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This psalm is asserted in the title to have been composed by David, and there is nothing in its contents contrary to this supposition, as there is nothing in it that would lead us necessarily to ascribe it to him. The contents of the psalm indeed correspond with the facts of his history, and with the recollections of his early life as a shepherd; but it is such as might have been composed by anyone who had been, and in fact by anyone though he had not been, a shepherd, as the images in it are such as are common in all poetry. Still, there is nothing to lead us to doubt that it was written by David.
It is wholly uncertain on what occasion the psalm was composed, since there are in the psalm no historical references, no indications of time, and no allusions to any circumstances in the life of the author. It is impossible even to determine whether it was composed in a time of prosperity or adversity; whether when the author was persecuted, or when he was prosperous and triumphant. The only apparent allusion to any circumstance of the poet’s life is in Psalms 23:6, where he says, as the crowning joy which he anticipated, that he would “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” from which it has been inferred by some that he was then in exile. But this allusion is of too general a character to justify this inference with certainty. Such a hope might be expressed by anyone in any circumstances, as the highest desire of a pious heart. Kimchi supposes that the psalm was composed by David in the wilderness of Hareth 1 Samuel 22:5; and that it pertained to the people of Israel, and to their return from exile. But this is mere conjecture. The Aramaic Paraphrase applies the psalm to the Hebrew people when delivered from captivity and exile, as a song of triumph on their return to their own land. Rudinger, and John D. Michaelis, suppose that it refers to the time when David had obtained a complete victory over all his enemies - when the rebellion of Absalom was quelled, when he was seated quietly on throne. Probably, if we are to to fix a time, it was at that period of life - an advanced period - when the recollection of the merciful interpositic of God in his behalf so often would suggest the brightest image of his earlier years, the watchful care which he as a shepherd had extended over his own flock - a care which God had now extended over him in the perils of his own life. Still, all this is no more than conjecture.
The psalm has always been regarded as one of exquisite beauty. The main subject is the watchful care which God had extended over the author, and the consequent assurance which he felt that God would still watch over him, and supply all his need. The leading thought - the essential idea - is, his full belief that God would provide for him, and that he would never be left to want. This is the thought with which the psalm commences: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want:” and this thought is carried through the psalm. It is illustrated by two facts or images:
(a) That God was his shepherd; that He had always manifested toward him (David) the care which a shepherd takes of his flock, Psalms 23:1-3; and
(b) That God had prepared a table before him (David) in the very presence of his enemies, or that he had abundantly led for him in their very sight, when they were endeavoring to destroy him - thus giving him the assurance that God never would leave him, Psalms 23:5.
The psalm, therefore, may be regarded as consisting of two main parts:
I. The general subject of the psalm - the confidence of the author in God - the assurance that he would always so provide for him that he would not want, Psalms 23:1.
II. The grounds or reasons for this confidence, Psalms 23:2-6. These are twofold:
(1) An argument derived from the care of God over him as a shepherd, Psalms 23:2-4.
(a) The statement of the fact, Psalms 23:2-3.
(b) The argument, Psalms 23:4. From his experience of the divine care in the past, he says that he would not be afraid even to descend into the valley of death.
(2) an argument derived from the fact that God had provided for him in the very presence of his enemies,Psalms 23:5-6; Psalms 23:5-6.
(a) The statement of the fact; or a reference to his life, during which God had shown the same care and goodness as if He had spread a table for him even in the sight of his enemies, Psalms 23:5.
(b) The confident assurance, derived from that fact, that God would follow him with goodness and mercy all the days of his life; that his future course would be as if he were always to dwell in the house of the Lord, Psalms 23:6.
The Lord is my shepherd - Compare Genesis 49:24, “From thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel;” Psalms 80:1, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel.” See also the notes at John 10:1-14. The comparison of the care which God extends over his people to that of a shepherd for his flock is one that would naturally occur to those who were accustomed to pastoral life. It would be natural that it should suggest itself to Jacob Genesis 49:24, and to David, for both of them had been shepherds. David, in advanced years, would naturally remember the occupations of his early life; and the remembrance of the care of God over him would naturally recall the care which he had, in earlier years, extended over his flocks. The idea which the language suggests is that of tender care; protection; particular attention to the young and the feeble (compare Isaiah 40:11); and providing for their wants. All these things are found eminently in God in reference to his people.
I shall not want - This is the main idea in the psalm, and this idea is derived from the fact that God is a shepherd. The meaning is, that, as a shepherd, he would make all needful provision for his flock, and evince all proper care for it. The words shall not want, as applied to the psalmist, would embrace everything that could be a proper object of desire, whether temporal or spiritual; whether pertaining to the body or the soul; whether having reference to time or to eternity. There is no reason for supposing that David limited this to his temporal necessities, or to the present life, but the idea manifestly is that God would provide all that was needful for him always. Compare Psalms 34:9, “There is no want to them that fear him.” This idea enters essentially into the conception of God as the shepherd of his people, that all their real wants shall be supplied.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures - Margin, “Pastures of tender grass.” The Hebrew word rendered “pastures” means usually “dwellings,” or “habitations.” It is applied here properly to “pastures,” as places where flocks and herds lie down for repose. The word rendered in the margin “tender grass” - דשׁא deshe' - refers to the first shoots of vegetation from the earth - young herbage - tender grass - as clothing the meadows, and as delicate food for cattle, Job 6:5. It differs from ripe grass ready for mowing, which is expressed by a different word - חציר châtsı̂yr. The idea is that of calmness and repose, as suggested by the image of flocks “lying down on the grass.” But this is not the only idea. It is that of flocks that lie down on the grass “fully fed” or “satisfied,” their wants being completely supplied. The exact point of contemplation in the mind of the poet, I apprehend, is that of a flock in young and luxuriant grass, surrounded by abundance, and, having satisfied their wants, lying down amidst this luxuriance with calm contentment. It is not merely a flock enjoying repose; it is a flock whose wants are supplied, lying down in the midst of abundance. Applied to the psalmist himself, or to the people of God generally, the idea is, that the wants of the soul are met and satisfied, and that, in the full enjoyment of this, there is the conviction of abundance - the repose of the soul at present satisfied, and feeling that in such abundance want will always be unknown.
He leadeth me beside the still waters - Margin, “waters of quietness.” Not stagnant waters, but waters not tempestuous and stormy; waters so calm, gentle, and still, as to suggest the idea of repose, and such as prompt to repose. As applied to the people of God, this denotes the calmness - the peace - the repose of the soul, when salvation flows as in a gently running stream; when there is no apprehension of want; when the heart is at; peace with God.
He restoreth my soul - literally, “He causes my life to return.” DeWette, “He quickens me,” or causes me to live. The word soul” here means life, or spirit, and not the soul in the strict sense in which the term is now used. It refers to the spirit when exhausted, weary, or sad; and the meaning is, that God quickens or vivifies the spirit when thus exhausted. The reference is not to the soul as wandering or backsliding from God, but to the life or spirit as exhausted, wearied, troubled, anxious, worn down with care and toil. the heart, thus exhausted, He re-animates. He brings back its vigor. He encourages it; excites it to new effort; fills it with new joy.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness - In right paths, or right ways. He conducts me in the straight path that leads to Himself; He does not permit me to wander in ways that would lead to ruin. In reference to His people it is true:
(a) that He leads them in the path by which they become righteous, or by which they are “justified” before him; and
(b) that He leads them in the way of “uprightness” and “truth.” He guides them in the way to heaven; His constant care is evinced that they “may” walk in that path.
For his name’s sake - For His own sake; or, that His name may be honored. It is not primarily on their account; it is not solely that they may be saved. It is that He may be honored:
(a) in their being saved at all;
(b) in the manner in which it is done;
(c) in the influence of their whole life, under His guidance, as making known His own character and perfections.
Compare Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 48:9; Isaiah 66:5; Jeremiah 14:7. The feeling expressed in this verse is that of confidence in God; an assurance that he would always lead his people in the path in which they should go. Compare Psalms 25:9. This he will always do if people will follow the directions of His word, the teachings of His Spirit, and the guidance of His providence. No one who submits to Him in this way will ever go astray!
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death - The meaning of this in the connection in which it occurs is this: “God will lead and guide me in the path of righteousness, even though that path lies through the darkest and most gloomy vale - through deep and dismal shades - in regions where there is no light, as if death had cast his dark and baleful shadow there. It is still a right path; it is a path of safety; and it will conduct me to bright regions beyond. In that dark and gloomy valley, though I could not guide myself, I will not be alarmed; I will not be afraid of wandering or of being lost; I will not fear any enemies there - for my Shepherd is there to guide me still.” On the word here rendered “shadow of death” - צלמות tsalmâveth - see Job 3:5, note; and Isaiah 9:2, note. The word occurs besides only in the following places, in all of which it is rendered “shadow of death:” Job 10:21-22; Job 12:22; Job 16:16; Job 24:17 (twice); Job 28:3; Job 34:22; Job 38:17; Psalms 44:19; Psalms 107:10, Psalms 107:14; Jeremiah 2:6; Jeremiah 13:16; Amos 5:8. The idea is that of death casting his gloomy shadow over that valley - the valley of the dead. Hence, the word is applicable to any path of gloom or sadness; any scene of trouble or sorrow; any dark and dangerous way. Thus understood, it is applicable not merely to death itself - though it embraces that - but to any or all the dark, the dangerous, and the gloomy paths which we tread in life: to ways of sadness, solitude, and sorrow. All along those paths God will be a safe and certain guide.
I will fear no evil - Dark, cheerless, dismal as it seems, I will dread nothing. The true friend of God has nothing to fear in that dark valley. His great Shepherd will accompany him there, and can lead him safely through, however dark it may appear. The true believer has nothing to fear in the most gloomy scenes of life; he has nothing to fear in the valley of death; he has nothing to fear in the grave; he has nothing to fear in the world beyond.
For thou art with me - Thou wilt be with me. Though invisible, thou wilt attend me. I shall not go alone; I shall not be alone. The psalmist felt assured that if God was with him he had nothing to dread there. God would be his companion, his comforter, his protector, his guide. How applicable is this to death! The dying man seems to go into the dark valley alone. His friends accompany him as far as they can, and then they must give him the parting hand. They cheer him with their voice until he becomes deaf to all sounds; they cheer him with their looks until his eye becomes dim, and he can see no more; they cheer him with the fond embrace until he becomes insensible to every expression of earthly affection, and then he seems to be alone. But the dying believer is not alone. His Saviour God is with him in that valley, and will never leave him. Upon His arm he can lean, and by His presence he will be comforted, until he emerges from the gloom into the bright world beyond. All that is needful to dissipate the terrors of the valley of death is to be able to say, “Thou art with me.”
Thy rod and thy staff - It may not be easy to mark the difference between these two words; but they would seem probably to refer, the latter to the “staff” which the shepherd used in walking, and the former to the “crook” which a shepherd used for guiding his flock. The image is that of a shepherd in attendance on his flock, with a staff on which he leans with one hand; in the other hand the “crook” or rod which was the symbol of his office. Either of these also might be used to guard the flock, or to drive off the enemies of the flock. The “crook” is said (see Rosenmuller, in loc.) to have been used to seize the legs of the sheep or goats when they were disposed to run away, and thus to keep them with the flock. “The shepherd invariably carries a rod or staff with him when he goes forth to feed his flock. It is often bent or hooked at one end, which gave rise to the shepherd’s crook in the hand of the Christian bishop. With this staff he rules and guides the flock to their green pastures, and defends them from their enemies. With it also he corrects them when disobedient, and brings them back when wandering.” (The land and the book, vol. i., p. 305.)
They comfort me - The sight of them consoles me. They show that the Shepherd is there. As significant of his presence and his office, they impart confidence, showing that he will not leave me alone, and that he will defend me.
Thou preparest a table - The image is now changed, though expressing the general idea which is indicated in the first verse of the psalm, “I shall not want.” The evidence or proof of this in the previous verses is, that God was a shepherd, and would provide for him as a shepherd does for his flock; the evidence here is that God had provided a table, or a feast, for him in the very presence of his enemies, and had filled his cup with joy. The word “table” here is synonymous with “feast;” and the meaning is, “thou providest for my wants.” There “may” be an allusion here to some particular period of the life of the psalmist, when he was in want, and when he perhaps felt an apprehension that he would perish, and when God had unexpectedly provided for his wants; but it is impossible now to determine to what occasion he thus refers. There were numerous occasions in the life of David which would be well represented by this language, “as if” God had provided a meal for him in the very “presence” of his foes, and in spite of them.
Before me - For me. It is spread in my presence, and for me.
In the presence of mine enemies - That is, in spite of them, or so that they could not prevent it. They were compelled to look on and see how God provided for him. It was manifest that this was from God; it was a proof of the divine favor; it furnished an assurance that he who had done this would never leave him to want. The friends of God are made to triumph in the very presence of their foes. Their enemies are compelled to see how He interposes in their behalf, how He provides for them, and how He defends them. Their final triumph in the day of judgment will be in the very presence of all their assembled enemies, for in their very presence He will pronounce the sentence which will make their eternal happiness sure, Matthew 25:31-36.
Thou anointest my head with oil - Margin, as in Hebrew, “makest fat.” That is, thou dost pour oil on my head so abundantly that it seems to be made fat with it. The expression indicates abundance. The allusion is to the custom of anointing the head on festival occasions, as an indication of prosperity and rejoicing (see Matthew 6:17, note; Luke 7:46, note), and the whole is indicative of the divine favor, of prosperity, and of joy.
My cup runneth over - It is not merely “full;” it runs over. This, too, indicates abundance; and from the abundance of the favors thus bestowed, the psalmist infers that God would always provide for him, and that He would never leave him to want.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me - God will bestow them upon me. This is the “result” of what is stated in the previous verses. The effect of God’s merciful dealings with him had been to lead his mind to the assurance that God would always be his shepherd and friend; that He would never leave him to want.
All the days of my life - Through all its changes; in every variety of situation; until I reach its close. Life indeed would end, and he does not venture to conjecture when that would be; but as long as life should continue, he felt confidently assured that everything needful for him would be bestowed upon him. The language is the utterance of a heart overflowing with joy and gratitude in the recollection of the past, and full of glad anticipation (as derived from the experience of the past) in regard to the future.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever - Margin, as in Hebrew: “to length of days.” The expression, I think, does not refer to eternity or to heaven, but it is parallel with the former expression “All the days of my life;” that is, he would dwell in the house of the Lord as long as he lived - with the idea added here, which was not in the former member of the sentence, that his life would be long, or that he hoped and anticipated that he would live long on the earth. The phrase used here, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord,” is one that is several times employed in the Psalms as indicative of the wish of the psalmist. Thus, in Psalms 27:4, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Psalms 26:8, “lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honor dwelleth.” Psalms 65:4, “blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, that he may dwell in thy courts.”
Psalms 84:4, “blessed are they that dwell in thy house.” (Compare also Psalms 87:1, Psalms 87:3,10). The “language” here is obviously taken from the employment of those who had their habitation near the tabernacle, and afterward the temple, whose business it was to attend constantly on the service of God, and to minister in his courts. We are not to suppose of David that he anticipated such a residence in or near the tabernacle or the house of God; but the meaning is, that he anticipated and desired a life as if he dwelt there, and as if he was constantly engaged in holy occupations. His life would be spent as if in the constant service of God; his joy and peace in religion would be as if he were always within the immediate dwelling-place of the Most High. This expresses the desire of a true child of God. He wishes to live as if he were always engaged in solemn acts of worship, and occupied in holy things; he desires peace and joy in religion as if he were constantly in the place where God makes his abode, and allowed to partake of his smiles and friendship. In a very important sense it is his privilege so to live even on earth; it will certainly be his privilege so to live in heaven: and, full of grateful exultation and joy, every child of God may adopt this language as his own, and say confidently, “Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life here, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” for heaven, where God dwells, will be his eternal home.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 23". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18