December 20, 2006

The Wounded Soldier's Song

This Monday I attended an ordination liturgy at which Bishop George Packard was the preacher. He mentioned, among other things, the fact that the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict has produced a high incidence of head injuries resulting from concussion as a result of those roadside bombs we keep hearing about with all too much regularity. This reminded me of a project I’ve had on hold for about a decade, ever since studying Hebrew poetry with Dr Richard Corney at GTS. As we were reading the twenty-third Psalm, it struck me that the vocabulary had at least as many military overtones as pastoral ones. Admittedly, this Psalm has a lot going on: there are also Messianic allusions to the rod and staff, the anointing, and the kingly meal in the presence of defeated enemies.

But the line that has always stuck in my mind is the one with the image of a leader laying hands on the head of a wounded soldier — dare I say, “A little touch of Harry in the night.” In any case, here is my first effort at trying to do justice to this “note” in this very rich Psalm, followed by a few critical comments on why I made some of the choices I did.

This is an offering for all the wounded, for all the casualties. May wars soon cease in all the world, and may our only pursuers be goodness and mercy, all the days of our life.

The Wounded Soldier’s Song
a Psalm of David

1. The LORD is my commander,
therefore I lack nothing.

2. In a green field he causes me
to pitch my camp, resting by calm waters.

3. He restores my life;
he leads me on the right track on account of his Name.

4. Even deployed in shadowlands, I fear no evil,
for you are with me; your baton and your staff give me courage.

5. You set up the mess-tent before me in the midst of hostilities;
you salve my head with ointment, and my cup can hold no more.

6. From now on my only pursuers will be Goodness and Mercy;
and I will furlough for ever in the house of the LORD.


1. commander: (shepherd — noun and verb — is used as a metaphor for a leader; David himself at 2 Samuel 5:2, Isaiah 44:28 = Cyrus!)

2: pitch my camp / resting (menuha is a resting place for the wandering Israelites at Numbers 10:33, and as “quartermaster” at Jeremiah 51:59) - this is a very “dense” verse

3: life: nephesh is the whole self, including the physical body
track: the ruts of wagon wheels

4. deployed: to “go” as one led.
shadowlands: the dark valley; many scholars reject the connection with “death” but this is my compromise
baton: (as in Judges 5:14, the marshal’s staff)

5. the mess-tent: shulhan is “table” but recognizing the (false) Arabic cognate for “a leather unrolled to form a place to gather for meals in the rough,” the sense of a mess-tent is resonant, and I can’t resist it
hostilities: “those hostile to me”

6. an ironic usage — from now on (for all my life) / pursuers — the sense is that the only “hostile pursuit” will be by Goodness and Mercy — no more enemies!
furlough: w’shavti b’beit adonai = I will return in the house of the Lord; one is tempted to say “demobilized” or “discharged” — but the sense of an “endless leave” strikes the note I’m seeking.

— Tobias Haller BSG


Jared Cramer said...

this is an intriguing translation, i wish i had my hebrew bible with me!

Ann said...

Here is Nathan Nettleton at Laughing Bird:
ou, LORD, are my guide in the wilderness;
........there is nothing more I could need.

You set up camp in places of beauty and shelter; lead the way on secluded tracks
................beside creeks of cool clean water.
I feel my spirit breathing freely again;
........your reputation puts me at ease;
................I leave the navigating to you, and follow.

Even if we hike through a perilous valley,
........where crows keep a menacing watch,
................fear will still not get the better of me.
As long as I stick with you
........I know I?ll make the distance;
with a knife and a bit of rope seem able to tackle any challenge.

You cook up a feast for me, those who wanted to feed on me watch, frustrated.
You pamper me like an honoured guest
........and constantly top up my glass.

My life feels charmed, each and every day.
........Love, mercy and all good things
................keep falling into my lap.

I?m with you for life, LORD,
........where you go, I?ll go;
................where you live, I?ll live.

©2001 Nathan Nettleton

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Jared, and Ann. I'd not seen Nathan Nettleton's version, but it looks like I'm thinking along the same lines he is.

One thing I neglected to say in my original posting: part of what led me to wanting to look at Psalm 23 as a soldier's rather than as a shepherd's song is the double-tradition of just who David himself was. Scholars have long noted that there are apparently (at least) two story lines woven together in 1 Samuel: one with David as the young son of Jesse, keeping the sheep, the other with David as already a young soldier (or at least armor bearer) in Saul's service. The redactors clearly wanted to keep both traditions, but the seams sometimes show. In any case, I think looking at the David-as-soldier leads us in some interesting directions, and this is one of them!

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Your rendering appeals to me as a peace-minded combat veteran: thanks.

Here from SarahLaughed, BTW.