Summary of the Text
Occasionally familiarity, paradoxically, turns into an enemy of understanding, or at least becomes an obstruction. Psalm 23, perhaps the most loved psalm of the entire Psalter, is sometimes one of those victims—we settle for a surface understanding of this psalm. But the psalms, many of them, should be viewed as having layers of meaning that have an interlocking relationship. This will become clear in our discussion.
Before the days of modern Bible translations—thank God for them, or most of them—we could depend on virtually every church-goer to know this psalm by memory from the King James Version. I have knelt by the bedside of believers who had just passed into eternity and offered a prayer of hope and faith, and, without prior announcement, moved into this psalm expecting the family and friends to join me, and was not disappointed. What a moment of spiritual elation!
The psalm really falls into two parts, both dominated by the metaphor of shepherd. Part 1 is the picture of the divine Shepherd (the Lord) and the lamb (David) [23:1-4]. The literary assistants that support this metaphor are the expressions of shepherd life: green pastures, quiet waters, right paths, darkest valley, rod and staff.
Part 2 provides a change in metaphor, with the divine Shepherd still the dominative figure, although the word does not appear at all, and the king (David) [23:5-6)].
With this change of metaphor the literary assistants are the king’s coronation (“you anoint my head with oil”), a feast that follows the king’s victories in battle (“you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies”), the king’s successful reign (“my cup overflows”), and David’s passion for the temple (“I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever”). The figure of the divine Shepherd and David are constant in both parts, but David’s role changes from lamb in Part 1 to king in Part 2, still guided and directed by the ever constant divine Shepherd.
The divine name here, LORD (YaHWeH), is very personal, supporting the psalm’s type as an individual psalm of trust. The rabbinic view is that when the generic name for the deity, Elohim (translated “God”), is used, the general sense is the God of power; and when the personal name of the deity, YaHWeH (translated “LORD,” in all caps), is used, it connotes love and compassion. While an over-simplification, it is of special note that the psalms of trust overwhelmingly use the personal name LORD for the deity, Psalm 23 being an excellent example. The LORD (YaHWeH), is used exclusively (23:1 and 6), except for the metaphorical name “shepherd” in verse 1.
The psalms of trust are prayers and reflections, generally focused on God and the psalmist’s relationship to God. They have a tenderness that only a relationship of trust can claim, and a confidence that only the challenging experiences of life can build. Trust is the result of experience, sometimes long and testing, and the use of the deity’s personal name, LORD, contributes to a sense of intimacy between the Shepherd and lamb.
Thus we would expect that behind the psalms of trust is an event or circumstance that taught the psalmist to trust in the Lord. That experience can be seen in both parts of the psalm, and we may call that a second layer of meaning. That is, Part 1, as we have already observed, presents us with a picture of the Shepherd’s care for the lamb (David’s earlier life), and Part 2, the Shepherd’s care for the king (his later life).
As is often the case, God’s care for us in the tender years of life, including the trying experiences, is the basis for our trust in the Lord in the mature years of our life. In David’s case, his years as shepherd instructed him in the Lord’s care and protecting hand (vv. 1-4). The long years of his reign, with both successes and failures, could be assessed, particularly his successes, through the lens of trust, expressed in the clause “my cup overflows” (v. 5). Thus Psalm 23 is the story of David’s life, put into everyday terms, as the divine Shepherd has cared for him in his world as shepherd and king.
There is still another interlocking layer of interpretation, not as obvious as the former one, but nevertheless just as important. David speaks of his life in terms of the faith he professed, represented by the historical road markers of Israel’s journey of faith. These are often engraved on the psalms in the language of other biblical stories, and the psalmists generally make the connection to those events by word associations. David’s experience as shepherd (1 Sam. 16:11; 17:20) and king (1 Sam. 16) is engraved in cryptic language—here we have to be very perceptive–on Psalm 23.
In fact, the language of the Torah (Pentateuch) became for David a dialect of faith from which he drew to mark out his own journey of faith. This is especially true of certain songs like Exodus 15 and creedal statements like Exodus 34:6-7. His faith journey was posted with road markers along the way, in this psalm the historic events and eras of Israel’s own faith journey. Those experiences should become personal to us. There is a Jewish saying that every Jew should celebrate the Passover as if the Lord took him or her by the hand and led them personally out of Egypt. As Christians approach the Easter season, they think of themselves as personally present at Calvary: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
First, the language of Psalm 23, under metaphors and symbols, reflects how the Lord led Israel through the wilderness under Moses, using two verbs for guidance and one noun for Pastures from Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus 15:
In your unfailing love you will lead [Hebrew root, nhh]
the people you have redeemed.
In your strength you will guide [Hebrew root nhl] them
to your holy dwelling [lit., “your holy pasture”]. (Exod. 15:13)
Second, the verb “I lack nothing” (23:1) is the same verb [Hebrew root, hsr] used in Deuteronomy 2:7) to acknowledge that the Israelites lacked nothing during their forty years in the wilderness. Third, the “quiet waters” of 23:2 (lit., ”waters of rest”) seem to recall the “place of rest” where the ark of the covenant guided Israel in their wilderness journey to places of rest and safety (Numb. 10:33). Thus we can see how the language of the Torah (Pentateuch) was David’s language of faith, and he relived his ancestor’s religious experience with them.
Psalm 23 is a very tender psalm, its tenderness flowing in part from the imagery of shepherd and lamb, and also from the use of the deity’s personal name, LORD. There is little wonder, therefore, that this psalm has endeared itself to countless millions of believers through the centuries, in life and in death, earning unmatched popularity in the Psalter (see Henry Ward Beecher’s “The Nightingale of the Psalms”).
Further, the idea that “goodness and love,” sometimes called “the hounds of heaven,” pursue us to the house of the Lord is a recognition that sometimes we don’t follow the Shepherd as good sheep should, and the Lord, thankfully, pursues us (the Hebrew verb is “pursue,” rdp, which has the intended sense of “follow” [in pursuit]), a truth that Francis Thompson celebrates in his beautiful poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.
Corrie Ten Boom
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” given on April 3, 1969, in Memphis, the day before his assassination, has parallels with the way the psalmists sometimes look at history as a spiritual GPS for their own journey of faith. He tracked his journey of life and leadership along the spiritual GPS of Moses whom the Lord allowed to see the promised land from Mount Nebo, but did not allow him to enter; and King concluded his speech with these words:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.