This article was wrtten by Charles W. Sidoti and Rabbi Akiva Feinstein. It is an excerpt from Living at God’s Speed, Healing in God’s Time.
The Psalms are unique among the books of the Bible, revealing a mysterious healing quality in their ability to connect with us at a personal and profound level. It is not uncommon when reading the Psalms to find that the words give expression to our most human emotions at the very core of our being – emotions that range from the deepest, darkest despair to the most exultant, liberating joy. The ability of the Psalms to connect with us, in many ways, also heals us. As we prayerfully read them, we find that it is the spirit of God with whom they connect our mind and heart.
Psalm 23 is one of the most popular psalms, as well as one of the most comforting. It opens with the familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and many people have found that they do not need to pray the entire psalm to experience its healing power. Simply saying the words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is often sufficient to turn our attention toward God; and turning our conscious attention toward God is a simple, pure, and powerful form of prayer.
The 23rd Psalm can provide immediate help in difficult moments. When we find ourselves facing a stressful situation, speaking the words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” can help us to let go long enough to see how God can act in our lives. It can help us to let go, even if only momentarily, of the sense of urgency that we often feel toward a situation, giving God room to work. When we say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” it is really the same as saying, “I trust you God,” while at the same time expressing a willingness to wait upon the Lord. In many of life’s situations, after we have done what is within our control, waiting on the Lord is precisely what we need to do.
Psalm 23 is sometimes associated with death. There is a great scene in the 1997 film Titanic in which Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is anxiously pushing his way through a long line of terrified passengers, all of whom are rushing to reach the highest end of the doomed and rapidly sinking ship. Someone in the death march just ahead of Jack is heard reciting the 23rd Psalm. The person is shown reading the psalm while slowly marching, saying, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…,” to which Jack shouts out, “Hey, would you mind walking a little faster through that there valley!”
In the Jewish tradition, Psalm 23 is commonly included among the prayers that are said during the period of time surrounding a person’s death. It is recited in the House of Mourning during the time of Shivah. The Hebrew word Shivah means “seven” and refers to the seven-day period of formalized mourning by the immediate family of the deceased. Likewise, the 23rd Psalm is often recited at Christian funerals. For many mourners, it can be very comforting, allowing them to be assured that their loved one is being taken care of by God, even though the person has passed from this life to the next.
Yet the words of this particular psalm do not speak primarily about death. They are clearly spoken in reference to life and living. They speak about how God directs, anoints, and comforts us, and of God showering us with kindness.
There is only one clear reference to death. It is the earlier mentioned, familiar verse, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” and even this reverence is veiled. The Hebrew word tzalmavet, though commonly translated into English as a reference to death, would more accurately be translated here as a “dark and shadowy place.”
The 23rd Psalm certainly is comforting in regard to facing the final death that we will all experience one day. It is important to remember, however, that its application to daily living, its comforting words telling of God’s promise to guide and shepherd us through the many dark periods that we all experience, make it a powerful prayer that can provide hope and reassurance for today. There are countless small “deaths” that we experience during the constant change that is so much a part of life. The promise of the 23rd Psalm is very much for the living, in this world as well as the next.
Connecting Point: The Psalms possess a special healing quality in their ability to connect with our emotions. Discover that power for yourself by prayerfully reading them on a regular basis. The 23rd Psalm is especially comforting. In its words we find God’s promise to guide, protect, and lead us as a shepherd guides his or her flock through life’s many changes. It helps us to wait in hope upon the Lord during the dark, shadowy periods and the “deaths” in life.
Prayer: Merciful Lord, so often I resist your lead, impatiently trusting instead in my own understanding and my own schemes to make things happen. And so you wait on me to trust in you. Help me to let you be the shepherd of my life. Help me to hear and respond to your voice and to accept your guidance. Help me to learn to wait patiently on you in hope, trusting that the good things that you promise will be given, and to let it be in your time. Amen.