Amazing grace: the gospel in Psalm 23

Inspired by Psalm 23.5 – ‘You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me’ – Bible Society is encouraging churches to host banquets for those who might have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This is one of a series of articles reflecting on the psalm.

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘banquet’? Glittering chandeliers, golden goblets full of wine, a table groaning under the weight of delicious delicacies, people decked out in their finest clothes reclining on chaises longues and feasting to their hearts’ content? Entertainment, ceremony and celebration with no expense spared?

Having used one kind of familiar imagery at the beginning of Psalm 23 – describing the LORD as a shepherd to acknowledge his care, protection and guidance – David shifts to another familiar picture to illustrate the LORD as loving and generous host to his people.

The reference to a banquet would have had many connotations for people in the ancient Near East. Banquets or feasts were extremely important cultural practices with a number of purposes – more often than not, framed in a religious context and having to do with group identity. People sacrificed to their gods at banquets – a group act, making a public performance and expression of their religion.

And this wasn’t just a pagan concept. Reading from the Old Testament about the sacrificial system and the feasts commanded by God for his people to observe, we can see the role of feasts in gathering the people of God to acknowledge and honour him together whilst also being blessed as they participate.

Feasts were also social and political events where the wines and foods served, the guest list, the calibre of entertainment and the quality of discussion directly related to the status, power and influence of the host. In post-meal high spirits, people would debate, plot, boast or simply revel together. It was an opportunity to network and a source of pride.

I think, though, we can discard the idea that the banquet in Psalm 23 is about sacrificing to God because the LORD himself is the host. And we can certainly discard the idea that God hosts the banquet to boast before us or curry favour and gain influence, as if he could ever need anything from us.

No – in Psalm 23, David means to put the spotlight on something mind-blowing about the nature of God and his love and care for us. He invites us to see God as our generous host and express awe and gratitude along with him as he directly addresses God, ‘You prepare a banquet for me …’ (verse 5). We could never earn a place at his table, yet he invites us and gives us access to the fullness of the feast – all his goodness and mercy.

If you have a distant and austere, ‘glass of water, crust of bread’ idea of God’s provision for his people, this psalm invites you to ditch it. The picture of God as the generous and attentive host of a lavish banquet – giving the warmest possible welcome to his guests, cherishing and honouring them publicly, enjoying their presence – is designed to display the above-and-beyond grace, love and provision of God.

There will be many in our communities right now who are struggling to grasp the reality of God’s amazing love and personal care for them. How can we help to bring this picture to life for them so they see what God is really like and their invitation to be part of his family? How can we help them to know that God waits to personally welcome them, escort them to their seat at the banquet and enjoy it with them, and that ultimately, no circumstance or enemy can prevent them from experiencing his love and hospitality?

It's our prayer that the Psalm 23 Banquet will become a movement sweeping England and Wales – for more about this, see our website. We're working with Christians against Poverty and Welcome Churches to embody the psalm in our churches and communities.

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