The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 23

Psa 23:1

SUPERSCRIPTION: "A PSALM OF DAVID". See Lesson, Good shepherd.

OUTLINE: A sequence of three separate figures of speech:
1-3a. The Shepherd
3b,4. The Guide
5,6. The Host

HISTORICAL SETTING: (1) 1Sa 16: David's anointing by Samuel (see notes), or (2) 2Sa 16-18: Absalom's rebellion: incl recovery from illness (v 3), valley of Kidron (v 4), rebels as enemies (v 5).

The story is told of a Mutual Improvement Class where it was a night for reading practice, and the reading was Psalm 23. Two members of the class were called upon to read the psalm. Each read it faultlessly, but there was a subtle yet significant difference. The older brother was later asked privately about this, and why his rendering was clearly superior to that of the younger brother. The reply was simple yet profound: "He knows the Psalm, but I know the Shepherd."

The Psalm Analyzed:

FAITH: The LORD is my shepherd.
ASSURANCE: I shall not be in want.
CONTENTMENT: He makes me lie down in green pastures.
PEACE: He leads me beside quiet waters.
LIFE: He restores my soul.
DIVINE GUIDANCE: He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
CONFIDENCE: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...
COURAGE: I will fear no evil.
COMPANIONSHIP: For you are with me.
COMFORT: Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
PROVIDENCE: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
FAVOR: You anoint my head with oil.
HAPPINESS: My cup overflows.
BLESSINGS: Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.
IMMORTALITY: And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

V 1: David is brought in from keeping the sheep. Cp Psa 78:70-72: from shepherd flock to (ultimately) throne room.

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD: The "Lamb" becomes the "Shepherd" -- a complete, though exquisitely logical, role reversal! "The Lamb... shall shepherd them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters" (Rev 7:17). Cp Eze 34:12-15,23-25; Isa 40:11; 49:10; Mic 7:14; Joh 10:1-16.

I SHALL NOT BE IN WANT: "One thing is not lacking to me" (LXX). This is quoted by Jesus, without the negative, to the rich young ruler who professed to have kept all the commandments: "Yet lackest thou one thing" (Luk 18:22). What one thing? The Lord as your Shepherd: therefore, "Come, follow me."

Psa 23:2

HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN: Shepherds say that a sheep only lies down when it is fully fed!

IN GREEN PASTURES: The word describes a verdant spot in a barren wilderness. Mar 6:39 (the feeding of the 5,000 men in the desert) is a deliberate echo of this verse. Incredibly, Christ is both Shepherd and "pasture" to his flock (Joh 6:48,51)!

HE LEADS ME BESIDE QUIET WATERS: "Still waters" (AV) is, lit, as the AV margin: the waters of quietness or rest (RSV). It is the flock which is still -- in quietness or at rest; the stream is gently flowing. Cp the "resting place" of the Ark in Num 10:33.

Psa 23:3

HE RESTORES MY SOUL: That is, he causes my soul to return (to him): 1Pe 2:25. How does he do this? By the perfect law of the Lord: Psa 19:7.

HE GUIDES ME: As in Act 8:31,32: As Christ was led as a lamb to his death (Isa 53:7), so he -- through Philip -- leads the Ethiopian to the waters of baptism. But the one whom he leads must be willing to be led!

IN PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS: Because that is his character -- he knows no other "path"! The paths of righteousness (v 3) inevitably lead through (not around) the valley of the shadow of death (v 4). It is through much tribulation (and only so) that we enter the Kingdom: Act 14:22; Rev 7:14.

The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God cannot keep you.

Psa 23:4

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH: (1) A dark defile near Bethlehem? The Judean desert nearby can be most desolate and dreary. (2) The valley of Elah (1Sa 17:2,3), where the youth David stood in the shadow of the giant Goliath?

(NT) His literal baptism prefiguring the actual death through which he would go. On that last night before his arrest, the dark valley of Kidron, which he traversed on his way to Gethsemane, was surely a "valley of the shadow of death"!

This valley has no terrors for the Guide because he has been there before (Psa 22). And, accordingly, he who follows his Guide comes safely through it -- with proper emphasis, of course, on deliverance out of death, not necessarily on avoidance thereof.

"We must always stand consciously in the presence of death: not morbidly, but soberly and realistically: the death of those we have known and loved (and inadequately appreciated), the death of Christ, our own inevitable death if the Lord remain away. Sin and death are the present inescapable reality, and we cope with reality by facing it maturely and intelligently. The empty, giddy, unreal mirth of fools that fills the world is an abomination to our holy God. We are always in His presence. Let us ever remember to behave in keeping with that fact" (GVG).

YOUR ROD: For defense against enemies. Rod = shebet, a weapon used for defense of the flock, as in 1Sa 17:35. Also, sym kingship: Gen 49:10; Psa 45:6; Num 24:17.

AND YOUR STAFF: For guidance and discipline. Both are a comfort. Moses' rod serves as an example: Exo 14:16,21,26-31.

YOU ARE WITH ME: = Immanuel!

Psa 23:5

YOU PREPARE A TABLE BEFORE ME: The peace offerings slain by Samuel: 1Sa 16:5,11.

A table of fellowship and refreshing ("Take care of him... when I come again...": Luk 10:35!) even though one's inner enemies are always present. Or, a table of eternal and immortal fellowship for the "sheep", whilst the "goats" are excluded: Mat 8:11,12; 22:12-14; Luk 12:35-38; 14:15-24; 22:30.

IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES: David, envied by his brothers: 1Sa 16:13; 17:28.

(NT) Judas at the Last Supper.

YOU ANOINT MY HEAD WITH OIL: 1Sa 16:13. The treatment of a distinguished guest: Mat 26:6,7; Luk 7:46.

MY CUP OVERFLOWS: With the remission of sins (Mat 26:28). Cp also Psa 116:13.

Oil and wine ("my cup") together, as in Gethsemane, which sig "a winepress for oil".

Even in the dreary wilderness, with the "wild beasts", our Shepherd prepares us a table, as He did for our fathers who came out of Egypt -- causing waters to run down like rivers and raining down manna from heaven (Psa 78:16,24). We must not complain or doubt. We must never ask, as did they, "Can God provide a table in this wilderness?" (v 19). He can, and He does! Here before us on this table are the emblems of a body dedicated and blood poured out. Here as sheep we feed on the pasture provided by the Good Shepherd. And even while the beasts of prey circle menacingly, and the shadows lengthen, we are fed in hope, the words echoing in our ears: "Fear not, little flock, it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."

Psa 23:6

LOVE: "Mercy" (AV), or "chesed", is commonly associated with God's promises -- in this instance the promise of the beginning of a royal line, implicit in David's anointing.

I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD: At Samuel's sanctuary where the copies of the Scriptures were kept (cp Psa 27:4,13; 84:1-4).

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