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Revisiting Psalm 23: Why Christians misunderstand this covenant between God and man

Professor Jason Osai* of the Rivers State University, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, writes on the biblical Psalm 23 and why he holds that this “covenant between God and man” is often misinterpreted and misunderstood by Christians. He identifies the “fundamental determinant of the utility, efficacy and functionality” of the two-party pact and how to make the Psalm work for humanity.

In 2013, MELINTAS–Journal of Philosophy and Religion of the Department of Philosophy, Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung, Indonesia, published my article on the essence of the God-Human covenant generally known as Psalm 23 in the Holy Bible; it was a full-fledged academic article. Following that publication, I received seventy-one reactions from clergy, biblical scholars and laity across the world; incidentally, those reactions belong in another narrative.

Fast forward to August 2019, I listened to a Nigerian clergy discuss the Psalm on radio and noticed that the essence of the covenant was completely lost on him; his interpretation hinged on faith without paying an iota of heed to the work aspect, which is the fundamental determinant of the utility, efficacy and functionality of the unambiguously give-and-take deal.

Fast forward further to January 2020, I attended a funeral where the obsequies contained Psalm 23 in which the essence of the Psalm was also gotten wrong.

This piece is inspired by the need to fill that cavernous crevice in understanding for the teeming population of Christians who reflexively recite Psalm 23 in the humdrum process of frenzied worship without realising the commitment required for the efficacy of the two-party pact between God and man.

A deep thought on the essence of Psalm 23 shows that it is a covenant between God and man; a universal covenant devoid of colour, creed, station and location. Its essence is in the first sentence, which is a nine-word pact thus: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (King James Version, KJV). In a version of the Bible written in contemporary language, Eugene Peterson (EPV) rewords the first sentence thus: “God is my shepherd, I don’t need a thing.” Again, in the obsequies of our earlier reference, the Psalm read thus: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not lack anything.” 

Without going into the biblical injunction against subtracting and adding to the Holy Bible, we note that there are two key words that drive the contract and these are “shepherd” and “want” in KJV and “shepherd” and “need” in EPV. It is essential to understand the import of the three words shepherdwant and need within the context of the covenant. Sticking to the realities of the metaphor, shepherd is a trade, which carries the functional responsibility that requires the incumbent to shelter, feed, tend to, guide and guard the sheep through the treacherous environment fraught with booby traps, poachers and ferocious animals.

As a young man, David demonstrated the extent of the responsibilities incumbent on the shepherd (him) by keeping ninety-nine sheep in some safety and going after the lost one, which he eventually rescued from a ferocious beast. The lesson in that narrative is the extent of risk to life, limb and possessions (ninety-nine sheep) the shepherd would take to secure the safety of one sheep. It is in return for this extent of commitment, risk and sacrifice that God expects man to keep his/her part of the covenant by being contented with whatever He provides.

Viewed without depth, want and need possess the same connotation; however, a closer assessment shows that they differ immensely. Want is synonymous with desire, which has the proven propensity for degenerating into insatiability and the neurosis of crass materialism.  On the other hand, need refers to the basic things an individual should have for modest living and comfort; it is, therefore, synonymous with contentment with what is provided by the shepherd, God.

The import of need as used here is a one-word summation of sustainable development, which is the responsible utilisation of resources in such a way that guarantees others’ and subsequent generations of resources. With the meaning of “want” as is relevant to this analysis, “I shall not want” is a commitment to deliver on the individual’s part of the deal; it is, therefore, completely different from “I don’t need a thing” or “I shall not lack anything,” which refer to a state of material sufficiency and not a commitment to be contented with whatever accrues from the God-Human covenant. Beyond the letters and spirit of the covenant as captured in the nine-word deal, the rest of the Psalm catalogues the accruals to the individual if and when he/she keeps his/her part of the pact.

From the Universalist point of view, God is that shepherd and what He requests is for the other party (human) to the covenant not to want (desire): “I shall not want.” Beyond the statement “I shall,” which means commitment to the undertaking, the meaning and import of the phrase “not want” in this context is synonymous with contentment. In other words, if we reword the first sentence of the Psalm to read “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall be contented” then the full essence and import of the covenant crystallise.

Therefore, it is when the individual is committedly contented with whatsoever God puts on his/her table, when the individual is devoted to Him and surrenders to His will that the outcomes of the pact are activated. A quick note here, contentment does not mean indolence, docility, inertia or plain laziness, no; rather, it means that man should appreciate God and be satisfied with whatever outcomes that accrue from his/her effort at each and every point of his/her daily endeavours.

Granted that Psalm 23 is contained in the Bible, which is the Scripture of Judaism and Christianity, it is a covenant between God and man; it is not exclusivist as it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with institutional religion. Emphasising the universality of religion, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:14-16). In other words, Palm 23 does not recognise the man-made divisions along the lines of institutional religion; it is therefore relevant to all of humanity be you Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Monotheist, Pantheist etc.

All that is required is clear heart and hands and then key into the essence of the covenant in terms of commitment. Given this state of consciousness, the individual commands his/her circumstance, existential mountains turn into plains in front of him/her and everything positive comes his/her way. At this point, the Good Shepherd maketh the committed covenanter “to lie down in green pastures…and goodness and mercies shall follow (you) all the days of (your) life and (you) shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.”

Once the above state of mind and consciousness pervades humanity, there will be peace on earth and the swords will be turned into ploughshare, which is one of the fundamental precepts for arriving at Land of Canaan, the Kingdom of God here on earth; this is what Plato referred to as the Ideal State and St. Augustine of Hippo called it the City of God in which the Leviathan is killed.

* Prof. Jason Osai is a professor of Development Studies and Head, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Rivers State University, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. You can contact him by email at ozomogoosai@gmail.com

READ ALSO The Tragedy of Institutional Religion by Jason Osai

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