Psalm 23: Shepherd and friend

Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not escape; its contentment is not complacency: there is readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack, and the climax reveals a love which homes towards no material goal but to the Lord himself.

23:1–4. The shepherd
1. The Lord, as often in the Psalms, occupies here the first and emphatic place, and the my reveals a pledged relationship which dares to link The Lord (is) … with the incongruous I shall … Everything in the psalm flows from that. In the word shepherd, David uses the most comprehensive and intimate metaphor yet encountered in the Psalms, preferring usually the more distant ‘king’ or ‘deliverer’, or the impersonal ‘rock’, ‘shield’, etc.; whereas the shepherd lives with his flock and is everything to it: guide, physician and protector.

2. The green pastures, or grassy meadows, and the ‘waters to rest by’ (cf. the ‘resting place’ which the ark sought out for Israel in Num. 10:33) are mentioned first because they show how the shepherd, unlike the hireling, thinks and observes in terms of his flock. He would be poor at the job if he did not; as inadequate as the father who has not learnt to think and feel as a family man. God would not have taken on a flock, a family, if he had not intended that he and they should be bound up with one another.

3. After the tenderness of verse 2, God’s firm, faithful dealings in this verse and the next can be seen in their true light. He restores my soul is an expression open to more than one interpretation. It may picture the straying sheep brought back, as in Isaiah 49:5, or perhaps Psalm 60:1 (Heb. 3), which use the same verb, whose intransitive sense is often ‘repent’ or ‘be converted’ (e.g. Hos. 14:1f.; Joel 2:12). Psalm 19:7, by its subject (the law) and by the parallel verb (‘making wise’), points to a spiritual renewal of this kind, rather than mere refreshment. On the other hand, my soul usually means ‘my life’ or ‘myself’; and ‘restore’ often has a physical or psychological sense, as in Isaiah 58:12, or using another part of the verb, Proverbs 25:13, Lamentations 1:11, 16, 19. In our context the two senses evidently interact, so that the retrieving or reviving of the sheep pictures the deeper renewal of the man of God, spiritually perverse or ailing as he may be.

It is the same with the paths of righteousness, which, in terms of sheep, mean no more than ‘the right paths’, but have, further, a demanding moral content for the human flock (cf. Prov. 11:15), whose ways will either shame or vindicate their Shepherd’s good name. Ezekiel 36:22–32 draws out this searching implication of the phrase for his name’s sake, but adds the corollary that, to uphold that name, God will make new men of us, whose ways will be his own.

4. The dark valley, or ravine, is as truly one of his ‘right paths’ as are the green pastures—a fact that takes much of the sting out of any ordeal. And his presence overcomes the worst thing that remains: the fear. Shadow of death is the literal meaning of the single Hebrew word ṣalmāwet, which occurs nearly twenty times in the Old Testament, and RSV is right to retain it here. In many of this word’s occurrences ‘death’ could be a kind of superlative, as in NEB’s rendering here, ‘dark as death’, and in the term ‘deep darkness’, used by RSV elsewhere. Such a translation here (cf. RP’s footnote, ‘the darkest valley’) would widen the reference of the verse to include other crises besides the final one. But although darkness is the leading thought in most of the Old Testament contexts, death is dominant in a few, including (in my view) the present verse. In Job 38:17 the gates of ṣalmāwet are equivalent to ‘the gates of death’ in the same verse; in Jeremiah 2:6 this term describes the peril of the desert, which is a place of death rather than of special darkness; and elsewhere ‘shadow of death’ its most frequent translation of the word. In Matthew 4:16 the insertion of ‘and’ (‘the land and shadow of death’) treats ‘death’ as more than a mere reinforcement of ‘shadow’, and in the Benedictus it marks a climax after ‘darkness’ (Luke 1:79).

Thou, at this point of danger, replaces the more distant ‘He’, in a person-to-person address; for the Shepherd is no longer ahead, to lead, but alongside to escort. In times of need, companionship is good; and he is armed. The rod (a cudgel worn at the belt) and staff (to walk with, and to round up the flock) were the shepherd’s weapon and implement: the former for defence (cf. 1 Sam. 17:35), the latter for control—since discipline is security. Setting aside this metaphor, only the Lord can lead a man through death; all other guides turn back, and the traveller must go on alone.

23:5, 6. The friend
5. The shepherd imagery has served its purpose, to be replaced by one of greater intimacy. (The attempt to sustain the first metaphor, which is sometimes made, would turn it through a full circle, picturing men as sheep which are pictured as men—with their table‚ cup and house—which is hardly a profitable exercise.)

It is one thing to survive a threat, as in verse 4; quite another to turn it into triumph. Every detail here is in that key, from the well-set table (for preparest, see on 5:3) to the festive oil (cf. 104:15; Luke 7:46) and brimming cup. The picture may be one of cool assurance under pressure, an Old Testament equivalent of Romans 8:31–39 or 2 Corinthians 12:9f.; a witness to infinite resources in the worst of situations. But since the enemy is never taken lightly in Scripture, except by a Ben-hadad or a Belshazzar, it more probably anticipates a victory celebration, where the enemies are present as captives; or an accession feast with defeated rivals as reluctant guests.

6. But the prospect is better than a feast. In the Old Testament world, to eat and drink at someone’s table created a bond of mutual loyalty, and could be the culminating token of a covenant. It was so in Exodus 24:8–12, when the elders of Israel ‘beheld God‚ and ate and drank’; it was so again at the Last Supper‚ when Jesus announced ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’ (1 Cor. 11:25).

So to be God’s guest is to be more than an acquaintance, invited for a day. It is to live with him. There is a suggestion of pilgrimage in the picture of a progress that ends at the house of the Lord; but it is also a journey home, for it was not only the Levites who considered the courts of the Lord their true home (as in Pss 42 and 84) but also, in heart and mind, David the man of affairs: cf. 27:4; 65:4.

Mercy is the covenant-word rendered ‘steadfast love’ elsewhere (see on 17:7). Together with goodness it suggests the steady kindness and support that one can count on in the family or between firm friends. With God these qualities are not merely solid and dependable, but vigorous—for to follow does not mean here to bring up the rear but to pursue, as surely as his judgments pursue the wicked (83:15).

For ever is lit. (in this verse) ‘to length of days’, which is not in itself an expression for eternity. But since the logic of God’s covenant allows no ending to his commitment to a man, as our Lord pointed out (Matt. 22:32), the Christian understanding of these words does no violence to them. ‘Neither death‚ nor life‚ … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’