The 23rd Psalm is so ubiquitous; it’s so well-known; and it’s used in so many places and contexts that it’s hard on a Sunday morning during the summer with free reign to take it anywhere and everywhere to figure out from which angle to consider this Psalm. In the past, I’ve sung this Psalm with guitar around campfires and re-told the story of David, I’ve read this Psalm with a person who was dying, I’ve preached on this Psalm at a bunch of funerals, and it’s been read at many others. Besides that, the 23rd Psalm has been used in more pop culture references than probably any other verses in the Bible. You all know it—probably in the King James—so this is the opposite of most scripture: You know it and it’s dear to many of you.
So, I’m going to dig deep today and try to show you something about this Psalm that you might find interesting. It has to do with everybody’s favorite subject—math—so you know it’s going to be good. OK, it’s not math but proportions and ratios. Did you know that authors who wrote in ancient Hebrew were often obsessed with numerology and ratios? And this is for a very straight-forward reason, actually. Every letter in ancient Hebrew was also a number; they didn’t have a separate system of letters and numbers like we do. So, as you might imagine, clever authors would often play with words and numbers to create some beautiful double-meanings (this is also proof that even in ancient Israel there were nerds, which helps some of us relate). If that doesn’t interest you, perfect, because I’m not going to talk about numerology with Psalm 23.What I am going to talk about with this Psalm is its ratios, or how ancient Hebrew writers would elevate certain verses based on their placement in the poetry.
Shakespeare did this in English, too—really, every good author does this in one way or another—but ancient Hebrew is better suited on the whole for this kind of work than English because the words were meant to be chanted and so they had a bit of musical feel to them already, making emphasizing some parts of a phrase that much easier to do. For this reason, you will often find in the Old Testament that a part of a poem is emphasized based on its placement in the verse, and often the part that is emphasized most is precisely at the middle. Sometimes you can see this in English translations when certain words are stacked like a pyramid toward the central meaning of the verse and then the same words descend on the far side. Sometimes, like in the book of Jonah, you have Jonah uttering 39 words against God, and God responding with 39 words that put Jonah in his place. Today, in Psalm 23, like the Jonah example, you have structure that is not so obvious in English, but if you start counting the words in this Psalm you will find a remarkable thing. There are twenty-six Hebrew words to begin the Psalm and twenty-six Hebrew words to end the Psalm and smack-dab in the middle is one simple phrase that this Psalm is all about: “You are with me.” The 23rd Psalm is a pyramid leading us to chant aloud: “You are with me.”