John T. Willis

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Lord is My Shepherd--Psalm 23

Psalm 23 contains only six verses, but is well-known and well-loved throughout the world. The Superscription says only: "A Psalm of David." Obviously, this give no information about the background or setting. The anonymous author had recently been delivered from a severe illness from he almost died (verse 4), and from enemies that sought to kill him (verse 5). Knowing that Yahweh has delivered him from sickness and danger, the psalmist comes to the Jerusalem temple (verse 6) to thank Yahweh for intervening to save him from his troubles. He accomplishes this by using two very common ancient Near Eastern metaphors: (1) a shepherd (vv. 1-4); and (2) a host (vv. 5-6). This little psalms naturally falls into two parts.

1. Yahweh is My Shepherd. Psalm 23:1-4.
    a. Here the poet uses the metaphor of Yahweh as shepherd to emphasize his appreciation and gratitude for Yahweh providing all his needs and dealing with all his problems. It is possible that the composer is a king because he refers to Yahweh as "shepherd," and a king is frequently called a "shepherd" of his people in the ancient Near East. In Israel, the ideal earthly king would willingly subject himself to the rule of Yahweh, the real king. The verb "anoint" in verse 5 may suggest he is a king because the normal way of making an Israelite king is that a prophet anointed the chosen person to be the next prince or king of Israel. 23:1.
    b. The statement "he [Yahweh] makes me lie down in green pastures" communicates the idea that when a sheep is full and satisfied, he or she will lie down to rest and sleep. God's people are like "sheep" (see Psalms 95:7; 100:3), and Yahweh is like a tender, loving "shepherd," who guides his sheep into lush, green pastures so they will have plenty to graze and know they are safe. The statement "he [Yahweh] leads me beside still waters" suggests that Yahweh leads his people away from troubled waters to keep them in slow-moving streams. This is a perfect picture of peace. 23:2.
    c. The word "soul" throughout the Bible does not mean a spiritual part of the human body, but rather the whole person. Thus, the expression "he [Yahweh] restores my soul" means "he revives my overwhelmed or dejected spirit when I am down and out" (see Psalm 19:7). In this context, Yahweh has done this by delivering the psalmist from his illness and his enemies. The psalmist continues: "Yahweh leads me in right paths for his name's sake." This is a picture of a spiritual journey. "Right paths" are good and safe paths in the spiritual sense. 23:3.
    d. The psalmist explains that he has walked through the darkest valley. But since Yahweh is WITH him, he will fear no evil. "Evil" here means calamity, affliction, danger, and the like. Study the word "evil" in a good concordance. As a good shepherd, Yahweh carries a "rod" to correct a straying sheep and a "staff" to move a lagging sheep to move forward more quickly. Thus, Yahweh"s rod and staff comfort and strengthen the psalmist. 23:4.

II. Yahweh is My Host. Psalm 23:5-6.
     a. In verses 5-6, the poet introduces a second metaphor, comparing Yahweh with a host. Yahweh prepares a table in the presence of his enemies, Yahweh anoints the guest with oil, and the guest's cup overflows. Yahweh is the great GIVER of everything. We are all recipients. Let us constantly be thankful for all of Yahweh's gifts and blessings. 23:5.
     b. The "house" where this feast will take place is the Jerusalem temple, "the house of the Lord." Leviticus 7:11-17 states that the sacrificial meal connected with the offering of thanksgiving that the worshipper brings to express his gratitude to Yahweh for what he has done for the worshipper. It was a common courtesy to anoint the guest with oil (Luke 7:36-50, especially Luke 7:46) and to give him a full cup of wine with his mean (Genesis 14:18; 27:25; 1 Samuel 16:20; 25:18; 2 Samuel 16:1-2). This demonstrates the genuineness of the host's hospitality and the generosity of his character. The poet is astonished at the limitless generosity of Yahweh's love and care throughout his whole life, and he is certain that this will continue all the days of his life. All of this comes from Yahweh's "goodness and mercy." 23:6.

Share YOUR insights and reversals and problems and dreams and aspirations with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis


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