Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 23

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-6

Psalms 23:1-6

THE world could spare many a large book better than this sunny little psalm. It has dried many tears and supplied the mould into which many hearts have poured their peaceful faith. To suppose that the speaker is the personified nation chills the whole. The tone is too intense not to be the outcome of personal experience, however admissible the application to the nation may be as secondary. No doubt Jehovah is the Shepherd of Israel in several Asaphite psalms and in Jeremiah; but, notwithstanding great authorities, I cannot persuade myself that the voice which comes so straight to the heart did not come from the heart of a brother speaking across the centuries his own personal emotions, which are universal just because they are individual. It is the pure utterance of personal trust in Jehovah, darkened by no fears or complaints and so perfectly at rest that it has nothing more to ask. For the time desire is stilled in satisfaction. One tone, and that the most blessed which can sound in a life, is heard through the whole. psalm of quiet trust, undisturbed even by its Joy, which is quiet too. The fire glows, not flame or crackle. The one thought is expanded in two kindred images: that of the shepherd and that of the host. The same ideas are substantially repeated under both forms. The lovely series of vivid pictures, each but a clause long, but clear cut in that small compass, like the fine work incised on a gem, combines with the depth and simplicity of the religious emotion expressed, to lay this sweet psalm on all hearts.

Psalms 23:1-4 present the realities of the devout life under the image of the Divine Shepherd and His lamb.

The comparison of rulers to shepherds is familiar to many tongues, and could scarcely fail to occur to a pastoral people hike the Jews, nor is the application to Jehovah’s relation to the people so recondite that we need to relegate the psalms in which it occurs to a late era in the national history. The psalmist lovingly, lingers on the image, and draws out the various aspects of the shepherd’s care and of the flock’s travels, with a ripeness and calmness which suggests that we listen to a much-experienced man. The sequence in which the successive pictures occur is noteworthy. Guidance to refreshment comes first, and is described in Psalms 23:2, in words which fall as softly as the gentle streams of which they speak. The noontide is fierce, and the land lies baking in the sun blaze; but deep down in some wady runs a brook, and along its course the herbage is bright with perpetual moisture, and among the lush grass are cool lairs where the footsore, panting flock may couch. The shepherd’s tenderness is beautifully hinted at in the two verbs: he "leads," not drives, but in Eastern wise precedes and so draws the trustful sheep; he "makes me to lie down," taking care that the sheep shall stretch weary limbs in full enjoyment of repose. God thus guides to rest and lays to rest the soul that follows Him. Why does the psalmist begin with this aspect of life? Because it is fittest to express the shepherd’s care, and because it is, after all, the predominant aspect to the devout heart. Life is full of trial and effort, but it is an unusually rainy region where rain falls on more than half the days of the year. We live so much more vividly and fully in the moments of agony or crisis that they seem to fill more space than they really do. But they are only moments, and the periods of continued peaceful possession of blessings are measured by years. But the sweet words of the psalm are not to be confined to material good. The psalmist does not tell us whether he is thinking more of the outer or of the inner life, but both are in his mind, and while his confidence is only partially warranted by the facts of the former, it is unlimitedly true in regard to the latter. In that application of the words the significance of the priority given to the pastures of fresh springing grass and the waters of repose is plain, for there the rest of trust and the drinking of living water must precede all walking in paths of righteousness.

Food and drink and rest refresh fainting powers, and this reinvigoration is meant by "restoring my soul" or life.

But the midday or nightly rest is intended to fit for effort, and so a second little picture follows in Psalms 23:3, presenting another aspect of the shepherd’s care and of the sheep’s course. Out again on to the road, in spite of heat and dust, the flock goes. "Paths of righteousness," is perhaps best taken as "straight paths," as that rendering keeps within the bounds of the metaphor; but since the sheep are men, straight paths for them must needs be paths of righteousness. That guidance is "for His name’s sake." God has regard to His revealed character in shepherding His lamb, and will give direction because He is what He is, and in order that He may be known to be what He has declared himself. The psalmist had learned the purpose of repose and refreshment which, in all regions of life, are intended to prepare for tasks and marches. We are to "drink for strength, and not for drunkenness." A man may lie in a bath till strength is diminished, or may take his plunge and come from it braced for work. In the religious life it is possible to commit an analogous error, and to prize so unwisely peaceful hours of communion, as. to waive imperative duty for the sake of them; like Peter with his "Let us make here three tabernacles," while there were devil-ridden sufferers waiting to be healed down on the plain. Moments of devotion, which do not prepare for hours of practical righteousness, are very untrustworthy. But, on the other hand, the paths of righteousness will not be trodden by those who have known nothing of the green pastures and waters where the wearied can rest.

But life has another aspect than these two-rest and toil; and the guidance into danger and sorrow is as tender as its other forms are. The singular word rendered "shadow of death" should probably simply be "gloomy darkness," such, for instance, as in the shaft of a mine. {Job 28:3} But even if the former rendering is retained, it is not to be interpreted as meaning actual death. No wise forward look can ignore the possibility of many sorrows and the certainty of some. Hope has ever something of dread in her eyes. The road will not be always bright and smooth, but will sometimes plunge down into grim cations, where no sunbeams reach. But even that anticipation may be calm. "Thou art with me" is enough. He who guides into the gorge will guide through it. It is not a cul de sac, shut in with precipices, at the far end; but it opens out on shining tablelands, where there is greener pasture. The rod and staff seem to be two names for one instrument, which was used both to beat off predatory animals and to direct the sheep. The two synonyms and the appended pronoun express by their redundancy the full confidence of the psalmist. He will not fear, though there are grounds enough for terror, in the dark valley; and though sense prompts him to dread, he conquers fear because he trusts. "Comfort" suggests a struggle, or, as Calvin says, "Quorsum enim consolatio ipsa, nisi quia metus eum solicitat?"

The second image of the Divine Host and His guest is expanded in Psalms 23:5-6. The ideas are substantially the same as in the first part. Repose and provision, danger and change, again fill the foreground; and again there is forecast of a more remote future. But all is intensified, the need and the supply being painted in stronger colours and the hope being brighter. The devout man is God’s guest while he marches through foes, and travels towards perpetual repose in the house of Jehovah.

Jehovah supplies his servants’ wants in the midst of conflict. The table spread in the sight of the enemy is a more signal token of care and power than the green pastures are. Life is not only journey and effort, but conflict; and it is possible not only to have seasons of refreshment interspersed in the weary march, but to find a sudden table spread by the same unseen hand which holds back the foes, who look on with grim eyes, powerless to intercept the sustenance or disturb the guests. This is the condition of God’s servant-always conflict, but always a spread table. Joy snatched in the face of danger is specially poignant. The flowers that bloom on the brink of a cataract are bright, and their tremulous motion adds a charm. Special experiences of God’s sufficiency are wont to come in seasons of special difficulty, as many a true heart knows. It is no scanty meal that waits God’s soldier under such circumstances, but a banquet accompanied with signs of festivity, viz., the head anointed with oil and the cup which is "fulness." God’s supplies are wont to surpass the narrow limits of need and even to transcend capacity, having a something over which as set we are unable to take in, but which is not disproportioned or wasted, since it widens desire and thereby increases receptivity.

In the last verse we seem to pass to pure anticipation. Memory melts into hope, and that brighter than the forecast which closed the first part. There the psalmist’s trust simply refused to yield to fear, while keenly conscious of evil which might warrant it; but here be has risen higher. and the alchemy of his happy faith and experience has converted evil into something fairer. "Only good and mercy shall follow me." There is no evil for the heart wedded to Jehovah; there are no foes to pursue, but two bright-faced angels walk behind him as his rear guard. It is much when the retrospect of life can, like Jacob on his death bed, see "the Angel which redeemed me from all evil"; but it is perhaps more when the else fearful heart can look forward and say that not only will it fear no evil, but that nothing but blessings, the outcome of God’s mercy, will ever reach it.

The closing hope of dwelling in the house of Jehovah to length of days rises above even the former verse. The singer knew himself a guest of God’s at the table spread before the foe, but that was, as it were, refreshment on the march, while this is continual abiding in the home. Such an unbroken continuity of abode in the house of Jehovah is a familiar aspiration in other psalms, and is always regarded as possible even while hands are engaged in ordinary duties and cares. The psalms which conceive of the religious life under this image are marked by a peculiar depth and inwardness. They are wholesomely mystical. The hope of this guest of God’s is that, by the might of fixed faith and continual communion, he may have his life so hid in God that wherever he goes he may still be in His house, and whatever he does he may still be "inquiring in His temple." The hope is here confined to the earthly present, but the Christian reading of the psalm can scarcely fail to transfer the words to a future. God will bring those whom He has fed and guided in journeying and conflict to an unchanging mansion in a home beyond the stars. Here we eat at a table spread with pilgrim’s food, manna from heaven and water from the rock. We eat in haste and with an eye on the foe, but we may hope to sit down at another table in the perfected kingdom. The end of the fray is the beginning of the feast. "We shall go no more out."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 23". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-23.html.
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