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Wednesday, June 12th, 2024
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 23

Old & New Testament Restoration CommentaryRestoration Commentary

Verses 1-4

Psa 23:1-4

THE SHEPHERD PSALM

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.” 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 tranquility 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).”

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.” 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,” 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.

Psalms 23:1-4

"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.”

"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.” 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.”

"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.’” 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.”

"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.” "It is not merely because it is his nature to do so.” 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 ... 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.” Beigent added that, "The rod was often tipped with iron.”

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."

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

E.M. Zerr:

Psalms 23:1. David had been a shepherd when a boy (1 Samuel 16:11; 1 Samuel 17:34; 1 Samuel 17:40), and had many experiences that he used as illustrations in his writings. This psalm is almost wholly drawn from that subject. The expressions are largely figurative, and the phases of his experiences will be used either in comparison or contrast or both, as the nature of the cases may suggest. He had been a shepherd over literal sheep, now he is a sheep himself and the Lord is his shepherd. It was his duty as a shepherd to see that proper nourishment was provided for his flock. Accordingly he felt assured that his shepherd would not let him want. That word is from CHACER and Strong defines it, "a primitive root; to lack; by implication to fail, lessen." Young and Moffatt also render it by lack. So it does not mean that God’s people will always obtain their desires or wishes, but they will be supplied with their actual needs as sheep of the Lord’s pasture.

Psalms 23:2. Lie is from RABATS and is defined thus: "a primitive root; to crouch (on all four legs folded, like a recumbent animal)."-Strong. It does not mean to be prone, with the body extended as if from exhaustion. But it describes an animal in a posture of comfort and contentment. Green pastures. The first word is from an original that means "young and tender," hence very desirable food. When an animal lies down in the pasture (not where the pasture was), it proves that there was enough provision for him and some to spare. When waters are used figuratively they represent the state of mind or the surroundings of the individual concerned. If the condition is one of unpleasantness, then we will see such terms as "troubled waters" or "waters of affliction." If the condition is the other kind, we will see such terms as David used here; still waters. The direct thought is that the divine shepherd will always give the sheep of his pasture such complete care they will be happy and contented.

Psalms 23:3. A shepherd was supposed to provide food to restore or nourish the bodies of his sheep. He did so by placing them in the pastures described in the preceding verse. The spiritual Shepherd provides spiritual food for the souls of his sheep. This consists of the instruction found in the Word of God. A careful shepherd will seek a safe path in which to conduct his sheep to the places of good pasture. It is natural for a sheep to follow wherever his master leads, whether the path goes into a wild and dangerous thicket, or into the good fields of tender grass. David’s shepherd always led him in the paths of righteousness, which means the right paths. An earthly shepherd would be concerned about his reputation as a reliable man to have charge of a flock. If he had no other motive, yet he would not knowingly mislead the flock, for that would injure his good name as a dependable shepherd. Likewise David’s shepherd would lead him in the right paths for his name’s sake. Dr. Marion Hull renders this by, "on account of his reputation," and Strong’s lexicon justifies the translation. God is said to be free from all evil. He certainly would not stain such a good name by leading his flock unrighteously.

Psalms 23:4. A sheep is a timid animal. In passing from one pasture to another it might be necessary to walk down the slope near a stream, dividing the present location from some pasture land beyond. There are usually some trees and other growing things that would cast a shadowy appearance around. The trusting sheep keeps close to his master with confidence. It was likewise with David and his confidence in the Shepherd of his soul. The valley of death did not hold any dread for him. Though the pathway leading downward was shaded by the dimness of approaching death, he was confident it would finally bring him over safely to the brighter fields of eternal verdure on the other side of the valley. A shepherd carries a rod or stick for the purpose of defense against any unfriendly creature, and a staff or walking cane for the support of his body. (1 Samuel 17:40.) The Word of God was both rod and staff for David.

Verses 5-6

Psa 23:5-6

Psalms 23:5-6

"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.”

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).”

"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.” So what? As Dahood, writing in the Anchor Bible, stated it, "The Hebrew words here are actually a synonym for `eternal life.’" 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." 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)?

E.M. Zerr:

Psalms 23:5. In the verse David drops the illustration of the shepherd to some extent. Instead of likening himself to a sheep he thinks of being a man. As a man he thinks of his troublesome enemies who have been opposing him in every way possible. It would be something of a triumph to have provisions of life made for him even under favorable circumstances. It would be a greater one to have it done in the presence of his enemies. Such a fact not only would tend to arouse the envy of the enemies, but would actually prove God’s power by making the provision in spite of the enemies. All of this would have special significance with a man whose chief secular business of life was to be a "man of war," and to "shed blood abundantly." Victory over his enemies would be one of his most cherished desires. In ancient times when a man was to be given an important position of power and satisfaction, he was anointed by having oil poured over his head (1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Samuel 16:13; 1 Kings 1:39; 2 Kings 9:3; 2 Kings 9:6). The practice was afterward used as a figure in cases where some person was given any great favor. Cup is from an original that means "lot." Runneth over. The 2nd word is not in the original. The 1st is from a Hebrew word that means "satisfaction." The clause means that his lot was wholly satisfactory.

Psalms 23:6. Goodness is from an original that means "good things," and mercy is from one that is defined "kindness." Follow me is properly rendered and indicates that the favors will come after David has gone forward in serving the Lord. To be a permanent occupant of the house of the Lord would be a greater favor than merely entering it for a short time. Such a blessing would be the lot of the man complying with the conditions set forth in this psalm. Before leaving this interesting psalm I will make a few more general remarks. The second but more important application of the prophecy is to Christ. It will be well for the student to go through the entire chapter again with Christ specifically in mind. It will then be possible to see and hear him on the cross as he quotes the 1st verse of the preceding chapter. Then coming directly to the present one again, hear Christ as he speaks of his Father in the relationship of his shepherd who was at the very instance of his crucifixion preparing (through it) a table or spiritual feast (salvation) for me, meaning his church. Then he can be heard saying, death, I will fear no evil, in the language of the psalm. Or, if we listen for his own words in the fulfillment we will hear him saying, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." And, true to the prophecy, he afterward entered his Father’s heavenly mansion above, there to abide forever.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Psalms 23". "Old & New Testament Restoration Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/onr/psalms-23.html.
 
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