Exegesis of Psalm 23

This essay was submitted as part of a formative piece for a module called “Old Testament Studies” in the October of 2016, while I was training at Cranmer Hall. 

Write a 1500 word exegesis of Psalm 23
And comment on its suitable use in Christian Ministerial Contexts

Introduction

Following Gorman’s exegetical programme,  we shall briefly examine the context of the Psalm, who wrote it and why, followed by some observations on the form and structure of the psalm before examining the six verses and then reflecting on the Psalm’s suitable use in Christian ministerial contexts.

Contextual Analysis

Despite the abiding popularity of this psalm,[1] its context remains largely mysterious. Gerstenberger is content to assume the superscription “of David’ is an editorial decision to attribute authorship, genuine or not, to David, ‘the founder of temple music’.[2] Anderson finds no particular association with the narrative of David in 1 Samuel, resting instead on his introductory comments on the formula as either by or written for David, or even collected by him.[3] Jacobson aptly observes that it seems ‘a definitive, original social or liturgical life setting is unrecoverable’ for this psalm.[4] Craige agrees.[5] Rogerson quips, ‘It cannot be dated; its sentiment is timeless’.[6] Nevertheless, whilst the socio-historical or scriptural context is uncertain, the psalm as an act of testimony[7] gives an insight into the psalmist’s life in the face of adversity, and may well find him in a cultic setting of some form, given the reference to ‘the house of the Lord’.[8]

Formal Analysis

The structure of the Psalm is commonly divided into two portions; that of the Lord as Shepherd (vv. 1-4) and then that of the Lord as Host (via.5-6).[9] Jacobson identifies a second important structural element based on the shifts between speaking about the Lord in the third person to addressing him in the second. This creates the following structure:

  • Speech about the Lord (vv. 1-4b)
    •    Speech to the Lord (vv. 4c-5)
  • Speech about the Lord (v. 6)[10]

These structures, also observed by Clifford,[11] can, given they use different identifying features (metaphor and speech), serve as complementary models.

Clifford suggests the genre is a ‘song of trust’.[12] This is supported by Anderson,[13] Jacobson,[14]and Gerstenberger (though he prefers ‘song of confidence’).[15] This lends it a quality of hope and expectation of the future, even as it reflects on events which seem to have occurred.

Verse 1[16]

The Lord is described as a Shepherd. If this psalm was indeed written by or for David then it seems remiss that the scholarship on the metaphor have chosen to focus on: ancient near eastern understandings of shepherd as a royal title;[17] the idea of God as all-sufficient and gracious provider;[18] or, on the lived reality of a shepherd as a metaphor for God,[19] Without referencing David’s own theological reflection  of his experience as a shepherd in 1 Samuel 16 and 17.

“I shall not want” balanced with “I lack nothing” shows that needs are met now, and where they aren’t, they will be.[20]

Verse 2

For Christou, verse two to six unpack the end of verse one; I shall not want, see the Lord’s provision again, and again, and again.[21] In verse two these are the green pastures and the still waters. As Brueggemann says, this ‘is all a sheep could ever need’.[22]

Kissane spies a parallel with Isaiah 49:10, ‘They shall not hunger nor thirst… By the springs of water will he guide them’.[23] This guidance and provision from God for his people as a shepherd for his flock suggests that the two are bound together,[24] Which seems covenantal in nature.

Verse 3

This verse emphasises the role of God – “he refreshes”, “he guides”, “for his name’s sake”. The sheep, and the psalmist, would perish ‘if our careful Lord did not apply himself to our necessities’.[25] This dependence on God, and the reference to “for his name’s sake” associates the shepherd metaphor with Exodus, possibly supported by the use of the phrase in Psalm 106:8.[26] May finds this allusion to be persuasive,[27] as it leads into verse 4.

Verse 4

The valley of the shadow of death is a multifaceted image. It can be understood as a place of total darkness (literally or metaphorically),[28]as an experience of crisis,[29] or as the dominion of the shepherd of death (Psalm 49.14).[30] These interpretations underscore the otherwise insurmountable difficulties were it not for the psalmist’s trust in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 28: 15, “I will be with you and will watch over you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you”.[31]

Anderson explains the rod and staff act as defence against enemies, and as support and sustenance for the psalmist.[32]

Verse 5

The ‘generous, trustworthy portrayal’ of God continues with him feeding the trusting subject, an experience of ‘luxurious extravagance in a context of threat, danger, and death’.[33] This asserts the supremacy of God over all enemies of his children.[34] The meal, given the prior allusion to exodus, is intended to remind the reader of the Passover meal (and consequently, Christians of the Eucharist).[35]

Verse 6

The delight in the Lord climaxes here with an experience in the house of the Lord that seems to transcend the barriers of space and time.[36] The Lord’s goodness and love follow, literally ‘pursue’, the psalmist.[37] Cassiodorus aptly describes this, saying, ‘This is the full perfection of all blessings… “The house of the Lord” denotes the Jerusalem to come, which continues without uncertainty “to length of days”, for it is lasting blessedness and joy without end’.[38]

Application in Ministerial Contexts

One fruitful way of using this Psalm would be as with any other psalm, through its inclusion in the readings of the daily offices. However, the propriety of the psalm should not be based entirely on the generic quality of being a psalm. After all, as the exegesis has shown, there’s a wealth of imagery which could be helpful to draw out in a variety of ministerial and pastoral contexts. One productive, if simplistic, suggestion that naturally arises would be to use Psalm 23 as the basis of a sermon series; week by week unpacking the different elements in a congregational context.

However, there are two distinctive qualities of the psalm which could be used to guide two different kinds of deployments of the psalm as a tool to facilitate different ‘kinds’ of worship.

The first would be to draw on its testimonial nature as the narrative of an individual who has been through hardships who’ve found themselves sustained through it by their faith. A service aimed primarily at new Christians and evangelizing to non-believers could be built around this concept of testimony; with the intention to show the parallels and similarities between the biblical narrative and the personal narratives of members of the community. This would hopefully create the space for the minister to invite people to engage this narrative and to begin to claim it as a personal and lived reality for themselves; meeting with God in the grittiness of real life.

The second option would be to emphasize the cultic and more communal elements of the psalm, in particular, the concept of the feast set before enemies and dwelling in the house of the Lord. It could be considered ministerially appropriate for Eucharistic services in general yet it could be particularly effective as a meditation within a confirmation service. This would organically incorporate an element of the testimonial flavour of the first half of the psalm whilst drawing its primary reference from the cultic inclusion in the temple of the Lord as a part of the People of God. The anointing element would be especially apt; as Kennedy emphasizes, to be a Christian is to be ‘an anointed one’.  It would have clear relevance to each element of the service; testimonies, anointing and Eucharistic feasting whilst the shepherd imagery would provide a link to the Gospel message through John 10 where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (who know who he is; community as people of God, apt for a confirmation service).

As such, Psalm 23 is a valuable gift to the Church’s liturgical repertoire which could be used with particular effectiveness in ministerial contexts of evangelism and sacramental administration of the Eucharist and the rite of Confirmation.

 


Bibliography

Anderson, A.A., Psalms, Volume 1, (London: Oliphants, 1972).

Blaising, Craig A. And Carmen S. Hardin (Eds.), Psalms 1-50, (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol VII; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

Brueggemann, Walter, and William H.  Bellinger Jr.,  Psalms, (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: 2014).

Christou, Sotrios, The Psalms: Intimacy, Doxology and Theology, (CHECK HOW TO REFERENCE WITH RICHARD BRIGGS – no publishing details available, in Library)

Clifford, Richard J., Psalms 1-72, (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

Coggan, Donald, Psalms 1-72, (The People’s Bible Commentary; Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998).

Craigie, Peter C., Psalms 1-50, (Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 19 (second edition); LOCATION??: Nelson Reference and Electronic (A division of Thomans Nelson Publishers), 2004).

Declaissé-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, The Book of Pslams, (The Inew International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing company, 2014).

Dickson, David, The Pslams, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959).

Eaton, John, The Psalms: A historical and spiritual commentary with an introduction and new translation, (London: T&T Clark International, 2003).

Gersetenberger, Erhard S., Psalms, Part 1 with an introduction to cultic poetry, (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol XIV; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Oublishing Company, 1988).

Gorman, Michael J., Elements of Biblical Exegesis, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).

Kidner, Derek, Psalms 1-72, (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973).

Kissane, Edward J., The Book of Psalms, Vol. 1 (Psalms 1-72), (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1953).

Mays, James Luther, Psalms, (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994).

Roberson, J.W., and J.W. McKay, Psalms 1-50, (The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible; London: 1977).

Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, (Old TestamentLibrary; London: SCM, 1962).

Wilcock, Michael, The Message of the Psalms 1-72: Songs for the People of God,  (The Bible Speaks Today; Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 200).

End Notes

[1] See, Anderson, Psalms, 195; Brueggemann, Psalms, 122; Wilcock, Psalms, 85; et al.

[2] Gerstenberger, Psalms, 86. (Redirected from page 114).

[3] Anderson, Psalms, 196 (43-46).

[4] Declaisse-Walford, Psalms, 238.

[5] Craige, Psalms,  204.

[6] Rogerson, Psalms, 105.

[7] Eaton, Psalms, 123.

[8] Anderson, Psalms, 195.

[9] Anderson, Psalms, 196, 198; Kissane, Psalms, 103; Eaton, Psalms, 123-124.

[10] Declaisse-Walford, Psalms,  239.

[11] Clifford, Psalms, 130.

[12] Clifford, Psalms, 130.

[13] Anderson, Psalms, 195.

[14] Declaisse-Walford, Psalms, 238.

[15] Gerstenberger, Psalms, 115.

[16] The texts used: NIV and ESV.

[17] Gerstenberger, Psalms,  114; May, Psalms, 117.

[18] Augustine, cited in Blaising,  Psalms, 117.

[19] Brueggemann, Psalms,  123.

[20] Weiser, Psalms, 228.

[21] Christou, Psalms, 126.

[22] Brueggemann, Psalms,  123.

[23] Kissane, Psalms, 104.

[24] Kidner, Psalms, 110.

[25] Dickson, Psalms, 122.

[26] Craige, Psalms, 207. (Yet he saved them for his name’s sake…)

[27] May, Psalms, 118.

[28] Anderson, Psalms, 197.

[29] Declaisse-walford, Psalms, 243.

[30] Eaton, Psalms, 123.

[31] Declaisse-Walford, Psalms, 243.

[32] Anderson, Psalms, 198.

[33] Brueggemann, Psalms, 124.

[34] Dickson, Psalms, 123.

[35] Christou, Psalms, 128.

[36] Weiser,Psalms,  231.

[37] Rogerson, Psalms, 107.

[38] Cassiodorus, cited in Blaising, Psalms,  183.