What the Psalmist Meant
In a new book, best-selling author Harold Kushner offers a line-by-line interpretation of the 23rd Psalm.
BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips
Your book comes out at a time when the 23rd Psalm might be on a lot of people's minds, because of the second anniversary of September 11.
That's not a coincidence. The book was prompted by 9/11 two years ago, when in the wake of the attack, everybody from my next-door neighbor to Tom Brokaw was asking me, How could God let this happen? The answer I found myself giving was that God's promise was never that life would be fair. God's promise was that when we have to confront the unfairness of life, we will be able to handle it because we won't do it alone--He'll be with us.
After I'd said that a couple of times, I realized that's the 23rd Psalm. "I will fear no evil for thou art with me."
Out of all the psalms, do you think people turned especially to the 23rd after 9/11?
I don't know what happened after 9/11, but I know that for the thirty years I was a congregational rabbi, I always used it at funerals, at memorial services, at unveilings. It has this magical power to comfort people. I don't know how many people turned to it personally privately, but I suspect it was used at a lot of funerals and memorial services in the wake of 9/11, Christian and Jewish alike.
Often tragedies like September 11th or the death of a family member make people lose faith in God. How can this psalm help them?
Sometimes people lose faith. But sometimes people lose faith in a certain childish conception of God and acquire a more mature conception of God. Paul Tillich once said, "When I was 17 I believed in God. Now that I'm 70 I still believe in God, but not the same God." A naïve conception of God is a God who is always there to protect us. We replace it with a more realistic understanding of a God who is there to help us through the difficult times in our lives.
Notice the psalmist doesn't say, "I will fear no evil because nothing bad ever happens in the world." He says, "I will fear no evil because it doesn't scare me because God is with me."
Is the central theme of the psalm that we are never abandoned by God?
Yes. The central theme is that the experience of going through the valley of the shadow teaches the psalmist what God is really about, and he wants to share that with us. He changes from an almost paternalistic understanding of God, almost a parent-child relationship, to a genuine relationship with God.