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Psalm 23

AN exquisite description of God’s care over his people under the figure of a shepherd and his flock, no doubt suggested by the writer’s recollections of his own pastoral experience, although probably composed at a much later period of his life. The idea of the whole psalm is contained in ver. 1, carried out and amplified in ver. 2–5, and again summed up, without continuing the metaphor, in ver. 6. The psalm is so constructed as at the same time to express the feelings of the Psalmist, and to serve as a vehicle for those of every individual believer and of the whole body of God’s people for whose use it was intended.

1. A Psalm of David. Jehovah (is) my shepherd, I shall not want. This is the general theme or idea of the whole psalm, that the believer’s relation to Jehovah carries with it necessarily the full supply of all his wants. Spiritual gifts are neither excluded nor exclusively intended. No nice distinction between these and temporal advantages is here made for us, and none need be made by us. The comparison of God’s care to that of a shepherd is first used by Jacob, (Gen. 48:15, 49:24), then by Moses (Deut. 32:6–12, compared with Ps. 78:52), both of whom, like David, had themselves lived a pastoral life. From these the figure is frequently borrowed by the later writers of the Old Testament. See Isa. 40:11, Ezek. 34:12, Micah 7:14, Ps. 80:2 (1), 95:7. This endearing relation of Jehovah to his people was exercised under the old dispensation by the agency of human or angelic messengers, but under the new by Christ, of whom these were only types and representatives (Zech. 13:7), and to whom the figure is expressly applied by himself (John 10:11), and his apostles (1 Peter 2:25, 5:4, Heb. 13:20). From him again, on the principle of delegated representation, is derived the pastoral character of Christian ministers (Eph. 4:11). The future form, I shall not want, includes the present, I do not want, with an additional assurance that the provision will be still continued. The form of expression is derived from Deut 2:7, 8:9, and recurs below, Ps. 34:11 (10).

2. In pastures of verdure he will make me lie down; by waters of rest (or repose) he will lead me. Here begins the amplification of the general proposition in the foregoing verse. The first specification is, that he shall not want healthful and delightful rest. This is expressed by figures borrowed from the exquisite enjoyment of a flock in verdant and well-watered pastures. The allusion, in the first clause, is not to the supply of food, which is mentioned afterwards in ver. 5, but to the refreshing rest and coolness of green meadows. The first noun properly means dwellings, but is applied specifically to the dwellings of flocks, i.e. their pasture-grounds. See below, Ps. 65:13 (12), and compare Amos 1:2, Jer. 9:9 (10), 25:37. The next word in Hebrew means the fresh tender grass, here referred to, not as food, but in allusion to its cooling effect upon the eye and the skin. This explanation is confirmed by the fact, that the act expressed by the verb is not that of eating but of lying down. The verb itself is one which specially denotes the lying down of animals (Gen. 29:2, Num. 22:27, Isa. 11:6), but is sometimes transferred to the human subject (Isa. 14:30, Job. 11:19), or to other objects (Gen. 49:25, Deut. 29:19). By waters, not simply to them, but along them, which is one of the senses of the Hebrew preposition, and affords a much more pleasing image. By waters of rest we are not to understand still or quiet waters, a sense which the Hebrew word has nowhere else, and which would here suggest the idea of stagnation, or at least that of silence, which is far less agreeable than that of an audible flow. The idea really conveyed is that of waters, by or at which rest may be enjoyed. The repose is not that of the waters themselves, but of the flocks reclining near them. The last verb sometimes means to nourish, or more generally to provide for (Gen. 47:17, 2 Chron. 32:22), and the Septuagint version so explains it here. The idea would then be that the shepherd takes care of his flock, or tends it, by the waters of repose. But a more specific act is described, and therefore a more vivid image presented, by retaining the common version, leadeth, which is fully sustained by the use of the same Hebrew verb in Exod. 15:13, 2 Chron. 28:15. The form, however, should be future, as in the preceding verse.

3. My soul he will restore; he will lead me in paths of right (or rectitude) for his name’s sake. To restore the soul, here as in Ps. 19:8 (7), is to vivify or quicken the exhausted spirit. Paths of right may either mean right paths, as opposed to those which are devious and dangerous, or paths of righteousness, not man’s but God’s, not ways of upright conduct on the Psalmist’s part, but ways of faithfulness on God’s part. The righteousness of God, so often appealed to by the ancient saints, includes his covenanted mercy, the exercise of which, according to his promise, was ensured by his essential rectitude. For his name’s sake, not merely for his own sake, nor for his own glory, but for the sake of what he has already done, the previous display of his perfections, which would be dishonored by a failure to fulfil his promises. See above, on Ps. 22:23 (22).

4. Also when I walk into (or through) the valley of death-shade, I will not fear evil, for thou (wilt be) with me; thy rod and thy staff, they will comfort me. He is sure, not only of repose, restoration, and guidance, but of protection. The also shews that something new is to be added; not only this which I have said, but more. The common version (yea, though I walk) is too indefinite and hypothetical. The situation is not spoken of as possible, but certain, though still future.—Death-shade is a strong poetical expression for the profoundest darkness. See below, Ps. 44:20 (19). The common version, shadow of death, conveys more than the original, and fails to reproduce its compound form. The effect is heightened by the mention of a valley, as a deep place, often overhung with woods, and naturally darker than a plain or mountain. There may be some allusion to the dread of darkness on the part of sheep and other timid animals.—The rod and the staff are mentioned, not as weapons of defense, but as badges of the shepherd and as tokens of his presence.

5. Thou wilt spread before me a table in the presence of my adversaries; thou hast anointed with oil my head; my cup (is) overflowing. To the negative benefits before enumerated, he now adds the positive advantage of abundant sustenance. Instead of retaining the image of a sheep and its pasture, the Psalmist substitutes that of a table furnished for a human guest. The connection, however, is so close and the metaphors so near akin, that the general impression remains undisturbed.—In the presence of my enemies implies in spite of them; they are forced to witness my enjoyment without being able to disturb it.—Anointed, literally fattened, in allusion to the richness and abundance of the unction. This was a familiar part of an ancient festal entertainment, and is therefore frequently employed in Scripture as a symbol of joy. See below, on Ps. 45:8 (7).—My cup, my beverage, which, with food, makes up the supply of necessary nutriment, but with the additional suggestion of exhilaration. See above, on Ps. 16:5.—Overflowing, literally overflow, or abundant drink. The change of tense is significant and expressive. What he had just before confidently foreseen, he now describes as actually realized.

6. Only goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of Jehovah to length of days. The specifications of the four preceding verses are followed by another summary expression of the general idea propounded in the first verse, but with a change of form. The Hebrew particle at the beginning has its usual and proper sense of only or exclusively. The favor which he shall experience is so great that he regards it as unmixed, or the exceptions as unworthy of consideration.—The word translated goodness may be understood to mean good fortune, good experienced, as a cognate form does in Ps. 16:2; but the other version agrees better with the parallel expression, mercy. The verb to follow or pursue seems to be chosen in allusion to the persecution of his enemies, and as a strong expression for an unbroken series or succession of divine benefactions. Dwelling in the house of Jehovah does not mean frequenting his sanctuary, but being a member of his household and an inmate of his family, enjoying his protection, holding communion with him, and subsisting on his bounty. See above, on Ps. 15:1.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained (pp. 107–109). Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)

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