Psalm 23 Commentary2017-11-13T17:55:17+00:00

Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Psalm 23

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Psalm 23 Biblical Commentary:

CONTEXT:

“A Psalm by David.” This is called the superscription. Many psalms include a superscription, which we believe to have been added after the fact by the people putting together the psalm book.

There are two systems for numbering the verses in the Psalms. One system counts the superscription as verse 1. In the other system, the superscription is not numbered. Most modern Bibles use the second numbering system––do not assign a number to the superscription. Thus verse 1 in this instance begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” However, in some Bibles and commentaries the superscription will be verse 1 and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” will be verse 2.

This is one of a number of psalms that include a superscription concerning David. Readers through the centuries have interpreted “A Psalm of David” to mean “A Psalm written by David,” but a number of scholars question that interpretation today. There are a number of reasons for that, including the fact that “several Davidic psalms refer to the ‘temple’ (e.g., 5:7, 27:4; 65:4; 68:29” (Broyles, 28)––but the temple was built by David’s son, Solomon, and was not in existence during David’s lifetime.

Also, the Hebrew word le (usually translated “of” in English translations) is ambiguous. Broyles notes that it could have any one of five meanings that range from authored by David to dedicated to David (Broyles, 27-28).

The issue of Davidic authorship of the psalms is sufficiently complex that I can’t do it justice here. For further study, see Craig C. Broyles, New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms, pages 26-31 and A.A. Anderson, The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms (1-72), pages 43-45.

PSALM 23:1-4. THE LORD AS SHEPHERD

1 Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

3 He restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

“Yahweh (Hebrew: YHWH––Yahweh) is my shepherd” (v. 1a). The word Yahweh appears in the first and last verses of this psalm, forming an inclusio––a literary device used frequently in the Bible to bracket the beginning and the end of a significant passage.

It is not unusual in the Bible to see the Lord likened to a shepherd (Genesis 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 78:71; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; 11-17; Micah 7:14) and the people of Israel as the flock (Psalms 95:7; 100).

It might seem odd that people would regard the Lord as shepherd, given the fact that shepherding was a lowly occupation, involving long hours, hard and dangerous work, and modest pay. However, people respected the attentiveness shown by good shepherds toward their sheep. Sheep were not very smart and, absent good leadership, were inclined to wander away on their own. They were defenseless against predators such as lions or bears. They needed a shepherd to lead them to water and pasture––and to guard them against a host of dangers.

In the New Testament, Jesus referred to himself as “the good shepherd (who) lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:2). The author of the book of Hebrews referred to Jesus as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). Peter refers to him as “the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25)––and “the chief shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4).

The unusual thing about this verse is the phrase, “my shepherd.” That personalizes God’s role as shepherd, bringing it down to the level of the individual person. The only other place that I could find this phrase with this meaning is in Israel’s (Jacob’s) blessing of Joseph, where Israel refers to “the God who has been my shepherd all my life” (Genesis 48:15).

“I shall lack (Hebrew: haser) nothing” (v. 1b). The Hebrew word haser refers to something that is incomplete, insufficient, or empty. Using this same word, Moses spoke of the Israelites’ wilderness journey, saying, “these 40 years Yahweh your God has been with you; you have lacked (haser) nothing” (Deuteronomy 2:7). Even though the Israelites had traveled for so many years through a mostly barren wilderness, God had provided food, water, guidance, and protection––everything they needed. They lacked nothing.

It is only logical that the one whose shepherd is the Lord should lack nothing. For a sheep, everything depends on the shepherd. If the shepherd is capable and committed to the welfare of the sheep, the sheep can expect a good life.

In his thinly veiled criticism of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus contrasted the good shepherd, who would lay down his life for the sheep, and the hireling, who would flee in the face of danger (John 10:11-13).

When I think about good and bad shepherds, I cannot help but think of politicians. As I write this, members of Congress are locked in a power-struggle. They appear to be obsessed with only two things: Their own reelection and defeating the opposing party. Few give priority to the welfare of the nation or the citizenry under their care. It’s a selfish game–– so extreme at this point that the future of the nation is at stake.

Hirelings, thieves, robbers! Those words come from Jesus’ discourse in John 10. In their original context they applied to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but they perfectly describe most senior politicians in this country. God help us!

We see the same kind of rapaciousness in other professions, of course––businesspeople, physicians, lawyers, plumbers, teachers––even pastors. The lust for power, prestige, and money knows no boundaries.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures” (v. 2a). Green pastures provide food to sustain the physical body, but also provide beauty to comfort sustain the soul. One of the shepherd’s most important tasks was searching out green pastures and placid watering holes for the sheep.

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller (who served for many years as a shepherd), says that sheep need four things before they will lie down: Freedom from fear, from friction within the flock, from parasites, and from hunger (Keller, 24). They need a good shepherd to attain these.

While sheep can survive eating dry grass, they will prosper only eating green grass. Not only is green grass tastier and more nutritious, but it also contains moisture to sustain the sheep when water is unavailable.

“He leads me beside still waters” (v. 2b). Water is essential to life––even more so than food. Many animals can survive for weeks without food, but only days without water. When the scientists examine the moon and planets for signs of life, they equate signs of water to signs of life, because water is essential for life as we know it.

Water is a common Biblical metaphor for the satisfaction of spiritual needs:

  • “As a deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants after you, God (Psalm 42:1).
  • “With joy you will draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).
  • God (through the prophet Jeremiah) said, “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters, and cut them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
  • Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).

Sheep prefer “still waters” to rapid mountain streams where the sheep might find footing difficult––and might even be swept away by the swift-running water.

“He restores my soul” (Hebrew: nepes––soul, life) (v. 3a).

The Israelites thought of the person holistically, and would never have divided the person into body and soul, as the Greeks were later to do. They could not have conceived of a soul apart from a body–– or of the soul continuing to live after the body died.

The Israelites used the word nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life––and, by extension, the living creature itself. Therefore, when God breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, “the man became a living being” (nepes) (Genesis 2:7).

Nepes is also associated with blood, because blood is another force necessary for life. Therefore, we have a commandment that says, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life (nepes), and you shall not eat the life (nepes) with the meat” (Deuteronomy 12:23).

We probably don’t think of sheep as having a soul that needs restoring. However, if we translate the Hebrew word nepes to mean life, which is what it meant to the Jewish people, this verse becomes clearer. Like every living creature, sheep periodically find themselves in physical or emotional turmoil, and need their lives restored.

Phillip Keller talks about cast sheep–– sheep that have rolled over on their backs accidentally and have no way to restore their footing (Keller, 48ff.). That condition is likely to be fatal unless the shepherd intervenes. Therefore, shepherds need to keep an accurate count of their sheep. When one is missing, chances are good that it will be helplessly lying on its back. Upon finding the cast sheep, the shepherd must help it get back on its feet, and must carefully support and massage it until the sheep’s numbed muscles are renewed and its life is restored.

We too need our lives restored–– frequently. Life has its ups and downs, and we need the Lord’s guiding and restoring hand at either elevation. People in the “up” stage are tempted to become prideful, and need God’s help to avoid self-destructing. People in the “down” stage, whether physically or emotionally, need God to bring them back from the brink.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). When life has been difficult, as it often has been, I have gone to the Lord in prayer––and the Lord has guided me faithfully.

“He guides me in the paths of righteousness” (Hebrew: se·daq) (v. 3b). Righteousness (se·daq) is life lived in accord with ethical principles––life lived in accord with God’s law and God’s will.

“Right paths” lead to life rather than death (see Matthew 7:13-14).

“for his name’s sake” (v. 3c). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name––that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character.

God is holy, and takes his holy name seriously:

  • The Third Commandment says, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Exodus 20:7).
  • God “saved (Israel) for his name’s sake, that he might make his mighty power known” (Psalm 106:8).
  • When explaining why he was restoring Israel, God said, “I don’t do this for your sake, house of Israel, but for my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations, where you went. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am Yahweh, says the Lord Yahweh, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:22-23).

Since God is holy, we as God’s people need to insure that we do not tarnish his name by our wrongful words or actions.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4a). For other references to “the shadow of death,” see Jeremiah 2:6 and Job 10:21-22.

We can imagine various meanings for “the valley of the shadow of death.”

  • When I was serving in Vietnam as a chaplain, I visited soldiers in the A Shau Valley near Laos. The enemy was strongly entrenched there, and was determined to stay. A number of our soldiers died there. For them, it truly was the valley of the shadow of death.
  • Depression and other illnesses can enshroud us in darkness and threaten us with death.
  • When people die, we think of them as having entered the valley of the shadow of death, but the same is true for their loved ones. I remember a woman who grieved every year on anniversary of the death of her infant child. On some days, she was on one side of the valley. On other days, she was on the other side. On still other days, she found herself walking through the middle of the valley. But the valley was always there, casting its shadow over her life.

The word “through” is important. The psalmist doesn’t speak of going into the valley, as if it were a box canyon or a final destination. He talks about going through it, showing that he expects to emerge from its shadows into the light on the other side.

“I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (v. 4b). Note the pronoun change in this verse. The psalmist has been talking about God in the third person (“he). With this verse, he begins to use the second person (“you” and “your”). He is no longer speaking about God, but is instead speaking to God.

Almost 25 years ago, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. When I asked the oncologist how serious it was, he said, “Stage three––maybe Stage three and a half.” My chances of survival were less than 50-50. Our children were still quite young. Fortunately, I had insurance that would allow my family to weather the storm financially. I had good medical care. Many people were praying for me. Most importantly, I understood that God is with us in life and in death––and so I can truly say that I was not frightened.

The center point of this psalm is “for you are with me.” In the original Hebrew language, there are 26 words before this phrase, and 26 afterwards (Limburg, 74). That symmetric bracketing was a literary device intended to focus attention on the middle phrase, “for you are with me.” God’s saving presence is the focal point of this psalm.

When the end of the Babylonian Exile and Israel’s salvation was nigh, God told Israel:

“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name. You are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.

When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned,
and flame will not scorch you.

For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3).

We need to hear those words as if God intended them for us––because he did. He first spoke them for Israel’s sake, but he caused Isaiah to record them for our sake.

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4c). The shepherd’s rod was a sturdy club for use against wild animals that would otherwise prey on the sheep. The shepherd’s staff was the familiar long rod with a crook on one end. The shepherd would use his staff to guide sheep and to pull them back from dangerous places.

The rod and staff were comforting to the sheep, because both were intended for the sheep’s benefit. But mostly, they were comforting because they were in the hands of a caring shepherd.

PSALM 23:5-6. THE LORD AS HOST

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over.

6 Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.

In these verses, the metaphor changes from God as shepherd to God as host at a special banquet.

“You prepare a table (Hebrew: sulhan) before me in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5a). A shepherd would prepare a table for his sheep by scouting ahead to find good pastureland free from predators and poisonous plants.

The Hebrew word, sulhan (table), could refer to an animal hide spread on the ground like a picnic blanket. It could also refer to a piece of furniture like the tables that we know today.

In either case, the sulhan represented an intimate table fellowship, just as a dinner table does today. To be invited to a person’s table was an honor. To be invited to the King’s table was a great honor. To be invited to God’s table is the ultimate honor.

To eat at the King’s table in the presence of your enemies would show your enemies that the king holds you in high regard, and would demonstrate their powerlessness to hurt you. There are few experiences in life that would be more satisfying.

Jesus honored his disciples by inviting them to a table where he served them bread, saying, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15-16). He served them bread, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

Jesus honors us by inviting us to his table, saying, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Paul affirms the importance of this table ministry when he says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:24, 26).

“You anoint my head with oil” (v. 5b). Anointing with oil was used for various purposes (healing, burial, expressing grief or joy). For a shepherd, the healing purpose would be significant. Oils and ointments can salve wounds and insect bites.

In the Bible, anointing was used to designate a person for a significant role. In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed (1 Kings 19:16). Priests were anointed (Exodus 40:13-15). Kings were anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:3, 12-13; 2 Samuel 23:1; 1 Kings 1:39). The New Testament speaks of Jesus as anointed (Luke 4:18; John 20:31; Acts 5:42; Hebrews 1:9, etc.). His anointing set him apart for his unique role as prophet, priest, and king.

When the psalmist says that God has anointed his head with oil, he means that God has marked him as special––has set him apart for a significant role.

“My cup runs over” (Hebrew: rewayah) (v. 5c). The Hebrew word rewayah suggests abundance––even superabundance. The overflowing cup symbolizes the Lord’s generosity. There are no halfway measures when it comes to the Lord’s provision for our lives.

“Surely goodness (Hebrew: tob) and loving kindness (Hebrew: hesed) shall follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6a). The Hebrew word tob has a variety of meanings, such as good, moral, profitable, or plentiful. In this context, it suggests blessings that will help the psalmist.

The word hesed also has a variety of meanings –– kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. “When applied to Yahweh, hesed is fundamentally the expression of his loyalty and devotion to the solemn promises attached to the covenant…. Though the majority of the occurrences of hesed are translated ‘steadfast love,’ there are undeniable elements of ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’ that underlie each of these occurrences” (Renn, 633-634).

Like the Greek word agape (love) in the New Testament, hesed (lovingkindness) involves action––kindness or love expressed through kind or loving actions rather than just feelings.

The sense of this verse then is that, because God is loving and kind, his people can expect God to provide blessings throughout life.

“and I will dwell in Yahweh’s (Hebrew: YHWH) house forever” (v. 6b). In the United States, a signal honor would be an invitation to stay overnight in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House. Another such honor would be an invitation for dinner at the White House––preferably dinner with the President and a small group of his key people–– although a large state dinner would also be interesting.

Not many people receive such an invitation, and even fewer receive more than one. Other than the president and family, only a handful of people have been invited to make the White House their home––and then only for a few years.

But if it is an honor to be invited to the President’s home, it is an infinitely greater honor to be invited to the Lord’s house. We are so invited–– and not just occasionally but forever––the honor that exceeds all other honors.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

COMMENTARIES:

Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)

Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999

Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)

Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)

Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)

Hartley, J.E., in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three: K-PRevised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)

Keller, W. Phillip, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970, 2007, 2015)

Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)

Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000

Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)

McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)

Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006

 

DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:

Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)

Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)

Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)

Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)

Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)

Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)

Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2006)

Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)

Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol.  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)

VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.

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