It goes without saying that Psalm 23 is the most famous psalm. Perhaps the most famous text in the whole of the bible.

What is the source of its appeal?

No doubt it is due to the imagery of the loving shepherd caring for the sheep. But there is also a subtle shift in the poem that enhances its emotional intimacy and potency. But it's a subtle shift. Can you see it?
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads 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 You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
The poet begins by addressing a human audience and referring to God in the third person:
The Lord...
He makes me...
He leads me...
He restores my soul.
The imagery is powerful and rich but it's held at a distance. Describing another time and place and a person who is not present.

And then, suddenly but subtly, so subtly that you don't really notice it, the focus shifts away from a human audience to address God directly. "He" shifts to "you."
You are with me...
Your rod...
Your staff...
You prepare...
You anoint...
It's a shift--the change from "he" to "you"--that we hardly consciously register. But the emotional effect is one of deepening intimacy. The poem starts with God held at a distance and then, almost imperceptibility, it becomes a very personal, intimate, direct and face-to-face engagement.


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10 thoughts on “You”

  1. ... which is why so much is lost when the psalm is rephrased as "you" from the outset, in order to avoid the use of masculine pronouns.

  2. I am a Liberal, of the Left, who does understand the fear that some of the Left have of a personal God. When I think of what transcends us, either as individuals, nations or worlds, I think of Being, Life, Mind, Wisdom and Love. Of course, being finite, I cannot help but think of these as a "list". But, in the one who transcends us, they are ONE. I love Paul's declaration in Romans 8: "What can be known of God is plain, for God has shown it. Since the creation God's eternal power and divine nature have been seen and understood through the things God has made".

    I look out at this marvelous world, and I see and understand LIFE, the one who engulfs and indwells all things. It is this that creates the mystery that keeps existence fresh and exciting. No, not always fun; but, exciting. The one who is always in me keeps boredom at bay.

  3. And it's interesting that it's the experience of suffering - the move from Summer to Winter relationship - that heralds this shift in familiarity...

    "Misfortunes leave wounds which bleed drop by drop even in sleep; thus little by little they train man (sic) by force and dispose him to wisdom in spite of himself. Man must learn to think of himself as a limited and dependent being and only suffering teaches him this." (Simone Weil - with HT to Kim)

  4. I don't think I've ever heard it described quite this way - this is a really great insight.

    This got me to thinking about something...

    As much criticism as the King James translators have suffered for their accuracy (something I admittedly know little about), I have always felt like there is something to be said for the way the KJV handles the Psalms. Modern translations favor of clarity of meaning, and - for that very reason - the Psalms often fall flat when it comes to a sense of meter/rhythm. In the KJV, the Psalms tend to flow off of the page in beautiful King's English. I suspect that is why, even today, the spirit of the KJV translations continues to inhabit modern English renditions of the Psalms, especially 23. How many modern translations use the word "Yea" anywhere but in this text? But try to make it work with crisper, modernized language, and it falls flat ("Truly though I walk through..."? ...or "Certainly, though I walk through..."?).

    Also - we still get "fear no evil," not something like "don't fear evil." Other examples abound.

    I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the seventeenth century translators who brought this text to life in our language. It is one of the reasons the sense of deepening intimacy in the text grabs us.

  5. Richard,
    Hope you're over any jetlag. Danke shön.
    There's a tendency for those of us who read and write theology--especially those of us "experimenting" with it--to increasingly make the shift opposit of the one you've noticed in the 23 Psalm, to move away from thought and speech directed TO or WITH God (Prayer is theology in the second person.) to thinking and talking ABOUT God in the third person, a transition Helmut Thielicke chronicles as "from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference." But, as you've pointed out, the Psalmist saves himself from the blunder, making the opposite move. To make this shift in theological voice, from the second to third person, however, it's not just a changeup of linguistic convention: no, the one speaking this way really believes he is responding to--not reflecting on something but replying to someone, not imagining but confronting--the God who has "in divers times and ways spoken." It's only possible with a high view of revelation, in other words. Thielicke says, "Only out of this dialogue is the theological method comprehensible [Gal. 4:9]," then observes, "Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, 'Did God really say?'" Really, this "subtle shift" in Psalm 23 is one that must be taken to take the crucified Jesus seriously. Thielicke writes, "out of the uttermost darkness of abandonment by God, [Jesus] does not speak to men, does not complain about this God who has abandoned Him. He speaks to Him at this very moment - in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that as it were the circuit between Him and the Father is complete" (Little Exercise for Young Theologians).

  6. The 23rd Psalm in 23 Words

    My shepherd Lord



    restores my soul.

    When darkness threatens

    I'm fearless

    with God's nearness.

    I'm lavished,



    now and forever.

  7. Nice observation!
    Things seem to be going well in verses 1-3. I'm guessing it's not a coincidence that it's when things take a dark turn (thought of the valley of the shadow of death) that the switch to the more intimate "you" occurs.

  8. Martin Buber would love the way you trace that progression. Psalm 23 is our 'set reading' for each Communion service I take at the aged care facility I work in as Pastor. It is deeply comforting when read slowly and with all voices joining, even those voices that are rarely heard at other times due to some cognitive or physical impairment. I look forward to infusing the week known psalm with the 'You' of deep connectivity and engagement.

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