This is the third in a series on Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. – Psalm 23 (RSV)
It is not uncommon for us to hear allusions to or even direct quotes of scripture in popular culture across all genres. Sometimes, the biblical references aren’t obvious. U2’s “End of the World” is written from Judas’ point of view on Maundy Thursday: “In the garden I was playing the tart; I kissed your lips and broke your heart.” Other times, the biblical references are applied to a different situation, such as in Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones.” She quotes Jesus about “gain[ing] the whole world for the price of your soul,” but applies it to her ex-boyfriend who chose fame over their relationship.
When Psalm 23 is referenced, we may immediately think of verse one: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. However, the most common cultural reference is made to the opening line of verse four: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Often, when we hear these words in music and movies, it is during times of trial or before death. They are spoken as words of comfort; a reminder that though death may be imminent, hope remains. Often, but not always. Not always, because the remainder of the verse
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
often isn’t included in popular culture, unless the entire psalm is being recited. This suggests to me, that times of fear and suffering are a more widely shared human experience than having a source of comfort and protection in the midst of it.
Most people I know, even if they aren’t religious, generally expect things to turn out OK. While we have suffered, we haven’t spent a large part of our life in the midst of death and evil. It is rare that we would spit God’s words back to God declaring that they are lies.
While this may come from a place of deep faith, I also believe a significant factor in our comfort in God as our shepherd is because we live in a place of privilege. In our life, we are more familiar with green pastures and still waters than valley of death and evil. We have not lived life faced with unending famine or disease. We haven’t encountered violence on a regular basis. But this isn’t true for a significant number of people. As a result, others may not receive Psalm 23 in the same way as we do.
Tupac Shakur’s song, “So Many Tears” (note: explicit lyrics) seems to open with words of hope:
I shall not fear no man but God
Though I walk through the valley of death
I shed so many tears
If I should die before I wake
Please God, walk with me
Grab [me] and take me to Heaven
However, as the song continues, there is very little hope.
Back in elementary, I thrived on misery
Left me alone, I grew up amongst a dyin’ breed
Inside my mind, couldn’t find a place to rest
Until I got that Thug Life tatted on my chest
In the song, Tupac reviews the suffering in his life, his struggle with drugs and alcohol, and all the people he has seen die. Born into the valley of death, he hasn’t seen any way out. He is alone and there is no comfort. The only hope available to him will come with his death, which he assumes is imminent. But even so, he recognizes that there has been so much sin in his life, even death doesn’t guarantee an escape.
His feelings of hopelessness are echoed in Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise”:
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life, and realize there’s nothin’ left
Keep spendin’ most our lives livin’ in the gangsta’s paradise
Tell me why are we so blind to see
That the ones we hurt are you and me?
Our understanding of the shepherd-sheep relationship is shaped by passages like Psalm 23. Without the biblical context, the shepherd-sheep relationship is not one of mutual love. David Clines, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, says
We all know that in reality shepherds do not keep sheep for the sake of the sheep, as acts of altruism; they keep sheep for wool and for milk, indeed, but ultimately and usually for slaughter…. At the end of the poem, the sheep arrives at the “house of the Lord,” the temple. Here the aspect of death lies just beneath the surface; for everyone knows that there is only one reason why sheep go to the temple.
Knut Heim expands further saying, “the [23rd] psalm propagates passive acceptance of injustice, oppression, and exploitation. People with such suspicions see organized religion either as the oppressor or as complicit with the oppressors. 
In other words, maybe we think the shepherd is comforting us in the valley of the shadow of death, but others will tell us it’s only because the shepherd’s saving us for the slaughterhouse. And we don’t need to leave the Bible to think such things. Psalm 23 is not the only time the shepherd-sheep relationship is mentioned.
But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over
like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.
No, God, it’s because of you
that we are getting killed every day—
it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. – Psalm 44:9-12, 22 (CEB).
God, why have you abandoned us forever?
Why does your anger smolder
at the sheep of your own pasture? – Psalm 74:1 (CEB)
Even though Tupac Shakur and Coolio may have heard the same words in church we have, experience has shown them that they are alone in the valley of death. Life has proven the words of Psalms 44 and 74 truer than those of Psalm 23: the end of the road is not the shepherd’s house but the slaughterhouse.
For many, the shepherd’s rod and staff don’t provide safety. Making it through the valley of the shadow of death — or at least making it a little longer — is up to them and their own strength, which they may find in gangs and guns. We blame them for the choices they make, not admitting that they didn’t have the choices we did.
Reading Psalm 23 from these different vantage points is not meant to cause us to doubt God’s love for us. A broader reading of Psalm 23 doesn’t negate our God-shepherd experience but creates room to understand that not everyone shares it. As we learn about the experiences and realities of life that are not our own, of choices we never had to make, we are offered an opportunity to love better.As we learn about the experiences and realities of life that are not our own, of choices we never had to make, we are offered an opportunity to love better. #TheLordIsMyShepherd #Psalm 23 #WhitePrivilege #love Click To Tweet
There are so many things in life that we may take as a given. I’m a White, educated, financially secure woman who lives in a low crime community. I have a family and strong support network. I was born into green pastures and have confidence I will not be abandoned in death valley. I am conditioned to expect that others view life as I do, with the same choices and opportunities.
Until I started doing the research for this worship series, I don’t think it crossed my mind that people didn’t view Psalm 23 as a comfort. Maybe it is meaningless for someone who doesn’t believe in God, but not that they could hear these words as proof that God excludes them from the promises we feel assured.
This new understanding should cause me to question other things that might not cross my mind. What else do I take as the only way to see something? Where do I judge others based on the facts of my life rather than theirs? What assumptions do I make about the world, our laws, our institutions that stand in direct opposition to others’ lived experiences? How might my assumptions support my indifference, protecting my privilege and perpetuating inequality?
You might not be familiar with Tupac Shakur’s music, but most of us have heard the word thug. In the late 20th century, during the rise of mass incarceration, the word thug took on a racialized meaning. Thug became associated with Black people in urban communities who were assumed to be involved in criminal activities (whether they were or not). It is considered a racial slur.
If you google images of Tupac, you’ll see thug life tattooed on his stomach. Many White people associate thug life with rap music. This might be true, but not in the way we think.
In an interview, Tupac explained that “thug life” was an acronym meaning “The Hate U Give Little Infants [Blanks] Everybody.”
Tupac believed children are our future. He felt that we, as a society, throw that future away when we fill “children’s minds with hate, raising them in an oppressive political system, and asking them to accept horrendous things like racism, sexism, and police brutality, [this] has a snowball effect, which eventually destroys life for everyone, even the oppressors.”
Today, in many Black communities, thug life has become a statement representing the struggles of Black people and their ability to succeed against all obstacles. Tupac’s music, and that of many other rappers, reflect this.
We hear the words of Psalm 23 as a promise, but others hear it as proof of a system of oppression. We hear the words thug and thug life as something negative — Black and criminal — but others hear these words as a reminder of the injustice in the world, the need for change, and perseverance in hope.
I believe the words of Psalm 23; however, I, we, should not let our faith blind us to the reality that there are many who not only feel alone in this valley but have lived their whole life there, with little hope of having their cup overflow with anything but evil.
In these sacred words of consolation and promise, may we recognize the privilege that also contributes to our comfort. May we not judge or dismiss the many who were born into concrete landscapes and dry riverbeds.
For those of us who were born near the green pastures and still waters, may we understand that others were born in the valley. We will never take the place of God, but may we work to ensure that God’s promises in Psalm 23 are true for everyone. Amen.
Holy God, we give you thanks for the comfort you provide in your Word and how we have experienced it in our lives. But in our thanksgiving, let us be aware that for many, the valley is deeper and the deathly shadows darker than we know. Move our hearts beyond our own consolation to see the pain of others. And while we are not their savior, may we work alongside you to dismantle the structures of injustice that perpetuate their pain. For your Kingdom is not made up of only those who are confident of goodness and mercy but also those who can barely dream of it. Amen.
 Heim, Knut M., “Psalm 23 in the Age of the Wolf,” Christianity Today, January/February 2016.
 Psalm 44:9-12, 22 (CEB).
 Psalm 74:1 (CEB).