Howard Wallace's home page

Psalm 23

The fourth Sunday in Easter is traditionally known as ‘Shepherd Sunday’ with Psalm 23 included in the set of readings. Psalm 23 is one of the best known and loved of the psalms. It is a resounding statement of faith in the God who behaves like a caring and gracious shepherd of the flock. Yet many Christians have an ambiguous relationship with ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. They associate this psalm with funerals, where it’s often read, or sung. It is assumed to be about the death of the psalmist. When prayed, it therefore seems to be about the death of its reader. In fact, it is about the life of its reader!

Like many psalms, the authorship of Psalm 23 is traditionally associated with King David. Many of the psalms have an ascription (in Hebrew usually ledavid) which can be translated "to David", "of David", "for David", or even, "about David". Sometimes these ascriptions are expanded to relate to an incident in David's life (e.g. Psalms 3 and 51 etc.). While the actual authorship of the psalm is not known, it has proved helpful to many people over time to imagine David as the one who utters these words. It gives them a ‘real’ person who has gone before them and who models such trust for them.
It is important to remember that when the Israelite kings were given authority as rulers they were also expected to be ‘shepherds’ of the people (cf. Ezekiel 34). This was one of the main metaphors for kingship right across the ancient Near East and it was applied to gods (as is the case in Psalm 23) as well as to human kings. The primary attribute of Yahweh as shepherd in Psalm 23 is that God wields power for the good of the people. God uses that to sustain, to guide and to protect. David, as human king, was divinely anointed to carry out this role in the earthly sphere on behalf of Yahweh, the good and caring divine king/shepherd of Israel. In his kingship, David is to reflect the attributes of Yahweh.

In this psalm the shepherd’s role is to ensure that the flock have sufficient nourishment for their life, including food and water (vv. 1-2). Yet that is not enough. This shepherd is also responsible for the morale of the flock. In the company of the shepherd the ‘soul’ is restored (v. 3). ‘Soul’ here does not mean ‘spirit’. The Hebrew word is nephesh, meaning really ‘life’ or ‘vitality’. There will be support through the difficulties in life that the psalmist experiences and he/she will be restored. Again (v. 3), the shepherd leads the flock on what appears to be a moral or spiritual pathway. But ‘paths of righteousness’ (KJV) is better translated as ‘right paths’ (NRSV). This does not refer to the moral behaviour of the flock but, rather, to be led in the right direction, on a safe and clearly marked track. It is akin to following the tracks of wagon wheels in the wilderness. This track will keep the traveller from wandering away from the shepherd. The shepherd will provide the ‘signposts’ that keep the flock from straying ‘for his name's sake’. This last refers to God’s own faithfulness; Yahweh will do these things for the flock according to his own nature as a righteous and faithful God.

Verse 4 has been translated ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ (KJV). This translation is one reason why Psalm 23 has been the traditional favourite for a funeral reading. The meaning, however, need not be seen in such a literal way. It can just as properly be translated ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley’ (NRSV), understanding the Hebrew word which literally means ‘shadow of death’ metaphorically. This is the more common understanding in the Old Testament. Thus, Psalm 23 can be talking not just about our passage from life to death, but about all the trials and tribulations of life, including physical dangers and illness, grief, etc. It may refer to coping with the death of someone close to the reader, but not necessarily to the death of the reader him/herself. During all of these sufferings, God will be a strong protector and support (‘your rod and staff - they comfort me’ v. 4b).

The metaphor of the psalm seems to change in v. 5 with reference to Yahweh setting a ‘table’ before the psalmist. Yahweh, the Good Shepherd, is now presented as also a gracious and generous host, giving sanctuary to the flock. ‘You anoint my head with oil’ puts the focus back onto the psalmist as David, the ‘anointed one’, or ‘Messiah’ (cf. Ps 2). ‘My cup overflows’ indicates that the psalmist will receive from Yahweh all that he/she needs throughout life (v. 6). The story of David (in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1-2) is an extended commentary on how this promise worked itself out in the life of the great king, and shows that he definitely needed Yahweh’s continuing goodness, and divine mercy, in his role. The word ‘mercy’ is translated from the Hebrew hesed, which is better rendered as ‘kindness’, ‘solidarity’ or ‘loyalty’. This is one of the words most frequently used to describe God in the Psalms.

In all of these ways, Yahweh will continue to be a shepherd to David. David’s response is to trust and to give thanks in the tabernacle/temple (‘house of the Lord’) for as long as he lives. The KJV translation of the last phrase in the psalm as ‘for ever’ is another reason that the psalm has been associated with funerals. But the NRSV translation, ‘my whole life long’, is more faithful to the Hebrew and gives the psalm another context. While Psalm 23 has often been a source of comfort in the context of the death of another or even when someone faces their own death, it is by no means confined in its meaning and use to that context. Far from being a psalm about death, Psalm 23 is primarily a profound statement of faith in the God who graciously supports the life of the flock from beginning to end. It is in this context that we can pray it as we continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ this Easter season.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Words from the psalm can be used in the assurance of forgiveness after confession and in the people’s response:

     Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
     and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.
     Here, then, Christ’s word of blessing, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’

In this Easter season a response by the congregation to the declaration of forgiveness incorporating the Easter ‘Alleluias’ may be appropriate. Hence, after the declaration the people might respond (after v. 3):

     He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Alleluia

If the service includes the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, the prayer of approach before the Supper might include imagery from Psalm 23 (v. 5):

     You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
     you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
     Be present, risen Lord Jesus,
     as you were with your disciples,
     and make yourself known to us
     in the breaking of the bread;
     for you live and reign with the Father
     and the Holy Spirit,
     one God, for ever and ever. Amen
                                     [also based on the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24]

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page