"It was like watching someone else's life," Taylor says.
It was June of 2006 when Taylor's husband, Jonathan, died of a heart attack at age 52. They'd been married for 12 years, and though both had been raised in church, she could only remember a handful of times when they'd attended worship services together.
"And there I was on a Tuesday morning, sitting in the pew of his home church (in Sylacauga), the one he'd gone to as a child," Taylor says. "I was so lost. I still expected to look over and see him beside me."
Then, during the graveside service, the pastor, an older man whom Taylor had met once, began to recite the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
"It was the first time I felt that he was speaking to me," Taylor says, her voice cracking with emotion. "Those words were so moving, so touching. I felt my heart swell."
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will 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 mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
When the service was over, Taylor slowly picked up the pieces of her life. She still finds comfort in that singular verse.
"But I don't associate it with death," she says. "I associate it with God's love. I know that no matter what, God is watching over me … over all of us."
The most familiar verse
Of the 150 psalms in the Old Testament — which include laments, meditations, prayers, songs of praise and songs of thanks — it is the 23rd that is by far the most familiar.
With its stark and beautiful language, it is obvious why this soothing metaphor of God as a shepherd though uncertain realms resonates so deeply, says Rabbi Irving Bloom of Temple Beth El in Anniston.
"It's the human heart expressing its deepest emotions," he says. "It's the heart expressing its trust and faith in God, and there's no need for fear because of that faith and trust in God."
The entire book of Psalms is unique to the rest of the Bible, Bloom says.
"In the earlier books, it is God or the prophets addressing Israel as to what Israel is to do," he says. "But in Psalms, it's Israel that is doing the speaking, addressing itself to God."
Psalms is known as the "hymn book of Israel." Many scholars contend that the Psalms are the religion of the Old Testament internalized in the heart and life of the believer.
And yet it is the 23rd Psalm specifically that has fallen into popular usage. Perhaps one reason is that in such a short passage it seems to encapsulate what people of faith are seeking — protection and guidance. Plus, its two prevailing themes — that of the gentle shepherd and the looming threat of death — create images that most people of faith can relate to, says Nancy deClaisse-Walford, professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at Mercer University in Atlanta.
"It's identified as a psalm of trust, evoking the idea that God is going to take care of us like as shepherd with his flock and that God will provide us with whatever we may need," she says. "It's just a very comfortable psalm, where many psalms aren't."
Of the 150 psalms, most are laments, cried out to God in times of great stress, oppression and illness. It is no coincidence that the 23rd Psalm follows the 22nd, which opens with, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Essentially, the 23rd Psalm completes this lament by creating a sense of trust. deClaisse-Walford suggests that the 22nd Psalm be read as a companion to the 23rd.
"Individually they are beautiful," she says. "And throughout history they have been used in a variety of contexts to stand alone. But we have 150 psalms and they are in a particular order for a reason."
The book was created by a community of faith to move from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, from laments through trust and finally to praise, she says. "It reflects this cycle of working through pain and sorrow, realizing we can trust in God and then be able to enter the sanctuary of praise as a community."
A fresh look at 23
The 23rd Psalm wasn't always the turn-to passage read at funerals.
"There was a time when the 23rd Psalm was just a plain old psalm," deClaisse-Walford says. "It really wasn't until the 20th century that its popularity grew."
The 23rd Psalm wasn't a suggested reading for Methodist funerals until 1916 — before which it was Psalms 90 and 39 — and it wasn't added to the American Book of Common Prayer for funerals until 1979.
"It didn't become popular because of shrewd intellectual analysis," says Rev. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Georgia Theological Seminary, "but rather because it resonates simply and emotionally for people, especially those who are not familiar with the Bible. It's very straightforward."
But that doesn't mean the 23rd Psalm is void of depth. Lamar Hahn, who, along with his wife, Devora, serves as pastor for Experience Worship Center in Oxford, recently led a six-week program focusing on the 23rd Psalm, titled "23: A Fresh Look at an Old Psalm."
"We wanted to take the 23rd Psalm out of the funeral setting," Hahn says. "That's not why it was written. It was written about life."
Though he sees nothing wrong with familiarity, Hahn was quick to remind his congregation that, while knowing the words was important, understanding them was crucial.
"We've all read and seen it so many times that it no longer communicates the same message," he says. "We know the words but have lost their meanings. It's a beautiful passage and deserves a fresh look."