Commentary by Dr Noel Donnelly on Ps 22 for the Feast of Christ the King
Perhaps Psalm 22, The Lord’s My Shepherd, is so popular because it is personal. The Lord is MY shepherd. At the core of the psalm is the phrase “with me” in verse 4; “with your crook and your staff to give me comfort”, even in the darkest of valleys! In Scotland we know the phrase, “I’m with you, Jimmy!” Psalm 22 says, “Lord is with you, Jimmy or Ellen or whoever you are. A lovely greeting anywhere, especially at the beginning of a church service.
With regard to its structure, the whole psalm falls into two sections, with its two metaphors of the Lord as guiding shepherd in verses 1-4, and as welcoming host at the table for verses 5-6. There’s also an interesting shift from the third person “he” to the second person “you”: he gives repose, he guides, he revives in verse 1-4, and that becomes “you prepare a banquet with an overflowing cup, you anoint with oil”. The psalm becomes more personal as it develops.
The ending reminds me of Francis Thomson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven: “I fled him down the nights and down the days, I fled him down the arches of the years, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind …” The psalmist cries out about the goodness and steadfast love that hounds him or her. And so, finally, that tenacity of God’s love is appreciated as protecting, providing food, and path-finding. Verse 5 then says, “In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell”. The Hebrew word used here means not only “dwell” but “return again and again”. The wandering sheep needs to return frequently to the Lord’s house, for sustenance and renewed vitality.
The psalm occurs in the church’s liturgy on the feast of Christ the King, where it bridges nicely the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel and the Gospel. Ezekiel speaks of the faithful caring shepherd seeking the lost and bandaging the wounded, and the Gospel from Matthew which has Jesus as Shepherd King, judging between the sheep who are carers and the selfish goats.
We surely long to hear those words, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, for I was hungry and thirsty and naked and you cared for me!” That’s up to us!
Psalm 22: words (c) The Grail, England; music (c) Gerry Fitzpatrick, St Mungo Music. Recorded by Grace Buckley