Psalm 23 is usually classified as a psalm of confidence in the Lord’s care. It uses two images: the Lord as Shepherd who cares for the sheep (vv.1-4), and the Lord as Host who cares for his guest (vv.5-6). These images would be familiar from everyday experience (for David’s own, 1 Sam. 17:34); but they also evoke other ideas common in the ancient Near East (including the Old Testament), with the deity as shepherd of his people and the deity as host of the meal. In worship, the faithful celebrate God’s greatness and majesty; and when they sing this psalm, they see his majesty in the way he personal attends to each of his covenant lambs. He is the shepherd for Israel as a whole; and in being such, he is the shepherd for each faithful Israelite as well.
Just as a shepherd cares for his sheep, so the Lord cares for his people, providing for their needs, guiding them, and protecting them. The deity as shepherd motif is common in the Bible (Genesis 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Rev. 7:17). The Lord is the Shepherd of the people as a whole, as well as individual members. Want here in Psalm 23:1 refers to what one lacks in terms of needs.
Green pastures and still waters are peaceful places for rest and feeding. The restoration, refreshment, or revival of the soul indicates the returning of life or vitality. The paths in which God leads his faithful are the basic moral direction of their lives, towards righteousness. For his name sake means in order to preserve his reputation for being true to his revealed character.
The shadow of death may be the shadow that death casts, or it may be deep darkness. The idea is that in a valley in the desert in Judah one can encounter deep shadows, and cannot know for sure who (bandits) or what (animals, flash floods) lurks in them; even in such periods of suspense and danger, the faithful find assurance that God is with then, and thus they need not fear.
Some have argued that the image of the shepherd and sheep is still present here; but the mention of a table, of putting oil on the head, the cup and the Lord’s “house,” all show that the psalm now describes the faithful person as God’s guest at a meal (“prepare a table”). The enemies are powerless to prevent the enjoyment of God’s generous hospitality. Goodness and mercy are the assurance of the faithful that God has showered his grace upon them. For a non-Levite to dwell in the house of the Lord is to have ready access to the sanctuary for worship.
This post is part one where I have explained the context and what Psalm 23 means. In part two we will look at what Psalm 23 has to teach us by exploring life as a pilgrimage. In the final part we will look at setting a table before us and dwelling in the house of God.