Ps. 23: Entering Psalm 23

Andrew R. Davis is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He holds a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University and an MTS from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Although it is only six verses long, Psalm 23 has had a profound impact on the spiritual lives of Jews and Christians, especially in the last two centuries. There is probably no psalm with a greater discrepancy between its size and its influence. Psalm 23 is a song of trust in the divine shepherd, who protects the flock and leads them to a life of abundance in God’s presence. The psalm alternates between third-person descriptions of God (verses 1-4a, 6) and a brief direct address to God (verses 4b-5).  

The psalm unfolds as a pilgrimage. We begin with the shepherd (verse 1), who guides us through the ups and downs of a journey (verses 2-4). Ultimately, we arrive at a banquet (verse 5) prepared at the house of the LORD (verses 6). It is easy to imagine ancient Israelites singing these verses as they make their way to a festival at the Jerusalem temple. In their recital perhaps these pilgrims recalled the journey of their ancestors, whom God led out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Indeed, the psalm contains several allusions to the Exodus story (see, for example, Exodus 15:13, 17; 20:6; Psalm 78:52-53).  

Thus, Psalm 23 functions on several levels – as a reminder of Israel’s national story of liberation, as a soundtrack for ancient pilgrims to the Temple, and as an assurance of God’s pastoral care for those who pray with the psalm today.

1 מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד יְהוָ֥ה רֹ֝עִ֗י לֹ֣א אֶחְסָֽר׃

2 בִּנְא֣וֹת דֶּ֭שֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי עַל־מֵ֖י מְנֻח֣וֹת יְנַהֲלֵֽנִי׃

3 נַפְשִׁ֥י יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב יַֽנְחֵ֥נִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶ֝֗דֶק לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמֽוֹ׃

4 גַּ֤ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע כִּי־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּדִ֑י שִׁבְטְךָ֥ וּ֝מִשְׁעַנְתֶּ֗ךָ הֵ֣מָּה יְנַֽחֲמֻֽנִי׃

5 תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֖נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

6 אַ֤ךְ ׀ ט֤וֹב וָחֶ֣סֶד יִ֭רְדְּפוּנִי כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑י וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְּבֵית־יְ֝הוָ֗ה לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים׃


JPS Translation

1. A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.

2. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose;

3. He renews my life; 

He guides me in right paths as befits His name.

4.Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; 

Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

5. You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies; 

You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant.

6. Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

 

NIRV Translation

Psalm 23

A psalm of David.

1. The Lord is my shepherd. He gives me everything I need.

2. He lets me lie down in fields of green grass.

He leads me beside quiet waters.

3. He gives me new strength.

He guides me in the right paths

for the honor of his name.

4. Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will not be afraid.

You are with me.

Your shepherd’s rod and staff

comfort me.

5. You prepare a feast for me

right in front of my enemies.

You pour oil on my head.

My cup runs over.

6. I am sure that your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life.

And I will live in the house of the Lord

forever.

 

Key Terms:

  • mê mĕnuḥôt (verse 2), traditionally, “waters of repose,” but more likely “still waters,” which have slowed down enough to be safely drunk. 
  • ṣalmāwet (verse 4), traditionally, “shadow of death,” is better translated as “deep darkness.” As early as the Septuagint, the word was broken into two: ṣēl (“shadow”) and māwet (“death”), but it should be read as a single word (ṣalmût) from the root ṣlm, which denotes darkness.
  • ṣōṣĕrāy (verse 5), literally, “my oppressors,” is often used in combination with “enemy.”  Such adversaries occur often in the Psalms, sometimes in the form of people or nations but also warfare or illness. In general, “enemy” in the Psalms refers to anything that opposes the life and wellbeing God desires for God’s people. Thus, the oppressors in 23:5 may simply be the life-threatening difficulties that have been endured along the way to this God-given feast.  
  • yirdĕpûnî (verse 6), literally, “they pursue me,” provides my favorite image in the psalm.  The verb rādap most often describes the pursuit of an enemy or a predator. Usually, if someone is “rādap-ing” you, you should run for your life, but here it is God’s goodness and loving-kindness coming after you. God doggedly pursues us to share with us these divine gifts.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Has this text been helpful to you in the past? How does it feel now in the midst of the pandemic?
  2. Are there specific words or images that you see or hear vividly as you read today?
  3. How do (or might) you use this psalm in your prayers, meditation, or reflection?

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.