I’ll be honest: I never hear, read, think, or speak the words of Psalm 23 in anything other than the King James Version.
As both an historian and a pastor, that’s sort of a problem (at least in the abstract). Both historians and theologians have long pointed out that translation’s many foibles. And let’s face it: King James was not always the nicest guy, either.
Happily, Psalm 23 is one of many passages where the KJV’s beautiful, poetic language is not marred by translational or transcription concerns. And the result is one of the most quoted, most memorized, and most re-contextualized chapters in the entire Old Testament scriptures.
But first, a word about the Book of Psalms.
Psalms (from the Greek “Psalmoi,” means literally “the music.” In other words: we can perhaps best understand the Psalms as “the words that go with the music.” For thousands of years, the Psalms have comprised a a sort of Hebrew religious songbook, one used variously in temple worship, at special feasts and festivals, and in everyday life
The Psalms were composed by at least 8-10 different authors (possibly many more), over the course of at least 500 years, and were compiled from the time of united Israel until after the Exile, when the divided nations of Israel and Judah had been completely destroyed
Because of this rich cultural and theological history, the Psalms were equally important to the theology and liturgy of both Old Testament-era Jews and New Testament-era Christians (Jews and Gentiles alike). Indeed, Psalms is the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament!
In some ways, the message of the Psalms is the core message of the gospels: God is loving. God is present with God’s people (even in the midst of suffering). And God is faithful to ultimately accomplish God’s purposes.
Enter Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 is traditionally attributed to David, for some fairly obvious reasons, but the Hebrew words that are translated “of David” here could also mean “to David” or “for David”; we don’t really know for sure.
Nevertheless, the book of 1 Samuel tells us that King David was once a young shepherd boy, the smallest among many brothers, one who frequently called on God’s protection against a variety of both animal and human foes.
David was also an accomplished musician, one whose skill with the lyre sometimes won him the favor of his predecessor, King Saul. For these reasons, it is reasonable to assume that the psalm may very well have been written by King David himself, or by a courtier or priestly attendant familiar with his life story.
The words of Psalm 23 seem both straightforward and gently nuanced. In verses 1-4, the Psalmist describes God as a faithful shepherd, one who cares gently and faithfully for the flock. This shepherd provides shelter, nourishment, and safe travel for the sheep, even in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty.
Say them with me now:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
This shepherd is a source of life for the sheep; this God’s very nature is compassionate, righteous, and a comforting presence in the face of death and deathliness.
This shepherd can be trusted.
In verses 5-6, the metaphor seems to shift from describing God as a faithful shepherd to depicting God as a gracious, even perhaps martially protective host.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
This God welcomes and provides for guests even on what is seemingly the eve of battle; they are safe within the host’s protection. This God pours out blessings on the beloved; they are too bountiful to contain.
This host can be trusted.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
This God’s very nature is righteous, good and merciful. Like a faithful shepherd, this God is always present with the sheep even in the midst of great sorrow.
This God is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Like a gracious host, this God is always offers sanctuary, even in the face of grave danger.
In these ways the poetic, timeless words of Psalm 23 remind us: God is loving. God is present with God’s people (even in the midst of suffering). And God is faithful to ultimately accomplish God’s purposes.
Thanks be to God!