This week, amongst a million other things, I’ve done a short exegesis paper on Psalm 23.
It’s always interesting to delve into the commentaries and to see what scholars have written about the scriptures, in particular those passages which we can often become dulled to simply through familiarity.
There’s a lot to talk about in Psalm 23! There’s discussions on the royal connotations that the shepherd metaphor had in the Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. There’s the structure: the two metaphors of God as Shepherd and God as Host, and the changing use of pronouns – it starts off referring to ‘the Lord’, and then addresses God directly as ‘You’ before reverting to ‘the Lord’ at the end. There’s plenty of talk about the significance that the psalmist basically does nothing for himself.
makes him lie down
leads him beside still waters
restores his soul
leads him in right paths
is with him
prepares a table
anoints his head
overfills his cup.
This leads scholars to call the psalm ‘a song of trust’ or ‘a song of confidence’; the psalmist’s hope is in the Lord, not in his own abilities.
This is especially true when looking at the valley of the shadow of death, or the deadly place, or the fatal darkness. Some scholars use this image to contrast the metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd with the “shepherd of death” in Psalm 49.
Fearing no evil can imply fearing the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.
“You are with me” can hearken back to the promise God first makes to Abraham in Genesis, and which is repeated throughout scripture.
The darkest valley, the guidance of the Lord and the table can all be seen as links to the Exodus story and the Passover meal (and for Christians today, this can rightly take on Eucharistic connotations too).
Goodness and mercy shall follow me apparently translates literally as ‘pursue’, giving this a sense of the relentless intention of God to bless us and be in relation with us.
You get the idea. These are just a handful of examples of the discussions which were common throughout the commentaries I used.
However, there was one particular aspect of the Psalm which I found fascinating. When you open your bibles to Psalm 23 you’ll see that at the top of it it says ‘A Psalm of David’.
This is called a superscription. It’s basically a title but it doesn’t give the psalm a name but rather some information about it (though not all psalms have them). Some will say that they are a Psalm of Korah (a person), or that it’s a psalm of accents (to be sung on the way to the temple) or that it’s to be played on particular instruments. What’s so interesting about it then? Well, in the commentaries I looked at (and I did not look at them all! Just about thirty or so) the scholars who mentioned it normally said something along the lines of ‘go back to the chapter I wrote about the types of psalms’. So I had a look and they would recap the discussion about the psalms of David. It seems that they may have been written by David, or they may have been collected by David, or they might have nothing to do with David and were called psalms of David in honour of David or even about David. In essence, we don’t have a clue what the connection is to David but they’re called ‘Psalms of David’ anyway.
Because of this ambiguity about their connection to David, the only way to ‘date’ the psalm to the life of David is when the psalms clearly refer to events which are written about in 1 Samuel, the main place where we read about the life of David. Psalms like 59, 56 and 142 are good examples of this. Psalm 23, though, is not considered to have any clear link to any events in his life. Whilst profound and clearly the testimony of an individual, there’s nothing distinctively ‘David’-like in the events in it. As such scholars seem to accept that we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or why.
Yet Psalm 23 is ‘A Psalm of David’.
Now… usually if you have an idea about a passage of scripture which no one else seems to have spotted* then you should reconsider and either realise that you’re stretching things a bit, or write a PhD thesis on it! But this is less of an exegetical point and more of a meditative one – so I feel safe in at the least suggesting it as a helpful way to reflect on Psalm 23.
A Psalm of David.
Well, regardless as to whether David wrote it or someone else wrote it for/about him, I think that it’s an apt description.
Psalm 23 is the Psalm of the God of David as a Shepherd. Which is interesting because David… was a shepherd.
1 Samuel 16, Samuel is looking for the next king of Israel and he meets Jesse, David’s Dad. In obedience to God, Samuel asks Jesse where his youngest son was. “He is keeping the sheep”.
That’s the first we hear of David. He’s a shepherd.
This is important in the following chapter when David kills Goliath the Philistine Giant.
Goliath was huge and had the best armour and weapons. He challenged the Israelite army to a one on one duel, and winner would take all.
“Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”
When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
1 Samuel 17:10-11
David visits his brothers in the army and asks:
“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
1 Samuel 17:26
His brother rebukes him, but King Saul hears and asks to see David.
Now this is where things get interesting.
David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”
1 Samuel 17:32-37 (emphasis added)
David then took his staff and some pebbles in his shepherd’s bag, went out, challenged Goliath and, after telling him that God will deliver him into his hands, killed him.
Here we find that David has total faith in God, and he expresses his faith using the language of his experience as a shepherd. Just as David protected sheep from lions and bears, God will protect David. The lion would take a lamb from the flock, Goliath would fight one person from the army of Israel. The lion would defy David, Goliath defied the living God; and neither would succeed in their ambitions.
If we consider the themes of David’s trust and reliance upon God in the face of adversity, if we consider his analogy of his actions as a shepherd protecting his flock to describe God and if we even consider that his victory was prepared for him by God in front of the philistine army then it seems that these themes overlap incredibly well with the themes we find in Psalm 23.
Reflecting on Psalm 23 while keeping David as shepherd and his understanding of God as Shepherd in mind doesn’t suddenly change the themes and content of Psalm 23. But I would suggest that it might enable us to delve into those themes and encouragements in a way which can give us a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the profound trust and hope found throughout.
And so I encourage you to read it through now, and I’d love to hear what occurs to you as you read it.
Psalm 23 – A Psalm of David
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
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.
*so far as I can tell, but there’s a lot of stuff which has been written on this Psalm – very possible someone else has had this idea first and I’m just unaware of it!