George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 23

1. Structure

Many regard this psalm as being of one piece. They expound all its six verses as developments of the figure of the Good Shepherd. But here and there this approach runs into difficulties. Much more satisfying is to take the psalm as a sequence of three separate figures of speech:

The Shepherd
The Guide
The Host

2. Historical setting

One commentator of outstanding ability makes this the very first of all David’s psalms, with development along these lines (1 Samuel 16 is the background to be borne in mind):

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. David is brought in from keeping the sheep. Compare Psa. 78:70-72: from shepherd flock to (ultimately) throne room.
The valley of the shadow of death. (1) A dark defile near Bethlehem? The Judean desert nearby can be most desolate and dreary. (2) The valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:2,3), where the youth David stood in the shadow of the giant Goliath?
Thou preparest a table before me. The peace offerings slain by Samuel: 1 Sam. 16:5,11.

In the presence of mine enemies. David, envied by his brothers: 16:13; 17:28.

Thou anointest my head with oil: 16:13.
Mercy is commonly associated with God’s promises — in this instance the promise of the beginning of a royal line, implicit in David’s anointing.

I will dwell in the house of the Lord, at Samuel’s sanctuary where the copies of the Scriptures were kept (compare Psa. 27:4,13; 84:1-4).

Another, alternative, possibility: Absalom’s rebellion?

Green pastures....still waters. The loyal welcome given to David and his men by Barzillai: 2 Sam. 17:27-29.
He restoreth my soul. David’s recovery from serious illness (see Psalms 6; 38; 41; etc.). Or, restoreth may mean “brings back”, i.e. the return of the king to Jerusalem.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness. A contrast with the rebellion and scheming of Absalom and his supporters.
The valley of the shadow of death, in this scenario, would be the brook Kidron (2 Sam. 15:23,30), or the wadi running down to the Jordan (16:13).
Thou preparest a table. The kindness of Barzillai at Mahanaim: 2 Sam. 17:27-29; cp. Psa. 78:19: here is God furnishing a table in the wilderness for His Anointed.

Mine enemies = the rebels, of course.

Thou anointest my head with oil. An assurance of a safe return to Jerusalem, still as king?
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord. A satisfying resumption of worship at the sanctuary in Zion.

3. Messianic reference

What was written by David must be part of the inheritance of his great Son. The baptism of Jesus was the time of his anointing with Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:13-17; Luke 3:21,22). What more likely than that the prayer he offered at that time was Psalm 23? Consider especially:

He restoreth my soul....for his name’s sake. That is, for the fulfilling of His purpose.
The valley of the shadow of death. His literal baptism prefiguring the actual death through which he would go. On that last night before his arrest, the dark valley of Kidron, which he traversed on his way to Gethsemane, was surely a “valley of the shadow of death”!

Thou art with me = Immanuel!
A table in the presence of mine enemies. Judas at the Last Supper, or Psa. 110:2?

My cup runneth over, with the remission of sins (Matt. 26:28). Compare also Psa. 116:13: “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.”

Mercy. Obviously, the fulfillment of all God’s promises, centered in him.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever, with special stress in this case on the last two words!

4. Christ and his disciple

The Lord is my shepherd. The “Lamb” becomes the “Shepherd” — a complete, though exquisitely logical, role reversal! “The Lamb.... shall shepherd them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters” (Rev. 7:17). Compare Ezek. 34:12-15,23-25; Isa. 40:11; 49:10; Mic. 7:14; John 10:1-16.
He maketh me to lie down. Shepherds say that a sheep only lies down when it is fully fed!

In green pastures. The word describes a verdant spot in a barren wilderness. Mark 6:39 (the feeding of the 5,000 men in the desert) is a de-liberate echo of this verse. Incredibly, Christ is both Shepherd and “pasture” to his flock (John 6:48,51)!
He restoreth my soul. That is, he causes my soul to return (to him): 1 Pet. 2:25. How does he do this? By the perfect law of the Lord: Psa. 19:7.

He leadeth me, as in Acts 8:31,32: As Christ was led as a lamb to his death (Isa. 53:7), so he — through Philip — leads the Ethiopian to the waters of baptism. But the one whom he leads must be willing to be led!

In the paths of righteousness, because that is his character — he knows no other “path”!
This valley has no terrors for the Guide because he has been there before (Psa. 22). And, accordingly, he who follows his Guide comes safely through it — with proper emphasis, of course, on deliverance out of death, not necessarily on avoidance thereof.

Thy rod (for defense against enemies) and thy staff (for guidance and discipline) are both a comfort. Moses’ rod serves as an example: Exod. 14:16,21,26-31.

Observe the comprehensive character of this divine care:

The Lord with me
Green pastures beneath me
Still waters beside me
A table before me

(...even though there are...)

Enemies around me

(...nevertheless there are...)

Goodness and mercy behind me,                                        
and.....always following!
A table of fellowship and refreshing (“Take care of him....when I come again....”: Luke 10:35!) even though one’s inner enemies are always present. Or, a table of eternal and immortal fellowship for the “sheep”, whilst the “goats” are excluded: Matt. 8:11,12; 22:12-14; Luke 12:35-38; 14:15-24; 22:30.
Surely is not an expression merely of hopefulness, but one of certainty: For sure!

Goodness and mercy shall follow me. The word means pursue. Even adversaries (as in v. 5) are tokens of God’s goodness and mercy. If saints follow peace (34:14), then goodness and mercy will follow them.

I will dwell. Not: ‘I hope I may’, or ‘I’ll try my hardest to make it’, but a very definite ‘I will’! Here is that rare commodity: assurance!

The story is told of a Mutual Improvement Class where it was a night for reading practice, and the reading was Psalm 23. Two members of the class were called upon to read the psalm. Each read it faultlessly, but there was a subtle yet significant difference. The older brother was later asked privately about this, and why his rendering was clearly superior to that of the younger brother. The reply was simple yet profound: “He knows the Psalm, but I know the Shepherd.”

5. Other details

I shall not want. “One thing is not lacking to me” (LXX). This is quoted by Jesus, without the negative, to the rich young ruler who professed to have kept all the commandments: “Yet lackest thou one thing” (Luke 18:22). What one thing? The Lord as your Shepherd: therefore, “Come, follow me.”
Still waters is, literally, as the AV margin: the waters of quietness or rest (RSV). It is the flock which is still — in quietness or at rest; the stream is gently flowing. Compare the “resting place” of the Ark in Num. 10:33.
The paths of righteousness inevitably lead through (not around) the valley of the shadow of death. It is through much tribulation (and only so) that we enter the Kingdom: Acts 14:22; Rev. 7:14.
Rod = shebet, a weapon used for defense of the flock, as in 1 Sam. 17:35. Also, a symbol of kingship: Gen. 49:10; Psa. 45:6; Num. 24:17.
Thou anointest my head. The treatment of a distinguished guest: Matt. 26:6,7; Luke 7:46.

Oil and wine (my cup) together — as in “Gethsemane”, which signifies “a wine-press for oil”.

6. Summary

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
divine guidance
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake
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 anointest 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 for ever

7. Postscript

How does he lead them? This they cannot tell,
They only know “He doeth all things well”;
Through fire and water, some — where floods do meet —
O’er briars and thorns, with torn and bleeding feet,
Where tempests rage, and storms break overhead,
And clouds of darkness all around are spread;
But still he leads them, rough or smooth the way,
And all “His paths are peace” and lead to day.

And some, where springs abound and pastures sweet,
Go singing all the way on cheerful feet;        
And some he leadeth gently all the way,
Guiding the wandering steps that oft would stray;
Others go trembling down the road for fear,
With faith so weak that will not see him near,
But still he holds them, rough or smooth the way!
Who “follow on to know”, he shows the way.

How does he draw them? Some by cords of love,
That sweetest cord to lift the soul above;
But not all thus — (so wisely doth he lead,
Love would not always answer to their need)
And so by other cords: pain, fear, unrest,
But always just the one most fit and best;
And thus he draws them from themselves and sin,
Until they find their perfect rest in him.

How does he keep them? This is theirs alone
To whom “the secret of the Lord” is known;
In “perfect peace”, though outward foes prevail;
They stand upon a rock none dare assail;
Though every human prop hath given way,
They rest in him, their Comforter and stay,
And so he keeps them till, their journey o’er,
They enter in where they go out no more.

Laura Harvey
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