A study of Psalm 23

One of the things we are doing in class is closely studying individual passages in the Psalms. Our process includes background research, a structural analysis, a verse-by-verse examination highlighting confusing parts, a section on theological insights, and then a concluding practical application. Believe it or not, most of the good scholarly exegetical work is done by atheists!

Anyway, here is the psalm according to the TNIV translation. Following this will be my analysis.  Hope you guys enjoy it.

A psalm of David.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, [a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Historical Background

Based on the theories of the scholarship referenced, the time of this psalm’s writing is estimated to be between the later life of David and sometime before the Exile. Anderson (Psalms, vol.1 p.196) theorizes that its original use and writing took place before the exile with no additional specificity. Traditional scholarship appears to be united in dating it at a time later in David’s life. Anderson gives credence to other scholarship who deny David as the author (based on the title alone,) and rather tries to ascertain the station and situation behind the unknown author based on the psalm’s content. Scholars in this category believe it was written by skilled writers for use during temple observances – the most likely being the thanksgiving offering. Craigie (WBC, Psalms vol.1 p.205) believes the psalm was originally written by an individual based on his experiences, but was later adopted for temple usage. Eaton (PTBC, p.76) believes the original purpose of the psalm was to be “recited by a royal head and representative of the community” during religious activities. As to the situation behind the psalm, critical scholarship such as Anderson theorize that the psalmist may have been unjustly accused, and this is a poetic description of his experience and deliverance from that ordeal. Wilson, (NAC Psalms, vol.1 p.437) describes at this psalm being one that strikes a cord with the Exilic Israelite population, seeing verse 6 as appealing to this people who long to return to their temple in Jerusalem. In proposing this, Wilson implies a post-Exilic date and an authorship other than David.

Traditional scholarship attributes the authorship to David and finds no legitimate evidence against this position from its contents. The question then arises as to when during his life and under what circumstances was it written. Out of this category of scholarship, the fairly unanimous belief is that it was written by David in his older age. Their reasoning varies based on their view of the content. Leupold (Exposition of the Psalms, p.209) sees the quality and depth of the psalm being only possible from the insight of a more mature man– “that the spirit-filled servant of the Lord composed such helpful songs as these.” Perowne agrees stating “the simplicity of the dictation, so perfect in harmony with the thoughts and images of the Psalm, might be looked for more naturally in mature years.” (The Book of Psalms, vol.1 p. 248.) Perowne takes a step further and tries to determine a more specific date and experience in David’s life behind the writing. He advances the possibility that the psalm was composed from his experience of fleeing from Absalom. The themes of terrible danger and his needs being met can be found in the 2nd Samuel account of David’s flight and return to Jerusalem. Both the personal realization of inevitable death, possibly alluded to in verse 4, and his needs being met, possibly arising from a remembrance of the kindness of Barzillai and other friends during this time can be found to reinforce this hypothesis. Delitzsch (COTOT, Psalms, p.207) also strongly supports this view.


The main theme in this psalm is one of trust in God and of a commitment to Him. Alexander (The Psalms, p.115) sees the structure as being roughly three parts. The first verse is sums up the entire psalm, similar to Kidner (Psalms, vol.1 p.109). Verses 2-5 amplify and poetically enhance it, and verse 6 sums it up again while simultaneously switching to another metaphor. Craigie (WBC, Psalms vol.1 p.204-205) discusses the difficulty with determining a structure when there is such sharply divided perspectives among scholars. Bratcher (A Handbook on Psalms, p.230) and Anderson (Psalms, vol.1 p.195) mention the most popularly accepted structure– one that features two distinct parts, each depicting God with a unique metaphor. The first part pictures God as a shepherd (verses 1-4) and the second part (verses 5-6) features God as a host. Another reasonable hypothesis is a three part structure where each section is also marked by a change in metaphor. The first pictures God as a shepherd (verses 1-2,) a guide (verses 3-4,) and concludes with the metaphor of God as a gracious host (verses 5-6.)

Wilson (NAC, Psalms, vol.1 p. 431) takes a different approach that sees a “sandwich” structure where sections are delineated by a shift in how God is referred to. The central section (verses 4-5) refers to God in the 2nd person, a more direct and personal way, while its bordering sections (verses 1-3 and 6) refer to God in the 3rd person. In addition to this structure, Wilson sees a 4 part structure. Verse 1 is the introduction, verses 2-3 depict the abundant life, verse 4 illustrates the secure life, verse 5 depicts the blessed life, and the forth section is a picture of an intimate life dwelling in God’s house.

Craigie (WBC, Psalms, vol.1 pp 203-209) proposes the unique view that the entire psalm draws its metaphoric references from the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. The phrase “you prepare a table before me” in verse 5 use a similar phrase found in Psalm 78:19 which describes the rebellion in the wilderness and contains a phrase about God “spreading a table.” The concepts of God providing for the needs of his people is easily seen in the Exodus narrative. Craigie sees the fulfillment of this overall theme reference with the word hesed – which he translates as “covenantal” love, a prominently seen feature of God’s nature during this time in Israel’s history.

Bratcher (A Handbook on Psalms, p.230) illuminates the absence of the typical types of parallelism found in most other psalms, which include aspects such as balanced clauses, word pairing, and chiastic patterns. Instead, there is a more terse approach to the usage of words, and the clauses are not intentionally balanced in length. However, the concept of clause symmetry, regardless of length or content (i.e. the A and B relationship,) the heart of biblical parallelism, is found here.

Verse Commentary

This psalm begins with the title of “A Psalm of David.” Most conservative scholarship agrees that this title is accurate.
“The Lord is my shepherd.” Perowne shows that this metaphor is not the used here for the first time. Jacob used it when he was delivering his blessing to his sons and grandsons, and uses the phrase in an individual sense: “The God who has been my shepherd” in Genesis 48:15 and in a communal sense in Genesis 49:24 where he describes God as a “Shepherd” of the future tribes of Joseph. Moses is the next to employ it in Deut. 32, 6-12. The prophets also used this metaphor – Ezekiel 34 & 37, Isaiah 40 – prophesying the future appearing of the Messianic figure or just describing God, and Micah 7. Anderson (Psalms vol.1, p.196) also notes this is description used for kings and gods found in Near Eastern literature; Hammurabi was referred to as the “Shepherd” of the people, and the Sun-God Shamash is designated as “shepherd of the people of the world.”

“I shall not be in want.” From this point onward, Leupold notes that the verbs used are mostly in the imperfect tense. So this phrase would be better translated in the present tense, “I lack nothing” (TNIV’s rendering.) Both Anderson and Craigie see this phrase as a clear allusion to the divine provision of all Israel’s needs in the wilderness during the Exodus. Wilson (NAC Psalms, vol.1 p.432) sees this phrase as not meaning “all I desire” as the English word “want” can sometimes mean, but rather that God will provide for all our needs.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures…” Alexander (Psalms, p.115-116) sees this phrase as the first allegorical description of how the Shepherd provides for the psalmist. He further clarifies the meaning of the picture– it is not one describing the provision of food (green grass) but of a peaceful location for rest – pleasing to the eye and comfortable to lie down in. Leupold (Exposition of the Psalms, p.211) further supports this view with the idea that sheep do not eat while lying down, so a picture of resting and comfort is the right one. Bratcher (A Handbook on Psalms, p.232) clarifies the meaning of the verb “makes”– it does not mean “to force” but rather “He lets me lie down.”

“He leads me beside quiet waters…” Again, Alexander stresses that the picture here is not one of provision for thirst, but continues with the theme of this section of rest and comfort. The shepherd leads the sheep alongside peaceful waters, not to them to drink. However, Anderson (Psalms, p.197) sees a correlation between this verse and the next which talks about personal restoration and thus sees the picture of water as being one of sustenance. However this logic seems doubtful since the same connection could be used in favor of restoration though comfort and rest. The word for “leads” here is nāhal, which means to guide by walking beside.

“He restores my soul…” Alexander interprets “restore” to more specifically mean to bring rest and comfort to a person who has been exhausted, mentally or physically. The word translated “soul” or nepeš has no specific spiritual connotation, but rather refers to the whole person– i.e. “He restores me.” Perowne (The Book of Psalms, p.251) sees this as a further clarification of the purpose of rest and comfort– to restore strength and power, not just to weaken character by coddling and removing from adversity.
“He guides me in paths of righteousness…” The word for “guides” (nāhâ) refers to leading by physically being in front of the one who is being guided. This is the word used to describe the behavior of the pillar of fire and smoke that went along “in front” of the Israelites to guide them in the wilderness (Exodus 13:17.)

The phrase “Paths of righteousness” does not refer to a physically crooked path, but probably refers to something more profound. Many commentators note a duel meaning of the word “right” – it can mean both the right way the shepherd means to take his sheep to get to a specific destination and in a more human sense, a moral way of behaving and thinking that God is trying to guide us towards in life. (Perowne, Alexander, Leupold) The argument that “paths of righteousness” are ways that are not dangerous as Bratcher appears to suggest (A Handbook on Psalms, p.233) seems illogical due to the presence of the next verse talking about the shepherd being with the psalmist in the “valley of the shadow of death.”

The phrase “for your name’s sake” has puzzled commentators, and some have taken it to mean an adherence to a covenant agreement and promises (Alexander, Psalms, p.116,) or a protection of his reputation (Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, p.212,) or for His own glory and the furthering of his kingdom (Perowne, The Book of Psalms, vol.1 p.251) However, it seems that all these interpretations err in the logic of cause and effect. God does not guide in accordance with his covenant promises or because of a desire for a good reputation, but simply because it is who He is – it is His nature and desire to do so. God’s nature and character are manifested in His covenant promises, not the other way around. They are not an outcome of His covenant with Israel, rather the covenant is an outcome of the nature and character of God that already existed long before the covenant was made.

“Valley of the shadow of death…” The word “death” in this phrase is simply not present in the Hebrew. The phrase translated “shadow of death” is really one Hebrew word– tsalmáveth which more accurately means “complete” or “total” darkness. So a more accurate translation would be the “valley of total darkness…” a picture that refers to dark and bitter experiences in life more generally rather than death in particular (Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, p.213).

“I will fear no evil…” The word “evil” used here is ra, and it has two meanings. The first meaning refers to moral wrong, and the second to calamity or bad occurrences. In this context, the second meaning is more likely since it would be parallel to the metaphorical meaning of the previous clause. The psalmist will fear no future calamity because God is with him.

“For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me …” Most commentators describe the rod as a weapon- a club or cudgel for fending off wild beasts. The staff is described as a walking stick that doubles as a tool to guide sheep by gentle tapping or hitting to urge in the right direction. However, the reason for their mention and what they metaphorically refer to differ. Alexander (Psalms p.117) believes that they are intended to represent tokens of the shepherd’s presence and not as weapons of defense, thus matching the concept of the previous clause to form a parallelism. However, he fails to explain in non-metaphoric terms what he means by this. Other commentators, such as Bratcher, Anderson, Delitzsch, and Wilson give no more comment to these implements other than the obvious fact that they are a comfort to the psalmist. Oddly, no commentators put forth any theories of whether these implements are a picture of something else, such as a temporal manifestation of what they represent in his life.

Your prepare a table before me …” This phrase marks a change in metaphor from God being pictured as a shepherd to one as a delighted host. Kidner (Psalms, p.111) sees this as a switch from the metaphor of a shepherd to the reality of God as a friend. The theme of protection found in the previous verses now switch to provision (Alexander, Psalms p.117.) Craigie, Anderson, Weiser, and Wilson see this new section as a change in setting from the wilderness to the temple of the Lord, and more specifically, the psalmist is involved in a thanksgiving offering ceremony.

Some commentators draw parallels to the word “table” mentioned here to a similar Arabic word that refers loosely to a leather blanket for spreading on the ground to eat on, with the assumption that the psalmist is continuing the shepherd metaphor. (Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, p.214.) Anderson (Psalms, p.198) find the Hebrew word for “table” in Ugaritic texts, lending weight to the interpretation that the word really means a table and not a leather blanket.

“In the presence of my enemies…” This phrase has puzzled scholars, and many interpretations have arisen because of this. Bratcher believes this to be for the purpose of taunting enemies (A Handbook on Psalms, p.234.) Anderson (Psalms, p.198) believes that since the setting is in the temple during a thanksgiving sacrifice, other people would be around, and it is likely the psalmist’s enemies would be among them looking on but unable to harm him. Perowne theorizes that the presence of enemies is really a poetic way of the psalmist recalling the enemies of his past, not ones physically present (The Book of Psalms, p.252.) Craigie also agrees with this interpretation (WBC, Psalms, vol.1, p.208.) However, Alexander and Delitzsch are proponents of a more realistic approach. They simply see this phrase as meaning that the enemies in the life of the psalmist are always in his midst watching him, and they are witnesses to God blessing him though out his life.

“You anoint my head with oil…” Alexander draws inspiration for his interpretation of this phrase as being a metaphoric representation of the theme of abundance and provision from the root meaning of the word “anoint,” which means “fattened.” (Psalms, p.117.) But he further supports the idea that the phrase was more directly referring to the practice of pouring oil on a guests’s head during festivals. Anderson (Psalms 198-199) supports this view and cites another practice of a host pouring oil on a guest’s head that arrives at their house. Leupold sites interpretations that support a continuation of the shepherd metaphor with stories that even modern shepherds carry oil to sooth the scratched heads of sheep who have been caught in bramble bushes trying to reach food. (Exposition of the Psalms, p.214.)

“My cup overflows…” Alexander again sees this as a final metaphor of God’s abundance in the psalmist’s life. Delitzsch (Psalms, p.208-209) believes that the theme of abundance relayed though these metaphors is not meant to be only of a spiritual nature, but also of a temporal one as well.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It is implied that this phrase contrasts David’s enemies “following” him (Alexander, The Psalms, p.117.) with God’s tob (goodness) and his hesed (unconditional love.) The world for “follow” here means to pursue rather than “accompany” although Bratcher (A Handbook on Psalms p.235) believes the opposite.

“I will dwell in the house of the Lord …” Wilson (NAC Psalms, vol.1 p.438) goes to great lengths to prove the connotation of God’s house as mentioned here with the earthly temple in Jerusalem. Although the word studies he does is thorough, the entire idea does not make sense on many levels, especially if a Davidic authorship is assumed. There was no temple during the time of David, and the holding place of the ark was first put into a “tent” that David pitched for it (1st Samuel 6:17.) This residence of the ark is mentioned again as his (God’s) “dwelling place” in 2nd Samuel 16:25, with the assumption that it was still a tent and no other structure had replaced it. The idea that David wished to live every day (to dwell) inside a tent structure whose main purpose was for the various liturgical activities prescribed by the Mosaic law seems unlikely. If the tent he constructed was close in dimensions to the one prescribed by Moses’ instruction, the space was large enough only for priests to carry out their duties, and the idea of anyone living inside it seems highly improbable.

Numerous commentators mention Dahood’s suggestion that the psalmist had in mind God’s heavenly home in the afterlife, and this seems more closer to what David possibly meant, except that a future time frame does not match the verb tenses in these verses, which is more likely to be taken in a present-perfect tense (I dwell and will continue to dwell…) It appears that David was thinking of eating and drinking with God in the present, as suggested by the tense, even in the midst of all his problems, and if the theory that setting of this psalm was when he was fleeing from Absalom is correct, this activity was not even going on anywhere near Jerusalem, much less in God’s “tent.” A more metaphysical understanding of this phrase is probably required. Alexander supports this view: “Dwelling in the house of Jehovah does not mean frequenting his sanctuary, but being a member of his household and an inmate of his family, enjoying his protection, holding communion with him, and subsisting on his bounty.” (Psalms, p.117.)

Theological Insights

There are many insights about God that we can take away from this Psalm. A few can be mentioned here.

  • God desires to guide his people in his ways.
  • God seeks to comfort his people when they are exhausted
  • God provides security for his people in very difficult and dangerous times.
  • God allows us to find security in him during these difficult times
  • God graciously provides for our needs in abundance, not just enough to barely get by with
  • God sees his relationship with us as one of an intimate friend, living together in his house, as part of his family.
  • Even now, we dwell in the presence of God.

A Practical Application

It is good to remember that God is one who can bring us great comfort in times of danger and great distress. He will reach out to us and leads us to a place in our lives where we can find comfort and be once again restored to a place of hope and security. God does not do this out of a cold obligation to a covenant, but rather it is his very nature and desire to reach out and guide us and comfort us.

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