Scripture portrays the Lord as a shepherd—even as one’s personal shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1; NIV). Elsewhere we find that Jesus identifies himself as “the Good Shepherd” (John 10), extending the prophetic vision that God would come and shepherd his people in place of bad shepherds who lead poorly (Ezekiel 34).
Just as I have not witnessed shepherding, I don’t speak King James English, though perhaps some shepherds still do. That said, I recall first hearing and reading Psalm 23 in the King James Version’s memorable, beautiful prose (Don’t worry. I quote the psalm to my son in the NIV):
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:1-6; KJV).
“The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1; KJV)/“…I shall lack nothing” (NIV). I cannot begin to articulate the ever-expanding list of wants and needs involving and surrounding my son’s brain damage and comatose state, just as I cannot wax eloquent on the fine or lost art of shepherding. But repeating these poetic words of Psalm 23 at Christopher’s facility’s bedside in urban, modern, technologically-scientifically-minded America mysteriously strengthens me. I trust the psalmist’s words also comfort and strengthen my son—and you. After all, the Lord is our ultimate need.
Psalm 23 is often attributed to David, who was a shepherd boy long before becoming king in ancient Israel. Perhaps he wrote the psalm in his youth, or much later in life. No doubt, as the psalm signifies, David drew strength from looking to God as his shepherd in the face of all kinds of dangers. David may have called to mind dangers in the wilderness, in royal courts, and on battle fields, though I doubt he knew anything about “neuro-storming.” Neither bears and lions, robbers and thieves, Goliath and the Philistines, jealous, treacherous King Saul, and his overwhelming forces, nor the surrounding warring nations, could shake David’s confidence. The Lord made him rest in green pastures, led him beside still waters, and restored his soul. David feared no evil because the Lord was his guardian and protector. The Lord was his shepherd, who guided him through the valley of the shadow of death, and who prepared a table before him in his enemies’ presence (Psalm 23:4-5). David was confident that he would dwell in the Lord’s house forever (Psalm 23:6).
What is it about this psalm? David is long gone, but not his words. Psalm 23 continues to impress its consolation on scores of people of all walks of life and circumstances throughout the centuries. What Henry Ward Beecher so eloquently wrote about Psalm 23 in the 19th century applies equally well today. He called it “the nightingale of the psalms. It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, oh! It has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive. Blessed be the day on which that psalm was born!” A few lines down, Beecher mused and meditated on Psalm 23, almost as if he himself was accompanied by a harp or lyre:
It has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It has remanded to their dungeon more felon thoughts, more black doubts, more thieving sorrows, than there are sands on the sea-shore. It has comforted the noble host of the poor. It has sung courage to the army of the disappointed. It has poured balm and consolation into the heart of the sick, of captives in dungeons, of widows in their pinching griefs, of orphans in their loneliness. Dying soldiers have died easier as it was read to them; ghastly hospitals have been illuminated; it has visited the prisoner, and broken his chains,… It has made the dying Christian slave freer than his master,… Nor is its work done. It will go singing to your children and my children, and to their children, through all the generations of time; nor will it fold its wings till the last pilgrim is safe, and time ended; and then it shall fly back to the bosom of God, whence it issued, and sound on, mingled with all those sounds of celestial joy which make heaven musical for ever (Recorded in Life Thoughts, edited by Edna Dean Procter and A. Moore, pages 11-12).
I don’t need to have contact with shepherds and dwell in an agrarian society to understand this psalm or Beecher’s meditation on it. As Janet Martin Soskice has argued in Metaphor and Religious Language, the “Scottish crofter of a previous generation” had no difficulty grasping that Jesus is the true vine and living temple, though the crofter knew nothing of grape vines and temples (159-160). What I do need to do is return again and again to Psalm 23 and the biblical story in which it breathes, not to choke it and exact its meaning in some positivistic, historicist sense. Rather, I must breathe it in along with an undying reading community, whose heart has continually stirred as this nightingale sings for ages. I will be listening to that nightingale sing later today, as I quote this psalm to Christopher in his room.
Lord, this day, may you pour balm and consolation far more soothing and healing than any intravenous medication into Christopher’s veins. Lord, may my son lie down in soft, green pastures so that refreshed, he can rise to new life. May Christopher not develop more pressure sores and wounds as he lies in his bed, and please heal the sores he already has. Lord, may you quiet his spastic activity, guard against seizures and fevers, keep his lungs clear of pneumonia, anoint his brain-damaged head with oil, and quiet our ever-churning, turbulent souls as neuro-storms threaten and various pressures mount. May we fear no evil, no matter the danger posed, for your rod and your staff that shield us are more imposing still.
No matter how much wrongdoing and wickedness we observe, guide us in paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. Cause our cup to overflow with your goodness, love, and mercy, not indifference, hate, and hardness of heart. May your goodness, mercy, and love follow Christopher and the rest of us all the days of our lives as you lead us through, and out of, our physical and spiritual comatose state, onward and upward. Good Shepherd, may we dwell in your house forever.