An Exposition of Psalm 23

One of the most beloved and memorized from the entire Psalter includes the twenty-third psalm from the shepherd boy who becomes king, David. The great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, called it “the pearl of psalms,” probably for its metaphoric usage and elements of prayer language that can be studied from every line. The motif of trust can be examining throughout this psalm as enemies loom in the darkness, ready to attack those who dare to cross its path. The psalm brings an element of comfort during the testing of personal trails for those who may be facing some sort of illness but relies on the providential care of God to see their circumstances pass. It provides the reader with a refreshing, protecting and confidence to withstand and endure whatever may come. The psalm is deep and genuine that stirs and intensifies the faith experience when trouble comes knocking on the door and guides them back to safety. 

            This exegesis outline will seek to articulate and interpret the psalm in greater depth and how its relevancy may apply to us today regarding faith in a personal ministry context. The shepherd’s psalm is a pastoral favorite that portrays its office as one who protects and guides the flock from harm, whether it be physical or theological. Christ is our great shepherd that paints this vivid picture of one who is willing to sacrifice His own life for one lost sheep. David’s confidence in the grace of God throughout this psalm displays the loving relationship between the shepherd and its flock. The theme of guidance and trust in seeking out the purposes and plans for God’s people can be adequately found and provides the basis for how the character of God is put on display.

Christ is our great shepherd that paints this vivid picture of one who is willing to sacrifice His own life for one lost sheep.

Literary/Historical/Social Background 

            The twenty-third psalm can be categorized as a psalm of new orientation and a song of thanksgiving which is generalized in the confidence of God. These types of songs are birthed after troubles have ensued from the laments and situations of disorientation present by the writer.[1]  This is followed by praise and thanksgiving towards God’s sovereign assistance and the relationship between Yahweh and the author is now rekindled with assurance and hope in future endeavors. The speaker of Psalm 23 is built on the confidence of God, filled with rich metaphors and pronouns that govern the use of the psalm with gratitude, yielding, trust, and thanksgiving.[2]  The author is completely and utterly satisfied with Yahweh and lacks nothing when in comparison to the threat that is sure to come.            

             There is a reason to believe that this psalm was authored by David himself and can find its historical setting during the time of the rebellion under Absalom.[3]A variety of psalms can be paired with this timeline mentioned (4:8,3:7,27:4,63) which belong to the same period. The setting likely finds itself when David retreated with those who accompanied him over the Kidron and the Mount of Olives (2 Sam. 15:30) into the plains of the wilderness of Judah.[4]David is longing to be back into the house of God and his homeland but first must escape death and run in order so that he may live. This historical setting influences the personal tone of the psalm which is not agreeable between some commentators as some argue that a royal and national use can be found throughout.[5]The social background finds itself in a constant battle with enemies which was likely the case of David and the events surrounding his fleeing from Absalom. The heart of the people from Israel, found itself with Absalom (2 Sam.15:13) as David wept and covered his head as his conspirators sought out the throne. The ancient near eastern context of this psalm also demonstrates the imagery of the Shepard as liken to a king and David fits this type as he held both offices.

Outline

            There are structural developments that occur throughout the psalm that form the basis for the metaphors used by the psalmist. There’s a comparison of I Am as Shepherd and I Am as Host that we see play out within the entire psalm. The first four verse summarizes I Am as Shepherd and verse one establishes the I-Thou relationship between I Am and individual Israelite.[6]Verse 2a sets the pastoral imagery in which the task of the Shepherd is to provide food for the sheepfold while the second half of verse 2 is a provision of rest for the sheep. The act of providing continues with the Shepherd metaphor to verses 3-4a as guidance from the dangers that lay ahead. This is followed by the protection from the Shepherd in the second half of verse 4 which is the task and responsibility of the office. The next section moves to I Am as Host found in verse 5 that welcomes in the guest to the banqueting table to enjoy and eat. The final couplet of the psalm is debated as included in this I AM Host metaphor but can also include I Am as the Omnibenevolent one who is our eternal friend. 

1. I AM as Shepherd (vv.1-4)

            a. Summary of Statement (v.1)

            b. The Shepherd provides Food (v.2a)

            c. The Shepherd provides Rest (v.2b)

            d. The Shepherd provides Guidance (v.3-4a)

            e. The Shepherd provides Protection (v.4b)

2. I AM as Host (v.5)

3. I AM as Omnibenevolence (v.6)

Section-by-Section Commentary

            The very first line in the psalm begins with the royal metaphor of the Lord is my shepherd (v1.). The linkage between the Lord and that of the occupation of the shepherd is what David most likely is attempting to compare with that of intimacy rather than to a distant king who is impersonal and uninterested in the affairs of others.[7]A king was portrayed as a shepherd and to have God mirror this metaphor was to portray God as a royal figure. David, himself, was a shepherd and would understand the proper usage of this metaphor and the close connection he would have with the sheepfold. The shepherd was one who would live with the flock and is a communal imagery of a loving trust relationship that’s inseparable from the sheep. This task of keeping the sheep was a dangerous one as they were not fenced in and would become the prey of wild beast that roamed the land (Gen. 31:38-40). They would not last long on their own and it was the job of the shepherd to retrieve one that might have gone missing. This is then celebrated by the shepherd’s friends and is a typology of Christ who would do the same for creation (Luke 15:3-7). The word for “Lord” used here by the psalmist is an Old Testament personal name for God that was first disclosed to Moses during the burning bush experience.[8]The name denotes “I am who I am” and refers to the timelessness of God who is unchanging. This reassures the psalmist that guidance and protection will be made affordable and nothing else compares to it. 

            We now enter into the portion of the psalm that deals with the needs of the sheep (v.2) and the shepherd’s response to their needs. Sheep in the Levant would graze of the grass, but it was the responsibility of the shepherd to find adequate pasture and water for them. These grassy meadows were a source of nourishment were God, acting as the great shepherd, looks for an environment suitable for the sheep so that they may thrive in.[9]These locations were more than pastures of tender grass as it relates to food but a place that provided rest and shelter as well. This grass emphasizes newness after the passing rain has fallen to the ground that sprouts up. This functions as a delight for the sheep and the plural form of the word for pastures denote that the Shepherd never runs out of finding new places of green vegetation for the flock.[10]It’s interesting to note that the psalm doesn’t beginning with the motion of the flock but rather with rest and is a reminder of our covenant relationship with Christ when He exclaimed, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). This restful oasis is gentle and therefore suitable for the sheep to drink from as opposed to swift torrents that might cause the sheep to go thirsty instead.[11]Rest also carries the weight of protection from its enemies and any threat of divine punishment as exhibited through the life of Noah (Gen. 6-9) as well as the book of Judges whereby God grants rest during the reign of those who judged righteously.[12]

            After the Shepherd has provided the necessary care for the sheep, we see a shift into the guidance that God brings. The soul and spirit of the psalmist are restored to vitality, but this expression can have multiple interpretations. It can denote a turning to a repented state, conversion or a spiritual renewal that brings with it a refreshment for the weary sheep.[13]This kind of restoration revives and quickens the flock to continue to the journey ahead. This path towards righteousness (v.3) offers safe passage by the Shepherd who guides the flock who are prone to wonder around in all sorts of directions. The straight path is one that is taken from an obedient standpoint of the sheep who doesn’t pick or choose which law to carryout but must yield to them all in submissive love towards the shepherd.[14]This correlates to how the nation of Israel was lead out from the bondage of Egypt that describes them as being similar to the flock which is being led into the holy pastures (Ex. 15:13). The verse also conveys a moral obligation to embark on as it’s in Christ name we are to become representatives who are to display this Godlike character. We are in this eternal pledge for His namesake that can be found in the glorious grace of God that has been blessed upon us (Eph. 1:6). The meaning of Yahweh’s name carries with it a definition of guidance and protection which Goldingay states is described by faithfulness as a true reflection of God’s character.[15]

The straight path is one that is taken from an obedient standpoint of the sheep who doesn’t pick or choose which law to carryout but must yield to them all in submissive love towards the shepherd

            The protection from the shepherd goes even further into the darkest of valleys (v.4) and moments of danger. This verse is usually recited to comfort those who are in distress or on their death bed. It speaks in the life of the sheep who will be susceptible to wild animals and attacks from all angles. Rest and toil go hand in hand and the mountain-top experience is only, but a time-lapse found in the Christians life. The pace of the flock is a walk and not a sprint as to ensure the safety of the sheep that are kept with the others. These valleys are meant to develop our character to trust in the leading from the Shepherd as we are escorted through the dangers that lurk ahead. The term, shadow of death, is a literal meaning of a single Hebrew word ṣalmāwet which occurs throughout the Old Testament referring to more than a death sentence but include other crises besides the final one.[16]Fear is replaced by faith as the sheep rely on the guidance from the shepherd who reminds them of God’s presence. This speaks of the salvific message which was addressed to Abram when Yahweh appeared to him (Gen. 15:1;26:24).

            The protection from the shepherd is now afforded to the sheep employing the rod and staff (v.4b). The weaponry of choice seems primitive but was highly effective in the wording of enemies. The rod was a club that was worn around the beltline and the shepherd staff was utilized while walking that doubled as a weapon in times of need.[17]The staff was also used to control the direction of the sheep and symbolic of the office concerning the shepherd. The psalmist now speaks in the second person in turning to God for protection from the terror that is sure to come. These items are meant to comfort and not confuse the flock, but most commentaries suggest that this word doesn’t draw much from the text. Rather, the concept of courage is widely used in its place that provides the background for understanding why the shepherd uses the rod and staff in the first place.

            The psalmist replaces the stage of returning to the sheepfold with that of festivities and how the host has welcomed the guest into the banquet table to dine (v.5-6). Provision is the portion for those sitting at the table just as God prepared it before the Israelites during the wilderness experience (Ps. 78:19). The divine host turns the trouble into triumph, setting the table, cool under pressure from the threat and offers the resources necessary for the battle (Rom. 8:31-39).[18]This imagery of a feast correlates to the thanksgiving ritual that embraces the concept of a family but the meaning of this table has no single interpretation tied in with it. What we do get from this theological table setting is that the Lord is a hospitable host who provides nourishment and it is to be honored.[19]The enemies are present and are revealed as defeated onlookers who are powerless before the host.

The divine host turns the trouble into triumph, setting the table, cool under pressure from the threat and offers the resources necessary for the battle.

            The biblical imagery of oil speaks of the joy and prosperity that was practiced and a custom used as part of a ceremony in connection with the coronation of a king (2 Kings 11:12).[20]This kind of installment wasn’t just for royalty but reserved as well for the guest as an act of courtesy and hospitality. Oil was used to smooth and preserve the skin from the hot temperatures of the Middle Eastern climate, especially around the face area that caused the cracking of the skin’s surface. The oil caused a shine to the face when it was poured over the head. David makes mention of this when he says, “O Lord, let your face shine on your servant” (Ps. 31:14,16). We also see the narratives of Jesus with the women and the alabaster jar (Luke 7:36-39) and Simons negligence of lacking the hospitality rightfully afforded. The cup in which the olive oil was poured out of is an endless supply that is abundant and never runs out. The goblet functioned and complimented the rest of the meal on the table and became a delight to the participant. 

            The final verse of the psalm speaks on the omnibenevolence of the shepherd and in so doing goes from the imaginary to the real world (v.6). The psalmist exclaims with the introduction of the word, surely, as to refer to the expression of a truth that is newly perceived.[21]This guest, at the invitation of the divine host, is not merely a passerby for a one-night stay but is called on to live with the host. Goodness and loving kindness (mercy) can be seen as the sum or benefits of the blessing that is personified metonymies of God’s benevolent attributes.[22]These are communicable attributes and incarnate forces that allow the psalmist to enjoy them all the days. The final goal for this wondering psalmist through the paths of righteousness is to dwell within the house of the Lord. For David, God’s house was a reference to the royal tent that was set up for the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:17). In the New Testament scope, this refers to the early church and the triumphant security found in the resurrection of Christ (John 2:14;2:12-23; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:14-20;1 Peter 2:4-10).[23]God now becomes the psalmist destination in their endless quest and becomes a promise for future travelers who are willing to embark on the journey ahead.

Reflection and Application 

            The simplicity and strength found in psalm 23 reveal a love towards God that can only be found in the voice from the shepherd that is obeyed. This psalm teaches us the practicality of obedience and the sovereignty of God who is our king and this royalty is passed down to those who are willing to follow. Faith that endures is the premise from the cries of the psalmist that wants nothing more than to be overcome with the God who provides green pastures and still waters. It’s this pilgrimage that we take as people of God that instructs us on how we are to live in our daily lives and service to the community. As a pastor, I’m not only a shepherd but a caretaker to others and the weight of responsibility to care, protect and guide the flock is not only a job description but a calling. One of the universal hopes portrayed in this psalm is the longing of a home that is being prepared for us by our good shepherd. Christ makes this claim when he says, “I am going to prepare a place for you” (John 14:3). That dwelling place may be eschatological in meaning but is infinite in truth for today that reassures the hope inside us and the promise of God’s presence brings comfort. The missio dei is a salvific message to the sheep of the pasture who draw near to God and commit themselves to the enduring statement of faith when God replies, “I am with you.”[24]

Conclusion 

            Psalm 23 becomes a melodic symphony to the those called as caretakers to God’s people as each line hopes, promises and reassures its validity. To get to the mountaintop, you must first go through the valley. This may not sound comforting but preservation for the long run can be found in the banquet table and served to anyone willing to partake. The concept of lacking is a word that cannot be found in this psalm, nor is scarcity a thing to grasp. Abundance and provision become the portion of the sheep as they travel from one remote location to another. Reminds me of how during our travels we neither will be in lack where the road may take us, but the oil of gladness and new wine is forever supplied even in personal trails, sufferings or death. Death has no sting once you walk through its valley. 

            This can only be accomplished as the result of the good shepherd who draws us by the good gifts provided so that we may enjoy its peace and security. We find this in the companionship of God that can transform every situation as willed.[25]Pitfalls are inevitable and the threat of exile beckons at the door for those choosing the narrow road less traveled. The message of the psalm brings hope to the hopeless and faith to the faithless when needed. Between God’s providence and our human actions, we are in a constant battle with our fleshly self and others. David knew this yet he is still recorded in the biblical narratives as being a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). May my heart and walk reflect that of the good shepherd, who has entrusted the sheep to my care.


Works Cited

[1]Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 2007, 152.

[2]Ibid.,p.155.

            [3]Keil, Carl Friedrich, and Franz Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996, 207.

[4]Ibid.,p.207.

[5]Jacobson, Rolf A., and Beth Tanner. “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41.” In The Book of Psalms, edited by E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 238.

[6]Waltke, Bruce K., James M. Houston, and Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, 437.

[7]Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 15. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 127.

[8]Boice, James Montgomery. Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005, 207.

[9]Jacobson, Rolf A., and Beth Tanner. “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41.” In The Book of Psalms, edited by E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 241.

[10]Waltke, Bruce K., James M. Houston, and Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, 438.

[11]Haroutunian, Joseph, and Louise Pettibone Smith.Calvin: Commentaries. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958, 261.

[12]Jacobson, Rolf A., and Beth Tanner. “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41.” In The Book of Psalms, edited by E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 241.

[13]Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 15. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 127.

[14]Spurgeon, C. H. The Treasury of David.Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011, 355.

[15]Jacobson, Rolf A., and Beth Tanner. “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41.” In The Book of Psalms, edited by E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 242.

[16]Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 15. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 128.

[17]Matthews, Victor Harold, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Electronic ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000,150.

[18]Kidner, Derek. Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 15. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973, 129.

[19]Jacobson, Rolf A., and Beth Tanner. “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41.” In The Book of Psalms, edited by E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 244.

[20]Freeman, James M., and Harold J. Chadwick. Manners & Customs of the Bible. North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998, 313.

[21]Waltke, Bruce K., James M. Houston, and Erika Moore. The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010, 443.

[22]Ibid.,p.443.

[23]Ibid.,p.444.

[24]Jacobson, Rolf A., and Beth Tanner. “Book One of the Psalter: Psalms 1–41.” In The Book of Psalms, edited by E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 247.

[25]Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: a Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 2007, 156.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s