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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 23

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Writers have tried to outdo one another in describing the popularity, beauty, and delight of this little psalm. It is described as perhaps the most popular chapter in the Old Testament, which is undoubtedly the truth.

The Davidic authorship of it is generally accepted. “No really valid argument has yet been advanced against it.”(F1) However, the date of its composition is uncertain. The metaphor of the shepherd which dominates the passage suggests the early life of the shepherd king David. but the content of it seems to be more appropriate for one well advanced in age. There are absolutely no clues in the psalm which could shed any light whatever on these questions.

It seems to this writer that David might have been indeed a very old man when he was inspired to write the Shepherd Psalm. We may imagine that in a moment of tranquillity for his kingdom, after the rebellion had been put down, when the wars were over, and in a moment of remembering how, as a young man, he had taken a lion by the beard to slay it, and that he had overcome the mortal danger of an encounter with a bear, and that he had gone out to battle against the mighty giant Goliath with nothing but a sling and five smooth stones in his hand, and with no armor at all - that in such a moment of remembering many occasions when only the blessing of God had preserved his life, that there suddenly came the inspiration for this psalm.

“Yes,” the king might have thought, “I was watching over my father’s sheep in those days, but I am now keenly aware that Someone was watching over me.”

This writer personally rejoices in this psalm and remembers quoting it at every one of the one hundred funerals that he held in 1937, and upon countless other occasions also. Nothing else in the Bible, except New Testament passages such as John 14:1 ff, is able to provide the comfort and inspire the faith of believers in quite the same intensity as does this psalm.

Some writers believe that two metaphors appear in this passage: (1) that of the shepherd (Psalms 23:1-4); and (2) that of the gracious and generous host (Psalms 23:5-6). Kyle Yates advocated this view and stated that, “God appears as the Personal Shepherd (Psalms 23:1-4), and as the Gracious Host (Psalms 23:5-6).”(F2)

A very respected commentator, H. C. Leupold rejected this interpretation of “two metaphors,” but he admitted that Psalms 23:5 does indeed, “Come closer to the figure of an Oriental banquet, in which the anointing (the head) with perfumed oil, was a courtesy shown guests in ancient times.”(F3) Furthermore, there is the additional difficulty of fitting this “anointing the head with oil” into any necessary function performed by a shepherd for the sheep.

We consciously reject the rather extravagant imaginations of some who have attributed such actions to Oriental shepherds. This writer knows nothing of such anointing of the head that may be applied to sheep. Furthermore, the “presence of the enemies” looking on with envy fits the Biblical picture of Mid-East banquets, “In which onlookers were permitted to witness,”(F4) far better than it suggests a shepherd’s finding pasture for the sheep while the lions and the bears look on! The viewpoint maintained in this commentary is that there are two metaphors.

Verses 1-4

“Jehovah 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: He guideth 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.”

“The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalms 23:1). The word “lord” is far preferable in every way to the synthetic word “Jehovah.” It is indeed God Himself who here appears as the Shepherd of Israel; and in the New Testament, when Jesus Christ said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14), the words were a bold and undeniable claim of Divinity.

“I shall not want” (Psalms 23:1). Barnes identified this as the topic sentence of the whole psalm. “This is the leading thought, the essential idea; and it is carried throughout the psalm.”(F5)

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” (Psalms 23:2). Any person who knows anything about sheep knows that they will never lie down when they are hungry. Therefore, the scene here is the green pastures where the sheep have eaten their fill and then when no longer hungry they lie down.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalms 23:2). The literal Hebrew here reads “waters of rest.”(F6) This entire verse speaks of the tranquillity that belongs to one in fellowship with God. As far as the metaphor goes, “the still waters” would refer to any undisturbed watering place for the sheep; but the human application to a life of tranquillity appears to be very much in mind. This is the Old Testament equivalent of that “peace which passeth understanding.”

Although two metaphors appear in the psalm, the one dominating thought is that of “all” that God does for his people. “The seven-fold activity of God is here: (1) he satisfies our hunger; (2) he leads us by the still waters; (3) he restores us when we have fallen away; (4) he guides us in the way of righteousness; (5) he abides `with us’ even through death; (6) he gives us `a table’ in his kingdom; and (7) he cares for us eternally.”(F7)

“He restoreth my soul” (Psalms 23:3). This is the thought of the shepherd metaphor in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. The human application is that of converting Christians who have fallen away from duty. Some writers would soften what is said here by rendering “refresheth” instead of “restoreth”; but as Kidner pointed out, “The verb used here refers to `repentance,’ or `conversion.’“(F8) In this context, the “restoring” or “bringing back” of the sheep, “Pictures the deeper renewal of the man of God, spiritually perverse or ailing as he may be.”(F9)

“He leadeth me… for his name’s sake” (Psalms 23:3). This passage is where many commentators have missed it altogether. Why does God perform all these wonderful activities for men? It is not for the purpose, “Of upholding his reputation for fair dealings with his people.”(F10) “It is not merely because it is his nature to do so.”(F11) It is because the ones cared for are called by God’s name.” The prophet Isaiah gave the correct answer thus: “I have redeemed thee… thou art mine… I have called thee by my name(F12)… I have created thee for my glory” (Isaiah 43:1-7).

Yes indeed, the plan of salvation is in this psalm. Those persons who are the object of the kind of protection and guidance assured in this psalm, in the present dispensation, are Christians. No one is “called by God’s name” (Isaiah 43:7) who has not been baptized into it; and although the ancient Israelites were, in their day, called by God’s name, it was for an utterly different reason from that which prevails now. Nothing in the Bible emphasizes the exclusiveness of these marvelous promises quite as effectively as Isaiah 43:1-7.

“The valley of the shadow of death” (Psalms 23:4). The shepherd metaphor in this reference envisions an occasion when the shepherd might be required to lead his sheep through some dangerous, forested valley, where lions and other enemies of the sheep were lurking; but the safety of the sheep was assured by the presence of the shepherd. In the human application of it, the soul that trusts in the Lord will most surely pass through many dark valleys, even that of death itself at last; but no fear will be felt because the Lord will be with his own, “Even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 18:20).

“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4). “The rod was a short oaken club for defense; the staff was a longer pole used for climbing or leaning upon it. Eastern shepherds still carry both.”(F13) Beigent added that, “The rod was often tipped with iron.”(F14)

In Zechariah, when that prophet appeared as a type of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, he carried two such devices as the “rod” and the “staff,” to which he gave two names, Beauty and Bands. In the breaking of these staves, that prophet prophesied that Jesus Christ would (1) break the covenant with fleshly Israel, and (2) that he would break away the “true Israel” from the “racial Israel.” (See my full comment on this in Vol. 4 of the minor prophets, pp. 166-172.)

We like Matthew Henry’s comment that “the rod and the staff” here are, “The rod of correction and the staff of support.”(F15)

Verses 5-6

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou has anointed my head with oil; My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

See the chapter introduction for a comment on the change of metaphor. Here we have a gracious and generous host who provides a banquet for his guest. The table is a prepared one, presumably loaded with bountiful abundance of the most choice foods. It is a banquet of the “brimming cup” and the anointed head. Furthermore, the enemies witness all this.

Inasmuch as Christ himself claimed to be the “Good Shepherd” of this passage, we do not hesitate to find overtones of the Christian religion in it. We do not claim that this psalm is Messianic in the usual sense, but that it is impossible to portray the Good Shepherd without definite suggestions of Christ and his kingdom.

Gaebelein noted this and stated that:

“Here we can think of the Lord’s table (I appoint unto you a kingdom, that ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom - Luke 22:30), where the bread and the wine are symbols of his love. As we worship at that table, we remember him the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. We show forth the Lord’s death till he come. The Lord himself is with us in the assembly; and there are onlookers. Our enemies are also looking on! The table spread telling forth his conquering love is the Table of Victory.”(F16)

No, we cannot claim that any of this is foretold here; but the description of the Good Shepherd fits the Lord perfectly.

The marvelous assurance of this psalm is the Old Testament equivalent of Romans 8:31-39.

McCaw pointed out that the imagery of the great banquet here is an integral part of the whole Biblical panorama that includes: “Joseph’s feeding Israel (Genesis 43:34), Jesus’ feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:19), the parable of the Great Supper (Luke 14:15-24), and that of the marriage feast of the Bridegroom (Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 19:9).”(F17)

“Forever and ever” (Psalms 23:6). We feel somewhat annoyed at those writers who seem determined to challenge any ancient meaning of the sacred text. There are absolutely no scholars today who have any more learning or any more intelligence than the translators of the KJV, which rendition is here followed by the ASV. Some point out that, the literal Hebrew from which these words are translated actually has, “`For length of days,’ referring to prolonged earthly life rather that to life after death.”(F18) So what? As Dahood, writing in the Anchor Bible, stated it, “The Hebrew words here are actually a synonym for `eternal life.’“(F19) In accordance with this fact, The Anchor Bible renders Psalms 23:6 here as follows:

“Surely goodness and kindness will attend me, all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the house of Yahweh for days without end.”

Furthermore, as Kidner noted, “The Christian understanding of these words (as in the KJV) does no violence to them.”(F20) Did not an apostle say, that, “Neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38)?

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/psalms-23.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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