When I study a text to prepare a message, I’m looking not only for details that provide fruitful insights, but for the plotline of the text as well. What story is being told here? How is it being told?
As I wrote in Psalm 23, pt 1, this can be a challenge with the psalms. The story of a particular psalm is not necessarily embedded in the plotline of a larger book or situation, as you have in the case of a healing episode in Luke’s Gospel, a battle David fought in 1 or 2 Samuel, or even a piece of instruction by Paul in one of his letters. The psalms have a “floating” kind of feel. Yet, as Brian pointed out in his comments on Ps 23 pt 1, the context for the psalms is the communal life of Israel. They were used, after all, in public worship. That may not provide the kind of story background as in the other examples, but it is a helpful and fitting backdrop to our reading the psalm.
That said, listening for the plotline of Psalm 23 suggests to me the following (and I’m not pretending any of this is particularly profound):
1. This is a person familiar with adversity. He has walked some pretty difficult roads in his day and knows what it means to experience hardship, yet he can also testify (as he is doing here) to the sustaining power and grace of God. This brings to mind Paul’s words in Philippians 4:11-13, “…I know what it is to have little, and… to have plenty… I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (NRSV)
2. This may be a person who has struggled with pride. May be? Who hasn’t, right? Well, just don’t want to overstate inferences from the text. But v1 has the ring of someone who has wrestled in order to come to a place in their soul in which they can profess (a) faith in God’s provision, and perhaps also, (b) faith that God is enough for them. These are 2 related, yet not identical ways of hearing the affirmation, “I shall not want.” Additionally, the humble tone of the psalm–responding to the Lord’s guidance (vv2-4), appreciating his generous hospitality (v5)–strikes me as something most likely to have been learned and recieved by relationship with a patient yet persistent Lord. Perhaps my reading of this reflects my own journey, but that is a wonderful thing about the psalms, as with all poetry–they have meaning in themselves, yes, but they also invite us to enter that meaning personally and hear the resonate tones peculiar to us.
3. This is a person who has learned to rest in the Lord. Though the plotline of this psalm includes references to dark valleys and enemies, the prevailing tones are restfulness, security, and peace. No tension here…except perhaps the tension between a reader or hearer whose own life experience strikes a dissonent chord when played alongside the notes of this psalm. Herein may lie the plotline for the message.