Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Under two images equally familiar in Hebrew poetry—that of the shepherd watching over his flock, and of the banquet where Jehovah presides over the just—this psalm expresses the tranquility and happiness of those who are conscious of the Divine protection. But, after the Hebrew lyric manner, direct allusions to circumstances mingle with the images. We think therefore of some real person and some actual experience, and not of an allegorical reference to the return of the people of Israel from exile, or of the guidance of the rescued nation from Egypt through the wilderness, which were favourite modes of explanation among the Rabbis. The mention of the house of Jehovah seems decisive against the Davidic authorship, which else it would be fascinating to accept, breathing, as the exquisite verse does, the freshness and beauty of the “sweet singer’s” early shepherd days. The feast, too, under the enemies’ eyes, might have been a reminiscence of Mahanaim; but if David’s fortunes have thus coloured the psalm, it must have been through the mind of some later writer. The rhythm of the poem is as tender as the thought.
A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.(1) Shepherd.—This image, as applied to God, appears in Hebrew literature first (Genesis 48:15; Genesis 49:24) of his relation to the individual (comp. Psalm 119:176); as the shepherd of His people the image is much more frequent (Psalm 78:52; Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 63:11; Ezekiel 34; Micah 7:14).
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.(2) The verbs in these verses are not to be understood as futures, but as presents, describing the customary condition of the poet. “The psalmist describes himself as one of Jehovah’s flock, safe under His care, absolved from all anxieties by the sense of this protection, and gaining from this confidence of safety the leisure to enjoy, without satiety, all the simple pleasures which make up life—the freshness of the meadow, the coolness of the stream. It is the most complete picture of happiness that ever was or can be drawn. It represents that state of mind for which all alike sigh, and the want of which makes life a failure to most; it represents that heaven which is everywhere if we could but enter it, and yet almost nowhere because so few of us can” (Ecce Homo, 5, 6).
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.(3) Restoreth my soul—i.e., refresheth, recreateth, quickeneth.
For his name’s sake.—God’s providential dealings are recognised as in accordance with His character for great graciousness.
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 valley of the shadow of death . . .—This striking expression, to which the genius of Bunyan has given such reality, was probably on Hebrew lips nothing more than a forcible synonym for a dark, gloomy place. Indeed, the probability is that instead of tsal-mâveth (shadow of death), should be read, tsalmûth (shadow, darkness), the general signification being all that is required in any one of the fifteen places where it occurs. It is true it is used of the “grave” or “underworld” (Job 10:21-22). But it is also used of the “darkness of a dungeon” (Psalm 107:10), of “the pathless desert” (Jeremiah 2:6); or, possibly, since it is there parallel with drought, of “the blinding darkness of a sandstorm,” and metaphorically of “affliction” (Isaiah 9:2), and of the “dull heavy look” that grief wears (Job 16:16).
By valley we must understand a deep ravine. Palestine abounds in wild and gloomy valleys, and shepherd life experiences the actual peril of them. Addison’s paraphrase catches the true feeling of the original—
“Though in the path of death I tread,
With gloomy horrors overhead.”
Thy rod and thy staff.—Used both for guiding and defending the flock.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.(5) Such a sudden transition from the figure of the flock to that of a banquet is characteristic of Hebrew poetry.
Preparest—i.e., spreadest or furnishest, the usual phrase (Proverbs 9:2; Isaiah 21:5). (For the same figure of the hospitable host applied to God, see Job 36:16; Isaiah 25:6; and the well-known parables in the New Testament.)
In the presence of mine enemies.—We must imagine the banquet spread on some secure mountain height, in sight of the baffled foe, who look on in harmless spite.
My cup runneth over.—Literally, My cup is abundant drink. Cup, in the sense of portion, has already occurred (Psalm 11:6; Psalm 16:5). The LXX. has, “Thine intoxicating cup, how excellent it is;” Vulg. the same, but with “my” instead of “thy.”
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) I will dwell.—As the text stands it must be translated I will return (and abide) in the house of Jehovah.
The house of the Lord can hardly be anything but the Temple; though some commentators treat this even as figurative of membership in the Divine family.