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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Psalms 23

 

 

Introduction

Here we have one of the most beautiful of Psalms, described as ‘A Psalm to David’, and its very content points to David as its author. It likens YHWH to a shepherd Who watches over His sheep. None knew better the needs of the sheep and the duties of a shepherd than David. Indeed he had experienced them both as a shepherd over his wayward sheep, and as a King over his equally wayward subjects. And here he pictures YHWH as the perfect shepherd Who meets all the needs of His sheep.

The story is told of how at a particular gathering the Psalm was read by a famous actor whose rendering of the Psalm was extolled for its great beauty. Shortly afterwards it was read by a godly Pastor. When the meeting was over the actor, moved by the Pastor’s rendering, approached him and said, ‘Sir, I know the Psalm, but you know the Shepherd’. And that is what is important as we study the Psalm, to know the Shepherd.

Heading.

‘A Psalm of David.’

The Psalm begins with an ascription to David, and there is no real reason for seeing it as not written by him. He had the reputation of being ‘the sweet Psalmist of Israel’ (2 Samuel 23:1), which confirms that he must have written a good number of Psalms. The mention of ‘the house of YHWH’ in Psalms 23:6 is not against this idea, for ‘the house of YHWH is not synonymous with ‘the Temple of YHWH’. Indeed it might seem a better parallel with ‘The Dwellingplace (Tabernacle) of YHWH’. For references to ‘the house of YHWH/God’ prior to the building of the Temple see Exodus 23:19; Judges 18:31; 1 Samuel 1:7. They did not think of a ‘house’ as we do. It rather represented ‘home’ wherever it may be. It is doubtful if David wanted to live in the Temple for ever, even idealistically.

The Psalmist picture himself as walking through life serenely and unafraid because of the One Who watches over Him. It is the idealistic picture of what we ought to be. It is a picture of how Jesus walked. If only we would truly hold on to these words and believe them our lives would be serene in all circumstances, for we would know His care over us at all times, and that even in the valley of the shadow of death we would not need to be afraid. For the point is not that trials and problems will not come, but that when they do the Shepherd will step forward and deal with them.

For this idea of YHWH as shepherd compare Psalms 74:1; Psalms 77:20; Psalms 78:52; Psalms 78:70 ff; Psalms 79:13; Psalms 80:1;Psalms 95:7; Psalms 100:3; Micah 7:14; Isaiah 40:11. Jesus described Himself as ‘the good (effective, fully responsive) Shepherd’ in contrast with the false shepherds (John 10:11; see also Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25).


Verse 1

‘YHWH is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

The idea of a shepherd is of one who cares for and watches over his sheep. Kings liked to describe themselves as shepherds of their people when they were feeling sentimental and wanted to give a good impression. They wanted their people to love them and see them as a father figure (however unfatherlike they really were), and their people spoke of them as their shepherd when they wanted to flatter them, and receive some benefit from them. The spiritual leaders of Israel were regularly spoken of as shepherds, although sadly in many cases as failing shepherds. But here we have the Shepherd above all shepherds, the unfailing and compassionate One Whose power is infinite and Who would never fail His sheep. And once He is our Shepherd we can be confident at all times, for the provision of good pasture (compare Matthew 6:32), the protection from all evil, and the sustaining of our souls, then become His responsibility. The problem lies in our unwillingness to trust Him.

‘I shall not want.’ This does not mean that He will provide for the fulfilment of all our desires. It means that He will ‘withhold no good thing from those who walk uprightly’ (Psalms 84:11). We can compare how He was able to say to Israel when they had wandered in the wilderness, ‘’you have lacked nothing’ (Deuteronomy 2:7). It is a reminder that He will make full provision for whatever He sees that we need. If therefore we find ourselves ‘wanting’ we should recognise that it is not because He has failed, but because our Shepherd knows that it is good for us, and we should therefore be content (compare Psalms 34:10; Psalms 84:11).


Verse 2

‘He makes me to lie down in pastures of luscious grass, He leads me beside the waters of rest.’

The oriental shepherd goes ahead of his sheep, seeking out good pasturage for them. And once he finds it he brings his sheep to rest that they may enjoy it. They are enabled to lie down in ‘pastures of luscious grass’. There, feeding safely and well, they can settle down fully content with his provision. This picture of the shepherd causing his sheep to lie down was used by Jeremiah in his prison cell as a picture of the future restoration of Israel (Jeremiah 33:12). It is a reminder of the Lord’s continual and full provision for His own. Compare here also Ezekiel 34:13-16 which describes what the Shepherd God will do for His people.

And when they are thirsty, He leads them to the waters of rest where they can drink to their full without fear. The idea behind ‘leading’ is of ‘gentle guidance’. Compare Isaiah 40:11, ‘He will gently lead those who are with young’. The ‘waters of rest’ will result in sheep which are fully satiated and at peace. They are conscious that all their needs have been supplied. The same idea is contained in the idyllistic picture of Paradise, ‘they will hunger no more, nor thirst any more, nor will the sun strike on them or any heat’ (Revelation 7:16). It is also found in Isaiah 49:10 from which Revelation 7:16 is taken, and which then adds ‘He Who has mercy on them will lead them, even by the springs of water He will guide them’. But Isaiah has in mind more the blessings of the coming of the Messiah. However, the difference in this Psalm is that this is promised even in David’s time as a present experience. It is to be the continual experience of those who love Him, who are to experience relaxation and full contentment in the presence of God, for ‘in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength’ (Isaiah 30:15). As Isaiah says elsewhere, within His purposes ‘My people will live continually in a peaceable habitation, and in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places’ (Isaiah 32:18).


Verse 3

‘He restores my soul (inner life). He guides me in the right paths (the paths of righteousness) for his name’s sake.’

Having been led to the pastures of luscious grass, and the rest-giving waters, the sheep are fully restored. In the same way can we be sure that He will continually ‘restore our inner lives’. Whatever the trials that beset us He will bring us through to perfect peace with our strength restored. We will be restored to full equilibrium. And this restoration will then be maintained because He will guide us in the paths of righteousness (compare Proverbs 8:20). He will not only lead us in the right way so that we do not get lost, but He will lead us in the way of rightness. There can be no peace without this. These are the paths where our feet do not slip (Psalms 17:5). They are the way of wisdom, the paths of uprightness, where our ways will not be hindered, and where we can run without stumbling (Proverbs 4:11). It is important to recognise this requirement for His sheep, if they would be at rest. They cannot just go their own way, they must follow the Shepherd in His ways. For in the way of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death (Proverbs 12:28).

And He guides us in these ways, ‘for His Name’s sake’. Note the idea of sovereignty. He guides them inexorably in these ways because He is concerned for His reputation and His purposes and wants them to be maintained by His people in order that He might be glorified. (Compare Isaiah 63:14). And He does it because of the kind of Being that He is. He does it in order to reveal that He is such that He can do no other. By it He is revealing precisely Who and What He is, the Righteous One Who upholds righteousness in all who seek righteousness.


Verse 4

‘Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’

In the seemingly calm and peaceful mountains of Israel danger ever threatened. There were hidden deep ravines where wild beasts lurked, or into which wayward sheep could fall. The lion and the bear and the wolf were ever ready to tear the heart out of the flock. But the sheep who remain close to the Shepherd have no need to be afraid. When the lion or the bear suddenly arise from their hiding place, the Shepherd will seize them by the beard, and smite them and slay them (see 1 Samuel 17:34-35). And those who walk close in His footsteps will avoid the treacherous ravines. Their ways may lie in the valley where death lurks, and they may constantly be under its shadow, but they do not need to be afraid, for the Lord of life is with them. Thus can they say, ‘I will fear no evil, because You are with me’.

‘The valley of the shadow of death.’ This translation was obtained by pointing (putting consonants into) zlmwth and making it zalmaweth. But it could equally well be made into zalmuth (a dark shadow), treating the waw as an ancient vowel. But the meaning is little different apart from the fact that the actual mention of death seems to be slightly ill fitting. On the other hand the shadows certainly did threaten death.

And one reason for their sense of total security is His mighty club and great staff, in the latter case to assist the sheep that have got themselves into trouble in some hidden crevice, lifting them out to safety, and in the former case to drive off the enemies that come against them. ‘They will never perish, and none shall pluck them from MY hand’ (John 10:28). They have seen them many times in action and they know how powerful they are. For the effectiveness of such a rod see 2 Samuel 23:21; Psalms 2:9; Micah 7:14.


Verse 5

‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You have anointed my head with oil. My cup runs over.’

This idea of His full provision now turns the Psalmist’s thoughts to a great feast. Jesus regularly depicted what He had come to offer in terms of a great feast. Here the table was prepared, like the good pasturage for the sheep, and it was laden with good things. Even when surrounded by their enemies His people can feast at His table. For the Shepherd watches over them to protect them. There are already echoes here of the coming Messianic feast.

And they eat in comfort and luxuriously, the sweat of the hills forgotten, for He anoints their heads with oils and perfumes, and He ensures that their cups are full and overflowing. The perfumes are the perfumes of Arabia (1 Kings 10:15), and there is no stinting when it is He Who pours out the wine (compare Psalms 36:8). ‘I am come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10). Thus do they feast at the King’s table (2 Samuel 9:7). And this is not just some future hope, although it is that, but is intended to be enjoyed in the present. For He has provided us with His word and the means of entry into His presence (Hebrews 10:19-20), as He had David (Deuteronomy 17:18-19), and we can constantly feast at His table, even in the darkest circumstances.


Verse 6

‘Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of YHWH for ever.’

And accompanying the shepherd are His two faithful ‘sheepdogs’, ‘Goodness’’ and ‘Lovingkindness’. Their names reveal the very heart of the Shepherd. For His people are continually trailed by goodness and lovingkindness, on the one hand full provision for their spiritual needs (how much more will your Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him - Matthew 7:11) and on the other fullness of compassion in the way (‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’ - Jeremiah 31:3; ‘in this is love, not that we love Him, but that He loved us, and that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ - 1 John 4:10). This ensures that they walk in wholesome ways, where their Shepherd can be found, and where goodness and lovingkindness can be found, and where they can be sure of His tenderness towards them even when they fail.

This indeed is the test of whether they are His sheep. They walk in conjunction with goodness and lovingkindness. Many love the idea of being trailed by lovingkindness, but they are not so sure about goodness. They certainly want to be loved, and they do not mind being average, but they do not want to be good (they speak of such people derisively as do-gooders’). But God is good, and He expects goodness from His people, for He knows that without true goodness they can never be really happy. They are to let their light so shine before men, that they see their good works and glorify their Father Who is in Heaven (Matthew 5:16).

‘And I will dwell in the house of YHWH for ever.’ This is not to switch his thoughts directly to the Temple or Tabernacle, even though the latter might be in the background of his thoughts as the sacred Dwellingplace of YHWH. He visualises rather the house of feasting as previously described. It is YHWH’s house where the banquet is ever in progress, comparable, though on a larger scale, with the king’s palace. And there will His people feast with Him for ever, both in this world and the next. (In Israel feasting around the Dwellingplace (Tabernacle) of YHWH was a feature of the major feasts, even for many who could not actually enter the Tabernacle. They too felt that they had ‘entered the house of YHWH’). As the Psalmist says elsewhere, ‘They will be abundantly satisfied with the luxurious provision of Your house, and You will make them drink of the rivers of Your pleasures. For with You is the fountain of life, in Your light shall we see life’ (Psalms 36:8-9). ‘For ever.’ It is true that this can mean simply ‘into the distant future’. But that is the point. As in Psalms 16 he cannot visualise a time when he is separated from YHWH. Such a thought seems impossible to him. For in the end he carries within himself the thought of immortality, he has everlastingness in his heart (Isaiah 57:15; Ecclesiastes 3:11 - ‘He has set eternity (‘owlam) in his heart’).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 23:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/psalms-23.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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