My God : owning and being owned in the Psalms

Longing and belonging
psalmist and God's face
me and my God

O God, you are my God, for you I long, sings the psalmist in Psalm 62/63, most beautiful of the yearning psalms.   ‘My Lord’ or ‘my God’ is  a very frequent way for him to address the Almighty.   It is a distinct and deliberate declaration : ‘I say, ‘You are my God” (Ps 30/31).  Sometimes God is labelled as belonging to someone else, nearly always Jacob (e.g. Pss 113/114 and 145) but overwhelmingly often the psalmist refers to God just with a direct possessive.   And we’re still doing it; look at the words of many hymns (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder;  My God loves me;  My God, accept my heart this day, and so on and on).

What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

But what is the meaning of the possessive in this context?   To jeer at someone and ask ‘Where is your God?’ is hurtful and insulting (Ps 41/42), described as ‘taunts’.  Is it adding to the insult by implying that God is only one among many, that everyone has their own and this one of yours has no power, or is it more the implication that this one mighty God that we know about will not intervene?   What about the danger of reducing God down to only human size? 

In some cultures with multiple gods, there are little gods as well as big ones.  There were small family-specific gods, the lares and penates, in a Roman household, and indeed that is a useful label for particularly prized possessions, indicating a value to the owner that is not necessarily monetary.  We have some lares in our house, a couple of particular much-loved pictures,  the wooden stork in the stairwell, a brass snake, and so on.  (That last one sounds positively biblical, but it’s Indian and belonged to my mother’s family.)  

But now this is God that we are talking about.  We know that the psalmist is well aware of the difference in scale (and everything else) between him and God (‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ (Pss 8 and 143/144)), but he keeps claiming God in the way he addresses him. What does it mean, ‘my’ God?

Abel and Abraham
making sacrifices to seal the bargain
If x then y

Obviously the relationship between God and man is not one of equals, but this is precisely how God himself describes it when he makes covenants in the Old Testament.  ‘They will be my people, and I will be their God’ – there are so many instances of this that I am simply attaching a link here to a list of them, including St Paul’s references to them in his Epistles.  The concept is of a reciprocal duty : humans will do sacrifices (in the early days) and then move on to thanksgiving and virtue, as God tries to explain that these mean more to him than dead sheep and goats (cf. Ps 49/50).  The relationship is drawn as a legal agreement or covenant, and it is always ratified by a sacrifice. 

The New Testament changes the basic rules, and we certainly don’t need to do any more blood sacrifices because of Jesus’ once-for-all self-giving, but the idea that the reciprocal agreement is earthed in a sacrifice (and then maintained by a sequence of further sacrifices, like Abraham’s trail of altars on his journeys) goes back to the earliest days of the patriarchs and is consummated rather than simply changed by Jesus.  It’s a long learning process through salvation history and across both Testaments.  Jesus is still trying to pass on the same message when he quotes Hosea 6.6 in Matthew 9.13 : ‘Go and learn what this means,’I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.  But the reward is great; the other half of the bargain is that the Lord promises to be ‘their’ God.

An offer you can’t refuse
Elijah, angel and bread - and a message from God
Angel delivering groceries to Elijah as well as a message

The mutual obligations are all-embracing, but the psalmist is very clear that it is worthwhile.  The Lord’s promise to be the God of his people means protection, a strong right arm fighting on their side, rescue from the pit whenever necessary, an ever-present help in time of trouble, even food and drink when otherwise unavailable (manna and the quails for the Israelites, and supplies for Elijah, in the OT; the feeding of the hungry crowds in the NT), and in the end happiness for ever, though details on the afterlife are wisely never given.  So accepting the deal and asserting reciprocal ownership is a frequent feature of the psalms.  Like Pascal’s wager, the deal is too good to turn down.

I will be so good to you

The balance is crucial, and it lends itself particularly well to the parallelism of the poetry in the psalms.  I claim you as my God, and therefore you have obligations towards me.  Repeatedly we see the Lord being put on one side in the balance and on the other side we might have ‘the poor’ or ‘the blind’, ‘widows and orphans’ or ‘the just’; sometimes (as in a battle) God holds the mid-line between the forces of evil  and ‘those who fear the Lord’,  and he is total protection.   So we have in Ps 99/100: He made us, we belong to him, / we are his people, the sheep of his flock (v.3).  Ps 139/140 : I have said to the Lord : ‘You are my God.’/ Lord, hear the cry of my appeal!   Ps 85/86 : You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord.   Ps 94/95 : Let us kneel before the God who made us / for he is our God and we / the people who belong to his pasture / the flock that is led by his hand.  Whether we are sheep or people, we have a duty to God, and his corresponding duty is to take care of us, because we belong to him.

Shepherds and sheep
I like the little black sheep
He, the Lord, is our God (Ps 104/105)

Because the psalms are so personal, there are more references to ‘my God’ than to ‘our God’, but the plural possessive is fairly common too.  ‘My God’ is not a claim to exclusivity.  He actually defines the group.  This is why it is so significant when Ruth says to Naomi, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God'(Ruth 1.16).  She is choosing to change all her previous allegiances to become an integral part of her mother-in-law’s tribe, accepting every article of faith as her own.  And the lonely foreign widow is taken into the group and becomes one of the Christ’s ancestors; her God is indeed the same God.

God’s presence and his very self

One of the features that makes God different from all the other gods that the Israelites come across is that he is with his people, even while they are still nomadic.  He does not belong to only one place, like other gods, because his place is to be at their side.  They take the Ark of the Covenant with them on their wanderings, not because they think the Lord is actually in the box, but because the tablets of the Law remind them that he is always there with them in some form, visible (pillar of fire, pillar of cloud) or invisible (a still small voice).  In the New Testament, under the New Covenant, even the name insists on this : Emmanuel, God-with-us.  This is one of the strongest pillars on which the psalmist’s relation to God rests.  You are my God because you are here with me, wherever I am.

Thou the Ocean, I the billow
light and dark

It does imply ownership, but a reciprocal ownership, and it’s not so much a grammatical possessive as more of an ethic dative.  You are God for me, that is the crucial basis of our relationship. It is like when Julian of Norwich describes Jesus saying to her ‘I am the ground of thy beseeching’, or like the psalm which says ‘In your light, we see light’ (Ps 35/36), or like G.M. Hopkins’ poem comparing Our Lady to the air we breathe (‘Be thou then, O thou dear /Mother, my atmosphere).  It is less an assertion of ownership and more an expression of love, on both sides.

You were made for me

This is in fact how we often use ‘my’, claiming someone or something because they are particularly dear to us.  My husband, my mother, my daughter, my son, my friend, my home, my country.  It defines the relationship but also indicates how strong the feeling is.  There is a lot of this in the psalms.  God doesn’t need telling or reminding, but it is reassuring for us to affirm the relationship, and it is an expression of love.   You can say ‘darling’, and you can say ‘my darling’; the feeling and the message are subtly different.

Titles and Thomas
Christ preaching about God
A tender moment : doubt no longer

The titles for God are often given as a doublet in the psalms.   ‘O Lord our God’, twice in Ps 8, ‘O Lord my God’ in Ps 29/30 and Ps 39/40, even a triple in Ps 83/84 : ‘Lord of hosts, my King and my God’.         There are many examples.  ‘My king and my God’ also occurs in Pss 5 and 43/44 and elsewhere; ‘the Lord my (or your) God’ is frequent.  But we have to wait for the apostle Thomas in the New Testament for ‘My Lord and my God’.  I don’t know whether this is because the various translators along the way wanted to keep this as something special, or whether it’s unique to the (Greek) gospel as distinct from the (Hebrew) psalms, but either way we can and do see here a wonderful and unique expression of love and faith where the effect is world-changing but also intimate.  This is why it is one of the Eucharistic Acclamations in Ireland, but unfortunately not for the rest of us.  I’ve written tunes for all the others, but I haven’t managed this one yet.  It’s daunting;  five short words which mean so much.  The double possessive does not mean ‘You belong to me and to no one else’.  It means the same as the line in Amazing Grace : [I] was blind but now I see.  It means everything.


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Sheep are cute, but why are we ‘sheep’?

The Lord is my shepherd (again)

The twenty-third psalm is up again for next Sunday, another slightly different version. I’ve mentioned before how our idea of the Shepherd is different from Jesus’ (and from any Jewish reading of the psalm, and it was theirs long before it was also ours), but this time I want to look at the sheep.  In the Psalms, God is the shepherd and we are the sheep.

Illumination of sheep and shepherds
orderly sheep for once

Sheep are cute, sheep are beaut

My title is from a children’s song by the Australian musician Don Spencer.  We were given a cassette when the children were little and we were doing a lot of car journeys.  I think the whole family can still sing it word-perfect.  In fact, the real title of the song is Bob the Kelpie, because it’s actually about the sheepdog, and if we’d had YouTube in those days, I’m sure the children would have adored the film, although I find it slightly surreal with the singer lounging in a doorway with his guitar while the hard work of shearing goes on inside the shed.

We call it ‘Sheep are cute sheep are beaut’, not just because it’s the first line, has a catchy tune or because it’s an audacious rhyme (we love those).  Mainly  I think it sticks in the mind  because those aren’t the obvious adjectives anyone would use about sheep.  Lambs are cute and cuddly (in cartoons and at a distance).  I particularly like the way their tails rotate when they feed (babies can only grunt and knead with their fists in similar circumstances).  Adult sheep however are not the most attractive of animals.

Features of adult sheep

There are more human sheep than real mountain sheep in the psalms, by a small margin.  Why are we so often described as sheep?  In the rest of the Old Testament,  it’s the standard image to describe the relationship between God and his people.  Sheep aren’t stupid, by any means; you only have to look at one to see the crafty intelligence in its eyes; but they are wilful and wayward.  They need a shepherd to give them any sort of higher purpose and to make them worthwhile.  They can’t even shed their own skin, as a snake can do.  A neglected sheep just gets woolier and woolier, not good for the sheep or for anyone else.  The parallels are easy to draw!

Music demonstrating sheep qualities

All we like sheep have gone astray is one of the best choruses to sing in the whole Messiah, with all the exciting dodging about; and in He shall feed his flock, the difference between unlimited careering around and the order brought by the shepherd is demonstrated clearly by the music in its peaceful linear progression.  As they say to aspiring film directors, show, don’t tell, and Handel is brilliant at this.

No poems about sheep

There are plenty of poems about horses (e.g. The Arab’s farewell to his steed), dogs (e.g. To Flush, my dog), and even cats (e.g. My cat Jeoffry).  There are poems about lambs (Blake springing immediately to mind), but though there are lots of poems where sheep figure as part of the landscape, I can’t think of any where they star, apart from nursery rhymes (Baa baa black sheep, incidentally the first song to be played on a computer) or joke poems.  Sentiment seems to be the usual driver for animal poems, apart from some rare exceptions, and sheep are not sentimental.  Chesterton could maybe have written one as a companion piece to his donkey poem, but he didn’t as far as I know.

When we talk about people being like sheep in a modern context, it is not usually complimentary.  But I think this is because we are no longer an agricultural society.  If you read about what shepherds or farmers think about sheep, a different picture emerges.  For them, they are important and precious, of worth not only monetary.

Sheep virtues

Sheep are patient, tenacious, vegetarian, pacifist and sociable.  They co-operate with each other.  They are so collective that the singular noun is the same as the plural, like fish.  They have some intelligence.  Welsh mountain sheep are bred to learn their own mountain area and do not stray even without walls or fences.  They are defenceless against predators.  They recognise their own shepherd, and they leave the job of fighting to him.  This is one reason why they figure in landscapes : because they demonstrate peace and tranquillity.  If there were a threat, they would all be running away, like the herbivorous dinosaurs in Jurassic Park when a carnivore arrives.

There is a famous and popular picture by Shishkin, entitled Morning in a Pine Forest.  When he painted it, his friend added young bears to it, and it instantly became one of the favourite pictures in the gallery.  The bears give scale and a sort of human touch  (they also make the picture more chocolate-boxy).  My point here is that sheep turn up in so many landscapes for similar reasons, even if they were painted from the beginning rather than added later, and even if they were real sheep that the artist was looking at. Sheep may safely graze and the scene is all set.  And it’s not just pictures.  The Staffordshire potters are using the same shorthand.

Spode Blue Italian dish
I don’t know what the people are doing, but the sheep are safely grazing

Sheep in the mists of time

Animals don’t alter as much and as fast as people do, so I think we can reckon that a flock of sheep in the days of Abel, Jacob, Moses, David and indeed in Jesus’ own time, would have operated in very similar ways.  Even nowadays, the sheep and the people are similar, even if the modern shepherd has access to new technology.

Doodled sheep
This sheep doodle is mediaeval, but could have been drawn yesterday

Sheepdogs vary only by breed around the world, and Welsh collies tend to be gentler than the Georgian shepherd’s dogs, but then the latter might have to cope with wolves and lynxes instead of foxes.  Some shepherds nowadays use quad bikes, but most will still be walking, and the dog is there to save their legs and keep the flock together.

This gives a shepherd a lot of time to think and plenty of fresh air (I’m sure too much sometimes). He or she is usually working in beautiful surroundings, hills and mountains, because sheep flourish there where the grass is not rich enough for cattle.  (But there’s also a flock of sheep that grazes the perimeter at Heathrow, which I find unexpected but delightful.)  There’s one British Member of Parliament who is a part-time shepherd, and you can see the attraction of the contrast between herding sheep and the House of Commons.  More than one shepherd has been a poet.  And David of course, King and psalm writer and composer, was a shepherd in his youth.

Shepherd piping to his flock; angels in the sky
Playing to a captive audience and the dog joining in

The link between shepherds and music is very strong.  Many shepherd crib figures for Christmas will have a pipe of some kind.  Often they have two they can play at once (I’ve seen this in Georgia and Serbia, and it’s very impressive).

Shepherd playing double pipe, another dancing
the sheep aren’t paying much attention, but the shepherds are making music and dancing too

Sometimes it’s a version of bagpipes. The illustrations of shepherds in manuscripts often show them playing and dancing.  Much more unlikely, but great fun, are the pictures of sheep playing musical instruments, and the psalmist has singing sheep in Ps 99/100.

Sheep playing the bagpipes
What tunes would he be playing?

Jesus does it too

Why does Jesus talk about sheep?   Mostly because of the OT references, but also through observation, I think.  When he spends time alone in the desert, when he walks the mountains with the disciples, when he goes off on his own, he would often have come across flocks  and their shepherds.

He uses sheep in parables because everyone would have known what he was talking about.  It is interesting that one psalm (118/119) contains in close proximity a reference to God’s word as a treasure  (‘I take delight in your promise like one who finds a treasure’) and  an appeal for help ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant’.   In the New Testament, we have the parables of the pearl of great price, the treasure found in a field (Matthew 13) and later of the lost single sheep in the flock of ninety-nine (Mtt 18).

In the Old Testament, the great Shepherd is God.  This would have been Jesus’ understanding of Ps 22/23 too.  So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd’, it is indeed a mindblowing claim  for the Jews who are listening to him. It means that he is leader, protector, defender….and God.  But in case we find this too intimidating, he says, ‘I know my own, and my own know me’.  Sheep don’t worry about, or argue with their shepherd.  They trust him, because they know him.  Sometimes they even run off and get themselves lost; but he will find them again, and bring them home.  It’s a very comforting image.

Shepherds with flock in fold
All are safely gathered in

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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