James Stockdale was a POW in Vietnam, later a Naval officer. In Jim Collin’s best-selling, business book, “From Good to Great,” Stockdale teaches that those who survived the uncertainty and torture of captivity lived a paradox: seeing reality squarely and yet believing that all would end well. The most optimistic, he warns, crumbled. When the date of an anticipated release came and went they lost all hope. Optimism is needed, Collin’s will write for business leaders, but an optimism that exists alongside assessing immediate dangers.
The Stockdale paradox is at the center of Psalm 23, literally the fourth of six verses, with the image of a banquet before enemies. We are challenged to simultaneously feel gratitude for what we have and acknowledge that we live with vulnerability. Such a belief in core goodness is a matter of disposition, intuition, and is a choice, as is all faith.
Psalm 23 is a journey toward greater spiritual maturity. Its opening lines are so comforting: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God leads me to green pastures and alongside flowing waters.” The colors of green and blue are calming, as the image of security of a caring shepherd. For a shepherd each lamb literally counts. We are reminded that for God we are each an individual and God shelters us. And yet, there is a passivity in seeing ourselves as only a lamb. The Psalm moves the reader toward greater adulthood with that meal before enemies. And concludes on an even higher plane of longing, “to find Sabbath in the Home of the Lord.” Sabbath and home evoke inner peace.
Psalm 23 is the most widely-known chapter of Hebrew Scripture. We recite this Psalm at graveside, seeking to find and give comfort to a mourner. In Jewish communities, before eating of bread, Jews recited the entire Psalm as a statement of gratitude. Verses of Psalm 23 were put to music by diverse artists: Bach, Dvorak, Schubert, Leonard Bernstein, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, The Grateful Dead, Judy Collins, Bobby McFerrin, and Tupac Shakur.
Psalm 23 is subtle in its artistry, including the choice of images and words. Deeply personal, marked by the use of the first person seventeen times, the Psalm is not just about the Psalter, but each of our life journeys.