The assigned psalm for this week is by far the most familiar one in the Bible, namely the 23rd. It is recited at plenty of weddings, at some baptisms, at most funerals. It has been turned into traditional hymns, and into communion songs, and songs for guitar. For decades, maybe centuries, children were expected to memorize it just as surely as they were expected to memorize the Lord’s Prayer. Even Mark Twain’s mischievous Tom Sawyer (if I remember correctly) had to learn the 23rd.
All of which, to my contrarian impulses, has a tendency to make me want to denigrate it. Trite. Clichéd. Boring. Cotton candy.
And yes, it certainly can be said that the 23rd is the “comfort food” of the psalms. It promises everything to us, but (at least on its surface) asks nothing from us. It isn’t like the 24th Psalm, which says that in order to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place one must have “clean hands and a pure heart.” Instead, this one just proclaims, indeed makes a firm assumption, that the speaker will have an overflowing cup while dwelling in the Lord’s house forever.
Not only is this attitude an apparent rejection of “works righteousness” (salvation “earned” through our own good works), but it doesn’t even seem to require that we be justified by our faith. We’re just protected, comforted, fed, housed, and redeemed, all almost as an entitlement.
Some might call this “cheap grace.”
But maybe there is more going on here than meets the eye. Maybe we’re missing an unstated other half of the equation. Like a silent pronoun in a sentence — for example, in the sentence “go do it!,” the “you” is implied but not stated — what seems to be happening here is that the confidence in God’s protection is itself the statement of faith. If we are “justified by faith,” this psalm is the very expression of that faith. This is the substance of things hoped for: the protection, the comfort, the feeding, the redemption.
It could be that the psalm doesn’t so much fail to require either works or faith from us but instead implies that the speaker is giving voice to a deep faith already existent. We’re not demanding an entitlement; we’re expressing gratitude for what we’ve already been promised and for what we already have begun to experience.
This may be why the reading from Acts is paired with this psalm in Sunday’s readings. The disciples, we are told, “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” This (small ‘c’) communion with each other, in the spirit of the Lord, is also both a celebration of God’s overflowing cup and is part and parcel of “praising God” with “glad and generous hearts.”
The virtue of the 23rd Psalm is that it reminds us what it is that God has promised us. In expressing our faith in it, we also renew our faith in it — and in so doing, we are far more likely to be willing to bear the troubles of the world (including those described in the letter of Peter that is this week’s Epistle).
The 23rd Psalm is an expression of our gratitude, and it is good that we make such an expression rather than look askance at His gifts. When we receive such gifts, we should indeed rejoice and be glad in them. Forever.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication this summer by Liberty Island Media.