Colca Canyon in Perú was long believed to be the deepest in the country, and by virtue of that simple fact it became the most visited. In 2006 we had the privilege of travelling the rocky road in the altitude to see the canyon, with El Condor Pasa being a key vantage point to watch as condors caught the thermals and rose in the warming morning air. The fame of the canyon was, however, misplaced. The deepest canyon is actually in the same vicinity, a short journey away. The reputation and popularity of Colca has detracted from the fame which rightly belongs to another, leaving it a less visited and appreciated place.
Reading Psalm 23 can carry similar sentiments. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ has become one of the most famous biblical phrases in the world; recited in times of need by those who have never weighed the word ‘Lord’ or submitted to his shepherding care, and adorning the walls of countless homes with anachronistic pictures of verdant European pastures. As a result the rest of this amazing Psalm has become under-appreciated, a kind of run-off area for the sheer velocity of verse 1. This is a tremendous shame, as Psalm 23 uses a potent combination of metaphors, not just that of shepherd and sheep , and its net blessing is much greater than its renowned opening couplet.
Recently I have been meditating on a lesser-quoted phrase from the Psalm – ‘He restores my soul’. As a young man I often heard people preach on Psalm 23:1 using a very effective rhetorical device. They would take each word of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and vary the emphasis they placed on each word to draw out its full comfort. I’ve been thinking about what would happen if we did the same with v3, weighting its words with enough variety to really feel their meaning. The result has been a blessing to my own heart:
He restores my soul: the sheer wonder of Psalm 23 is that the ministry which is taking place, the service which is described, is not from creature to creator, but vice versa. This is a Psalm which speaks of the ways in which God tends to his people, the ways in which he personally and powerfully and tenderly nurtures and cares for them. He shepherds them, he pastures them, he guards them he feeds them, he homes them forever – the protagonist is God, our place in the Psalm is only ever spoken of in the passive voice. God ministers to the needs of his people – think about that for just a moment, it really is a truly humbling thought.
He restores my soul: running parallel to who is doing the ministering in Psalm 23, is the nature of the ministry exercised. It is a ministry of restoration, of inward revival, of the recalibration of hope, of binding up what is wounded, and making whole what is broken. God restores the ragged edges and the ruined aspirations, God involves himself with the tangled mess that our lives can so easily end up in.
Sometimes that restoration takes place when we can take time to retreat and regroup (I write this article from the vantage point of sabbatical leave), and at others he does his restoring work in the midst of battle, the bitterness and pain of the path which he sets himself to shepherd us through. When David and his kinsmen were bereft of their wives and children by raiding parties, his compatriots considered stoning him, ‘but David found strength in the LORD his God’ (1Samuel 30:6). When Absalom conducted his ill begotten coup in Jerusalem, David and his entourage had to flee for their lives. But in the midst of this familial and political meltdown we read ‘the king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted. And there he refreshed himself’ (2Samuel 16:14). Restoration can be experienced in the ordered world of rest or in the disordered world of wrestling – the constant is that the Lord works in us in this way.
He restores my soul: all of this would be amazing enough if we read it in the biography of a biblical character, or a key figure in church history, but the singers of this Psalm could not just proclaim this truth publicly, they could savour it personally. God’s restorative work is deeply personal and bespoke, he knows the condition of the soul of each of his people, he knows their burdens, he knows their complexities and vexations, he knows their key issues and preoccupations, and he ministers to them intimately. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the effect which the Russian Tsar’s passing by his troops had on their morale. But our King does not just pass us by, waving general blessing in our direction – he probes our hearts, and weighs our burdens, and shepherds our souls.
He restores my soul: and it is chiefly the soul which he works in. God’s care of us may do little for the external conditions of our lives in the immediate term, but it works profoundly in the internal workings of who we are. God ministers to our souls, to the depths of our identities, to the core of our whole image-bearing humanity, he works there decisively and incisively. God knows the anatomy of our deepest levels of conscious and unconscious existence, he reconstructs us and administers balm which arms us for whatever conflicts might continue to assail us.
No matter the emphasis we lay, what emerges here is a compelling picture of the transcendent covenant Lord, condescending to care for the souls of men in all of their extremity. As Christian believers this care is made all the more tangible by virtue of the incarnation – the Good Shepherd not only redeeming our souls but continually restoring our souls, until all is finally and fully restored in glory. Little wonder that Paul could say, ‘outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day’ (2Cor4:16).