Psalm 23: A Lesson in Reading Biblical Poetry
December 15, 2020

Parallelism: A Course Correction

If you have ever studied Hebrew poetry, you have probably heard its basic poetic feature described as “parallelism.” Hebrew poetry is not metered, it does not rhyme, it does not employ many of the common poetical tropes, but its distinctive (and almost universal) feature is commonly called parallelism. But this term can be misleading, as James Kugel has pointed out in his book The Idea of Biblical Poetry.

At first glance, this term seems to imply an equality of meaning between two lines. In other words, Hebrew poetry seems to simply be a matter of repetition and sameness. At first glance, this might seem reasonable to you, often when you read the Psalms or Proverbs, it appears that the second line is just repeating what the first line said. Here is how we might naturally think parallelism works, where we have two lines with an equal sign in the middle:

____________ = ____________

But this is far too simplistic to account for the actual poetry throughout the Bible. Any conscientious reader will note many times when the first and second line are not only unequal, but quite distinct and hardly seem “parallel.” If we think about Hebrew poetry as basically repetition, we will seriously misread it, and perhaps most damagingly, we will flatten out the real dynamic meaning of the poem. After all, what could be more uninspiring than saying the same thing over and over again? So what does it mean to say that Hebrew poetry is parallel?

James Kugel argues it is essentially the “what’s more” principle. A classic example of this is the proverb that begins “Three things …, four” (cf. Proverbs 30:15, 18, 21, 29), here the poet is saying, “I have three things to say, and what’s more, a fourth thing.” We would better represent parallelism in this way, where one line follows the second line and completes, supports or expands the meaning of the first line:

___________ / ___________ //

This is not as neat and tidy as a simple equal sign. It demands that the reader consider the line and give some thought into how the second part contributes to and pushes forward the first part. In other words, sitting and scratching your head at the two lines is a natural and appropriate response. Hebrew poetry pushes us to wonder, what is the meaning of the whole couplet? How does the second part expand the first part?

And we can take this one or two steps further. Not only does the second line expand the meaning of the first line, but the structure of the Psalm or poem as a whole continues to expand upon the meaning as it moves towards the conclusion. To borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, Hebrew poetry is inherently about moving “further up and further in.” Hebrew poetry at its root has a dynamic, forward motion. Hebrew poetry is a captivating story, where each chapter pushes the reader forward to see how the whole fits together.

This motion of the Hebrew poetry naturally pushes the reader beyond the text itself and into our life. Reading Hebrew poetry is not meant to be a purely analytical exercise that gets left on the table. It is naturally designed to push the text into the life of the reader, and thus shape our lives into the mold of Scripture. The words of God enter into the world of men, forming it, dividing it, and recreating it from glory to glory.

The Shape of Psalm 23

So let’s explore Psalm 23. Psalm 23 provides a good testing ground for Kugel’s basic hypothesis since we are very familiar with it, and it does not seem to fit into our simplistic understanding of parallelism. It is a beautiful example of the “further up and further in” principle. This principle is at work both in the individual couplets, but also on the Psalm as a whole taken as a parallel structure. This brief reading cannot do justice to the whole Psalm or every aspect of it, but will just give you a taste of how we ought to read it.

The Lord is my Shepherd / I shall not want //

Immediately, we can see that an equal sign will not do here. Instead, the second line advances and completes the first line. The objective reality of the Lord as “Shepherd” pushes the action forward. Yahweh the Shepherd is the one who sets everything in the poem in motion. In Hebrew, the word “shepherd” originally meant something like “the one who provides food,” and in that sense is close to origin of our word “Lord” which originally meant, “the loaf guard.” Because he is the provider, then I am provided for. In between the two lines, we have an implied “therefore,” so that because of who God is, therefore I have everything I need.

He makes me lie down in green pastures / He leads me beside still waters //

The progression forward continues. These are not simple restatements of the Lord’s provision for me, they demonstrate what that provision means, and also the second line expands on the first line. Not only does he feed me and satisfy my hunger “in green pastures,” but also he provides water and quenches my thirst. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, God provides manna for their hunger and, what’s more, water for their thirst (cf. Exodus 16-17). “I shall not want” is not abstract, but tangibly represented in that he provides for all of my physical needs.

He restores my soul / He leads me in paths of righteousness / for his name’s sake //

It is possible this is a triplet, instead of a couplet, but regardless, the progression continues. He has first of all provided for my bodily needs with food and water, and now he also provides for my spiritual needs. The Shepherd provides for my whole self. And now, he takes me with him, insuring that the future “paths” are also secured.

This brings up a question: why does he do this? And the final line answers this question. The shepherd does not provide for my needs because of me. Surprisingly, it is in the interest of the Shepherd to provide for me. He provides for me because, somehow, my life is tied up with his life. It is on this basis, the basis of God’s own reputation, that Moses intercedes for the people of Israel (cf. Numbers 14:15).

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death / I will fear no evil //

This couplet parallels and contrasts the opening couplet. Once again, there is an objective reality, but this time far more sinister – “the valley of the shadow of death.” My subjective response is not only that I am provided for, as in verse one, but that I am also emboldened. In this couplet the progression of the Psalm now happens on two levels. We move from the serene watered pastures to the dark valley. The point here is not that although my circumstances have changed, but I remain unmoved. But rather, my circumstances have changed for the worse, but I have been changed for the better – I am given all that I need, and now I am also not afraid.

for you are with me / your rod and your staff comfort me //

Again, these two lines are not simply equal. The reason for my lack of fear rests in God’s presence “you are with me,” but the question is: how is God present? And the answer is in two ways. He is present in the discipline of his rod and in the comfort of his staff. In other words, he is with me in his stern fatherly rebuke and he is with me in his comforting fatherly encouragement.

You prepare a table before me / in the presence of my enemies //

This couplet also expands on the previous image of food and water. Not only am I provided for as a sheep, but also as a man, who sits, not only to eat, but to feast. The conclusion of this couplet is vitally important. My feasting and celebration happen even in the worst of circumstances when my life is threatened. However, this is not necessarily a contrast either. The ambiguity of the two lines could make this causal, “I am feasting because my enemies are around me” or “I am feasting even though my enemies are around me.” In either case, the table is prepared because of “You” – the Lord is the one who prepares the table. Here the imagery has moved beyond the pastoral analogy. The Lord is not only the shepherd of the sheep, but he is also the master of the feast.

You anoint my head with oil / my cup overflows //

From pastured sheep to tabled fellowship, this couplet continues to push forward to victorious kingship. All of this action is rooted in the fact that the Lord is my Shepherd. The Lord Yahweh is the good shepherd, guiding his people from glory to glory. All this blessing that has been bestowed on me has now reached a point that it overflows, moving even further to others and to the world. Like many of the Psalms, this is also Messianic. Jesus is the anointed king who sits at the right hand of God, and from his ascended throne pours out gifts upon his people (cf. Ephesians 4). Therefore, this feast is also a feast of triumph and victory over the enemies all around.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life / and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever //

The end of the Psalm is not simply a recap of what has been said, nor is it a conclusion tying off the Psalm with a bow. The end continues on, and pushes the text into my life and into the world “forever.” The end of this Psalm is reminiscent of the conclusion of Genesis, where Joseph notes that what man intended for evil, God intended for good (50:20). The wants, the darkness, the evils, and the enemies in the Psalm fade away into the constant goodness and mercy of God, so that all things work together for my good ( cf. Romans 8:28).

The second and final line comes, then, as a surprise. Once again, David is not just repeating what he said; the poetry continues to expand to the last moment. The conclusion seems to be that my life will now be relegated to the temple. Almost as if David is retreating from the world, behind the curtain of the cherubim. But really the opposite is happening. As I advance through “the days of my life” – as I am in the world – I am also in the house of the Lord. In other words, I have become, as Paul says, a living, moving temple (1 Corinthians 3:17). Wherever I am, there God’s Spirit dwells ( 1 Corinthians 3:16). The mercy seat of the holy of holies is over me – where I am – because I am forgiven in Christ Jesus (cf. 1 John 2:2). My life has not simply receded into God’s presence, but God’s presence has pushed out into all of my life.

The Lord is My Shepherd-King

 Where do we go from here? Reading the Bible is never a purely objective exercise, even the shape of Hebrew poetry emphasizes this point. The text also pushes us out into the world. So we don’t stop with analyzing either, we push forward to reading, memorizing, and ultimately, singing. Psalm 23 is, after all, a song meant to be sung. At our house, Psalm 23 is often the song that we close the day with as we put our kids to bed. At our church, we often sing this psalm before the Gospel reading in the liturgy during Trinity Season. For many Christians, Psalm 23 is their most beloved Scripture passage. It is one of those texts that we keep coming back to again and again as its words further shape and form our lives into the image of the Shepherd.

And that takes us back to the very first line, where we can keep mining the depths of Scripture. James Jordan has noted that Psalm 23 is a War Psalm, and that probably does not strike us as obvious at first. But there is a clue in the meaning of the word shepherd – “the one who provides food.” When David is anointed king, God tells David, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). Shepherding and ruling here go hand in hand. The king is not the one who is supposed to live off of the labor of his people and oppress them, he is the one who is supposed to give himself and sacrifice himself for them. This sets apart the kingdom of God from the kingdoms of men. In the kingdom of God, political power is primarily about grace, gift, and provision directed towards another – the king is supposed to be a shepherd. In the kingdom of man, political power is about taking, control, and lording it over another. Yahweh himself is the paradigmatic king because he is the Shepherd-King, he is the one who sends his Son and sacrifices himself for his people. His grace overflows so much into his kingdom (as we see in Psalm 23) that it also flows out from his people, as we become miniature shepherd-kings, giving grace to others like God has given to us. This is also then how the Lord wages war against his enemies. In the cross, the Shepherd-King gives us himself, and in so doing, he defeats sin, Satan, and death. In the cross, he turns us, once enemies, into his people (cf. Romans 5:10). And this also means then, that God conquers the enemies of his kingdom as his people wage war by taking up their cross, following their Shepherd-King, and giving their lives for the life of the world.

Ryan Handermann is a pastoral assistant at Trinity Reformed Church and also teaches Latin for Wilson Hill Academy. He lives with his wife and five kids in the north of Idaho where they go foraging for morel mushrooms in the spring, cherry picking in the summer, apple cider pressing in the fall, and try to keep warm in the long, dark winter.

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