Psalm 23:5: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
We think that victory over our foes involves defeating them in battle. This is only true in a most limited way. Here the Psalmist teaches us that the ultimate triumph over those who wish us harm comes when we have the courage and trust to continue our daily lives without fear. The defeat of fear is the ultimate victory of the spirit. Eating a meal under the ravenous gaze of the wolves shows that this shepherd and this flock will not be panicked or routed or dispersed or deflected from their true and natural course to the pastures of hope.
The world extracts a terrible price on our souls for living and the ultimate price is fear. We are seduced and saddened, broken and betrayed, corrupted and coruscated by the evil in our midst. To paraphrase Hemmingway, “Everyone is broken but some become stronger at the broken places.” God is the reason some become stronger and the evidence of that strength is the meal. Eating from the table set with food is the fulfillment of both a physical and a spiritual need. We feed our bodies and our souls by eating instead of hiding; by eating instead of fleeing; by eating instead of crying. Fear makes living our lives impossible. Eating makes surrendering to fear impossible.
Anointing is a lost custom for us. We no longer anoint anything, and so the power of this image of having our head anointed with oil is obtuse for the modern reader. The ancient custom of anointing involves pouring perfumed oil over one’s hair. There are two ancient meanings to this act. One is sacramental. Kings were anointed when they became kings, but the verb used here does not refer to sacramental anointing. The second meaning is luxuriant. Rich people were anointed before a meal so that the perfume would enhance their pleasure and also block the bodily odors so common in a world without showers or antiperspirants. What this means is that God sees even simple poor people as royalty in God’s house. The overflowing cup carries the same luxuriant metaphor. We not only drink at God’s banquet, we drink without scarcity. Our cup is not full. Our cup of blessings is overflowing.
Psalm 23:6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
What lies ahead of us is never as clear as what follows us. If we leave behind us in the wake of our lives a legacy of goodness and mercy, then it simply does not matter what happens next, for we will have done our best to live a life of trust and compassion. We will have followed our shepherd with our deepest virtues and not our most debilitating fears. That is the meaning of dwelling in the house of the Lord. Entering and living in the house of the Lord is not a hope for a future time. It can be an ever present reality if we allow God’s goodness to enter our lives.
The concept of “forever” is also modern. Even the belief in life after death only entered biblical religion after contact with Greek philosophy in the fourth century before the Common Era. Therefore, what this phrase means in this Psalm is more like, “I shall live in the house of the Lord all my days” or “for many years.” The meaning of the Psalm at its heart is that the rewards of faith are present and accessible and comforting and ennobling in the lives we are given to live here and now. St. Peter Julian Eymard explained faith this way, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
The 23rd Psalm is a song of hope and as Vaclav Havel wrote, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
The 23rd Psalm is the greatest song of hope the world has ever sung, and if you sing it well, it will change your life.
I believe in the 23rd Psalm not only because I see its truth, but because through its truth I see everything else.