The book of Psalms contains some of the most loved texts in the Old Testament. When one explores the psalms, he/she can teach him/her valuable lessons about both intimacy with God and outreach to a broken and cynical generation. Psalm 23, among others, is one of the sweetest psalms ever written. One may find it on various advertisements even for publicity purposes. Moreover, it is a written song as well as a prayer. It has since been translated into almost all languages by people whose love for God is defined. This has so far been done globally. The entire book of Psalms, which comprises of one hundred and fifty chapters, was written many years ago. Its authors include King David and his son Solomon, Sons of Korah, and many others.
It is generally unclear when David might have written this psalm. However, assumption is made that it could have been written when his son attempted to become a leader in Israel and a King of the country. David, having run away, proceeded to the Jordan River, crossed it and went to a place called Gilead. At this place, he met a man known as Barzillai, who happened to be a shepherd. The man befriended David and provided him with food and shelter, so that he might be safe from harsh weather.
These events prompted David to consider God to be like a shepherd, a guide, and a close friend. He, therefore, integrated these thoughts into the 23rd Psalm. In the Psalm, he passed a significant message, if people have faith in God, they are His flock, and thus, can confidently declare that the Lord is their shepherd.
The Exegesis of Psalm 23:1-6
In the verse one, the psalmist compares the Lord to a shepherd. He encourages believers to manifest their fulfillment under the tender care of the universal chief shepherd, who created a man and loved His creations. It is a well-known fact that sheep always follow their shepherd. In Israel, a lot of people were engaged in sheep breading; that is the reason why the author takes the symbol of an obedient and faithful little creature to portray the people of God (Spurgeon, 1997). Charlesworth (2004) asserts that, in fact, the psalmist praise the obedience of a sheep, and not the fear of a blind follower. On the other hand, Keller (2007, 20) points out the likeness of a man and a sheep, putting emphasis on a mass mind.
The Lord also offers satisfaction and quietness of mind to His people. Just as the shepherd leads his flock to the green pastures and still waters, God also provides His people with all that they truly need. Furthermore, the psalmist follows the footsteps of the Creator. He is assured that when he follows the Lord, protection, tender care and love “will pursue” him. According to the psalmist, God’s grace is, indeed, sufficient because he does not lack anything in this life.
In verse two, the psalmist creates a wide picture of the righteous man being led to a green pasture and the wicked person condemned to a dry desert. Green grass is another symbol used by the author. The Kingdom of Israel was situated in a rather harsh climate; it was always difficult to find a good pasture. Green grass symbolized not only lovely scenery, but also prosperity and wellbeing. Keller (2007, 60) claims that grass is of great importance to sheep, as they not only eat it, but receive water from the stems. Spurgeon (1997) goes dipper into interpretation and assumes that grass is a symbol of creature comforts, while steel water is a symbol of Holy Spirit, and hence, the spiritual life of a man.
In the verse three, the Lord is compared to a guide. The psalmist has a trusting faith in God; even though, negative things occur, the Lord will, thereafter, restore peace to him. He trusts the Lord for protection from the evil people who may harm him. He also trusts the Lord for guidance, and searches truthfulness and justice. Spurgeon (1997) stresses the word “leadeth”; the psalmist has chosen this word to reflect God’s willingness to be a guider and not a commander. One of the functions of righteousness is peace. People cannot tread upon the paths of righteousness unless the Lord’s guide His just men to them.
On the other hand, the author asserts that dissatisfaction and lack of trust culminate from disbelief in God. Henry (1997) admit that even saints can lose the way, however, in the dark times, people should turn to the Shepherd and trust the care of the Leader, listen to His voice, and announce, “Lo-‘ira ra”.The Lord led David to perilous places till he arrived where Barzillai stayed.
In the verse four, the psalmist uses significant metaphor one more time. He compares the followers of Christ to a flock that is well taken care of. David used to be a shepherd, so he perfectly knows that shepherds had to walk long distances with the flock to find valleys to graze and water his sheep. During this long journey, the flock would usually meet wild animals and deep precipices. It was indeed very perilous and challenging to go down the valleys. However, it was inevitable for them.
These valleys were extremely risky for the flock, as well as sin is a fatal trap for man’s soul. David calls them the valley of the shadow of death or of great risks. Nevertheless, as the sheep knows the shepherd will not let them down, so the man should be sure that the care taker is always with them (Keller, 2007, 106). Another reason to use the symbol of a sheep is the fact that these animals are rather clever, and they can recognize the shepherd’s voice. Moreover, the sheep could also distinctly view their shepherd because he was taller. He always stayed at the back of the flock in order to see vividly the sheep that went astray and thereby suffer the risk of being eaten up by wild beasts.
The psalmist mentions also a rod and a staff of God, which comforted him. Rod that this verse refers to was a short stick with little leather elements on the one end. It looked more or less like a whip; however, it was never used to punish a sheep. The shepherd used it to protect the flock from harmful insects, like tsetse flies and mosquitoes. The opposite end of the rod was used to groom the wool on the sheep as they stopped for a rest. It gave a possibility to clean any spots and dirt from the sheep. The psalmist asserts that the people of God should pride upon being sheep of God. People of God move from one green pasture to another and pass various circumstances that life brings across us. Whether these circumstances are good or bad, believers are assured that the care taker is on their side.
The valley of river Jabbok was probably so dark that the psalmist could not easily pass through. The valley of the shadow of death may stand in for a rapid and horrible affliction or dark events of one’s life that the psalmist underwent. Every person living on earth today and one that has already passed away should pass a dark valley of death. In time of death or danger, people can find relief in the words of the psalmist, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Spurgeon (1997) claims, “We do not die, we do but sleep to wake in glory.”God diminishes the power of death, and a man should not be afraid of the times of shadow. Just as the shadow of a snake cannot sting, or the shadow of a sword harm, so the shadow of death will not affect the righteous man of God.
Verse five is somehow similar to the previous verse because it also uses a metaphor. God is compared to a friend. While verse one to four is about life on earth, verse five and six is about life in the heavens. The table, described by the psalmist, refers to blessings and rewards that come as a result of rightful deeds that are pleasing in God’s sight. Since the table lies right in front of the enemy, the essence is that God will raise his obedient sheep over the enemies, and the oppressors will see the triumph of God and His faithful servant (Charlesworth, 2004).
The people of God, therefore, celebrate at His table upon His providence. At the same time, the Lord anoints the sheep with the Holy Spirit and they partake of the cup of salvation which is ever flowing. To anoint means to rub or to wipe off. There were no perfumes in those days but only oil with fragrance. Therefore, anointing with oil is equivalent to spraying a perfume. These perfumes were quite exorbitant in those times. For example, the perfume that Mary poured on Jesus cost roughly one year’s wages. The cup signifies having all divine graces one needs. The psalmist stresses, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In this verse, David claims that God will reward His servants, and give more than enough blessing that one can handle with ease (Spurgeon, 2007).
Finally, in the verse six, when Barzillai prepared a great feast for David, poured oil on his head and served some wine to drink, David exclaimed with happiness, ‘I will always dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever!’ The verse is a kind of conclusion, signifying the end point of a long journey with the Good Shepherd. The children of God will dwell in God’s house for ever. God’s house is in Heaven and one day, when having passed the valley of death, the children of God will get there. Today, when having an overflowing cup, people can enjoy their life in God and drink from the cup (Charlesworth, 2004).
Psalm 23 is one of the sweetest psalms ever written in the Bible. As a matter of fact, it has been translated into almost all languages in the world. The Psalm 23 was written by King David, probably, it time when his son attempted to become a king of Israel. The Psalm reflects the personal experience of David, and talks about God being a friend and a shepherd. It presents an ideal relationship with God.
The Psalm closely interweaves with other psalms and with other books of the Bible. Anderson (1973, 235) claims that this psalm forms a unity with another eleven psalms written by David. It uses a typical and traditional set of symbols, for example, a careful shepherd, anointment with oil, overflowing cup, which is used throughout the Bible. Even though the verse is addressed to God the Father, the symbol of a good shepherd will later be associated with Jesus Christ, in the New Testament.