Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The grateful praise of Jehovah (i) as the Good Shepherd who tends (Psalm 23:1-2), and guides (Psalm 23:3-4) the Psalmist, providing for every want, and protecting him in every danger: (ii) as the bountiful host (Psalm 23:5-6), who entertains the Psalmist as his guest with gracious liberality.
The Psalm is unrivalled for calm serenity and perfect faith. Under Jehovah’s loving care the Psalmist knows neither want nor fear. His words admit of the most universal application to all needs, temporal and spiritual, in every age. Their meaning grows in depth as the love of God is more fully revealed through the teaching of the Spirit in the experience of life (Ephesians 3:17-19; Romans 8:35 ff.).
The Targum explains the Psalm of God’s care for the nation of Israel. This however, though justifiable as a secondary application, can hardly be the original meaning. Its tone is strongly personal. It is an individual realisation and appropriation of the blessings involved in the covenant-relation of Jehovah to His people. Each sheep can claim the care which is promised to the whole flock (Luke 15:4 ff.).
Was David the author? Many have thought that Psalm 23:1-4 are based on the recollections of his early shepherd life; and that Psalm 23:5 reflects his entertainment by Barzillai (2 Samuel 17:27-29). Nor is Psalm 23:6 decisive against the Davidic authorship. The language is figurative, and the phrase ‘house of the Lord’ does not necessarily imply the existence of the temple (Exodus 23:19; Jdg 18:31; 1 Samuel 1:7), though it must be admitted that it seems to point to it.
The kindred Psalms 27 should be carefully compared.
A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.1. The Lord is my shepherd] How natural a figure in a pastoral country, and for the shepherd-king, if the Psalm is his! Jehovah is often spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel, and Israel as His flock, especially in the Psalms of Asaph. See Psalm 74:1, Psalm 77:20, Psalm 78:52; Psalm 78:70 ff.; Psalm 79:13; Psalm 80:1, and cp. Psalm 95:7, Psalm 100:3; Micah 7:14; and the exquisite description of Jehovah’s care for the returning exiles in Isaiah 40:11. Jacob speaks of “the God who shepherded me” (Genesis 48:15, cp. Genesis 49:24). The title of shepherd is also applied to rulers; and in particular to David (2 Samuel 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:7); and to the future king of whom David was a type (Micah 5:4; Ezekiel 34:23); and so Christ appropriates it to Himself (John 10:1; cp. Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25).
I shall not want] The language, partly of experience in the present, partly of confidence for the future. So of Israel, looking back on the wandering in the wilderness, “thou hast lacked nothing” (Deuteronomy 2:7); and looking forward to the Land of Promise, “thou shalt not lack anything in it” (Deuteronomy 8:9). Cp. Psalm 34:10; Psalm 84:11.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.2. The figure of the shepherd is expanded. He makes his flock lie down in the noontide heat (Song of Solomon 1:7) in pastures of tender grass. For this picture of the shepherd’s care cp. Jeremiah 33:12.
He leadeth me] The word suggests the idea of gentle guidance (Isaiah 40:11); sometimes of sustaining and providing (Genesis 47:17 R.V. marg.) So here Vulg. educavit. It is specially applied to God’s guidance of His people (Exodus 15:13; Psalm 31:3; Isaiah 49:10).
the still waters] Lit. waters of rest: not gently-flowing streams, but streams where they may find rest and refreshment (Isaiah 32:18). So Jerome: super aquas refectionis. The Promised Land was to be Israel’s rest (Deuteronomy 12:9; Psalm 95:11). It will be remembered that “the eastern shepherd never drives, but always leads his sheep,” and that “in the East the sheep requires water daily, owing to the heat and dryness of the climate.” Tristram’s Nat. Hist. of the Bible, pp. 140, 141.
With Psalm 23:1-2 comp. Revelation 7:17.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.3. He restoreth my soul] Renews and sustains my life. Cp. Psalm 19:7, note. Not as P.B.V. (after the LXX and Vulg.) he shall convert my soul.
he leadeth me] R.V., he guideth me: a word often used of God’s guidance of His people collectively (Exodus 15:13; Deuteronomy 32:12), and individually (Psalm 5:8; Psalm 27:11, &c.).
in the paths of righteousness] Usage is decisive in favour of rendering thus, and not, in straight paths. The word for righteousness nowhere retains its primary physical meaning of straightness. For paths cp. Psalm 17:5; and for the whole phrase, Proverbs 4:11; Proverbs 8:20; Proverbs 12:28.
for his name’s sake] In order to prove Himself such as He has declared Himself to be (Exodus 34:5 ff.).
3, 4. The shepherd’s care as guide and guardian.
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.4. The figure of the shepherd is still continued. “The sheep districts [in Palestine] consist of wide open wolds or downs, reft here and there by deep ravines, in whose sides lurks many a wild beast, the enemy of the flocks” (Tristram, Nat. Hist. p. 138). Even in such a dismal glen, where unknown perils are thickest, where deathly gloom and horror are on every side, he knows no fear. Cp. Jeremiah’s description of Jehovah’s care for Israel in the wilderness (Psalm 2:6). Bunyan’s development of the idea in the Pilgrim’s Progress is familiar to everyone.
the shadow of death] The word tsalmâveth is thus rendered in the Ancient Versions, and the present vocalisation assumes that this is its meaning. But compounds are rare in Hebrew except in proper names, and there are good grounds for supposing that the word is derived from a different root and should be read tsalmûth and explained simply deep gloom (cp. R.V. marg.). It is not improbable that the pronunciation of the word was altered at an early date in accordance with a popular etymology (like our causeway, originally causey, from Fr. chaussée).
for thou art with me] God’s presence is His people’s strength and comfort. Cp. Genesis 28:15; Joshua 1:5 ff.; &c. &c.
Thy rod and thy staff] The shepherd’s crook is poetically described by two names, as the rod or club with which he defends his sheep from attack (Micah 7:14; 2 Samuel 23:21; Psalm 2:9); and the staff on which he leans. The shepherd walks before his flock, ready to protect them from assault; they follow gladly and fearlessly wherever he leads.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.5. in the presence of mine enemies] Or, adversaries, as in Psalm 6:7. The mark of favour is public and unmistakable.
thou anointest] R.V., thou hast anointed. The reference is to the unguents and perfumes which were the regular accompaniment of an Oriental banquet (Amos 6:6; Psalm 45:7; Psalm 92:10), not to the regal anointing, for which a different word is used.
my cup &c.] See note on Psalm 16:5 : and cp. Psalm 36:8, Psalm 66:12, note.
Jehovah is no niggard host, like the Pharisee (Luke 7:46); He provides for the joys as well as the necessities of life (John 2:1-11); His guests shall be of a cheerful countenance and a gladsome heart (Psalm 104:15).
5, 6. The figure is changed. Jehovah is now described as the host who bountifully entertains the Psalmist at his table, and provides him with a lodging in his own house, as Oriental monarchs entertained those to whom they wished to shew special favour. See Genesis 43:16; 2 Samuel 9:7 ff; 2 Samuel 19:33; 1 Kings 4:27.
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.6. Surely] Or, as R.V. marg., only. Nothing but goodness and mercy shall pursue me. What a contrast to the lot of the wicked man, pursued by the angel of judgment (Psalm 35:6), hunted by calamity (Psalm 140:11).
And I will dwell] The text as it stands would mean, and I will return [to dwell] in the house of the Lord. But a comparison of Psalm 27:4 leaves no doubt that we should read shibhtî or regard shabhtî as an exceptional form for it, and explain, and my dwelling shall be &c. Clearly the words are to be understood figuratively, and not of actual residence within the precincts of the temple. Cp. Psalm 36:8.
for ever] Lit. for length of days. The blessing of long life (Psalm 21:4) is crowned by the still greater blessing of the most intimate fellowship with God.