Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller


The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory. One-time shepherd and pastor Phillip Keller walks the reader through the 23rd Psalm as David the Shepherd King would have seen it. At least, as Keller thinks David would have seen it.

Keller's insights are certainly helpful, particularly in America's increasingly non-agrarian culture. He includes meditations on the relationship between sheep and shepherd, the importance--and blessing--of having a good and wise shepherd, the dangers that threaten the flock at every turn, and the hard work and sacrifice of the shepherd on behalf of his sheep.

I have always understood Psalm 23 to contain a combination of metaphors--David seems to transition smoothly from comparisons to sheep (verses 1-4) into language that evokes a royal banquet and possibly a coronation of sorts (verse 5) and thence to a sort of benedictory prediction of future care and blessing in this life and a hint of the life to come.

Keller, however, takes the position that the whole of the Psalm is to be viewed through the shepherd lens--that a 'table' is a mountain pasture (surrounded by predators), the anointing oil is to sooth and protect from parasites and other pests, that 'restoring my soul' is a reference to putting an upside-down sheep on its feet again, and that we will live on the Lord's farm forever. All of which is sort of ... fine, but seems rather strained. It certainly seems possible that the table referred to is, well, a table, and that the anointing oil is a reference to being chosen in some capacity.

True, the New Testament connects anointing oil with the healing of illness (which would fit with Keller's view of oil as a treatment for parasites). But it is far more common for the Biblical writers to use anointing oil to demonstrate election of some kind. Aaron (and the other high priests after him) was anointed with oil in connection with his appointment as high priest, and Saul, David, Solomon, and Jehu were all anointed as kings over Israel. Indeed, David's anointing is particularly poignant in this context, as he was anointed as a young man and had to wait for some years before that anointing came to full fruition. This fits well with the Biblical idea that we are graciously elected to be heirs of Christ, but we do not realize the fullness of our inheritance until   we are in heaven with Him. So the anointing oil is a lovely picture of the already-but-not-yet nature of the Christian walk. Not that it couldn't also be a reference to oil's healing properties. But given David's history, I would think the anointing oil would invoke his own anointing as king more than his healing activities among his flock.

Plus, the idea of royalty fits with the ascending tone of verses 5 and 6--there is a banquet (and the implies victory over or safety from enemies), then an anointing and abundant blessing, then lifelong goodness and mercy, then eternal life and communion with God. I think forcing all this into a shepherding framework diminishes this ascendant celebration of God's blessing.

Still, Keller's exposition (and explanation) of verses 1-4 is excellent, and I suspect it is this section--the first two-thirds of the book or so--that is behind his enduring influence on the topic. He's been cited by Kay Arthur, Joni Eareckson Tada, Max Lucado, J.I. Packer, and John MacArthur, just to name a few, and his practical insights have no doubt influenced countless others.

All of which to say, this is definitely worth a read. It will undoubtedly enable you to see Psalm 23 in a different light. And at under 200 pages (in mass market size), it's a quick read.

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