Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 15, 2023
Psalm 23 Commentary
Psalm 23 bears a lot of resemblance to any number of poems in the Hebrew Psalter. This is not the only sunny-side-up psalm that exudes confidence at every turn. It is not the only psalm to use pastoral imagery or to invoke the specter of “enemies” in whose presence God will vindicate the psalmist. Yet Psalm 23 caught on a long time ago in ways a lot of those other similar psalms did not. It is easily the most familiar and recognizable psalm out of the 150 in the Bible. I am not sure if a Top 5 or Top 10 list exists for the Book of Psalms but if I had to make my own such list, Psalm 23 would clock in at #1 with Psalms 51, 100, 139, and 150 also being in the mix.
What is it about Psalm 23? It could be that the shepherd imagery used here has a lot of resonance with similar references in prophecies like Isaiah. Possibly and probably this psalm’s relative fame ties in with Jesus’s own use of the Good Shepherd imagery in particularly John’s Gospel as perhaps the most famous of Jesus’s numerous “I Am” sayings in John. And of course images of Jesus as not just the shepherd but also the lamb persist clear down to the New Testament. Think of the phrase John the Baptist appears to have coined in John 1 in hailing Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And by the time you get to the Book of Revelation, Jesus as the slain but living Lamb is also all over the place.
So perhaps the explanation for Psalm 23’s renown lies in the fact that biblically, it gets a lot of collateral help. Even so, Psalm 23 contains, at best, the seeds for all of that later biblical coverage. The “Lord” here is not envisioned to be the coming Messiah but is simply Yahweh, the true God of Israel. And Yahweh is not the sheep or lamb here but only and ever the Shepherd guiding his flocks.
As we have noted in other sermon commentaries here on CEP, no one knows for sure how much King David had to do with all of the many psalms whose superscription claims them to be “Of David.” But if this is a true Davidic psalm, then certainly the fact that David had himself been a shepherd before being tapped for royal duties by Samuel lends street creds to Psalm 23 and its portrait of a shepherd diligently tending his sheep and fending off all manner of dangers for them in life’s darker valleys.
But the psalm is not written from the perspective of the shepherd, is it? This is a sheep talking. The entire psalm is in the first person. No one else speaks. It is less clear whether we are still to picture a metaphorical “sheep” talking once we wind up this poem starting in verse 5. If so, then maybe the banquet prepared in the presence of enemies means the watching enemies include lions and jackals and other predatory sheep foes! Instead of making the sheep their dinner, they are forced to watch the sheep eat a very nice dinner. But probably we are not supposed to do that with the closing imagery. Although the narrator is still speaking first person, he left the sheep image behind after verse 4. (On the other hand if you want to write a children’s book based on Psalm 23, keeping the sheep as the one doing the eating while lions and jackals look on would work great!)
There are three primary settings to notice in this short 6-verse psalm. The first setting is a pretty one in verses 1-3: quiet waters, green pastures. This is a serene opening setting, pretty if not downright beautiful as you cannot resist picturing a clear blue sky overhead too.
Setting two shifts dramatically to a dark valley in verse 4. Many of us remember translations of this as being “the valley of the shadow of death” and you may still find some such translations. Hebrew linguistic scholars have been tussling for a long while over the correct vocalization of a compound Hebrew noun in verse 4 with most scholars now believing that mention of “death” is not supported by the vocabulary and so a valley of great darkness is now the preferred translation. In any event, this is a long ways from the quiet waters, sunny skies, and green meadows of the opening 3 verses. Maybe the Hebrew does not support inserting the word “death” here but this is definitely a valley where thoughts of impending death would likely occur to the average sheep. Only the reassuring poking and prodding of the shepherd’s staff reminds the sheep that even here—or perhaps it is especially here—he is not alone and is still being led by a reliable person.
Setting three takes us to the end of the poem in verses 5-6 and we appear to have returned to a brighter location in some kind of banquet hall. It is a lush set of imagery with anointing oil running down this person’s head and a cup that gets refilled as quickly as the psalmist can drain it. How it is that this person’s enemies are on hand to witness this is unclear but they are present to witness this person’s vindication at the hands of the Lord. In the end you picture the psalmist patting his full belly with his face glowing from the fine wine as he lets out a deeply satisfying sigh and declares, “Goodness and mercy are my companions from here on out. And I am living with my great God from here on out and forever.”
Psalm 23 is indeed famous. Lots of folks have parts or all of it committed to memory. Innumerable musical pieces have been inspired by it and it is surely possible that no set of imagery has inspired as many stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals worldwide than this one. So one is cautious to qualify the psalm. Yet as we have noted about other such psalms in the Hebrew Psalter, this is not the only kind of sentiment in the Psalms. There are heart-wrenching laments aplenty too. There are whole psalms that dwell in only the second setting here in Psalm 23:4 only there the comforting prod of a shepherd’s crook is precisely what the psalmist cannot sense or feel and so cries ascend to God to show up in just the way Psalm 23:4 says he will when we are in dark and dangerous territory. “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Not every day is a Psalm 23 day. There are Psalm 13 days too. But the presence now and again of Psalm 23 moments of assurance and comfort provide us with the hope that can sustain us through even those times when the comforting touch of the Shepherd’s rod and staff seem too few and too far between. And if Jesus the Good Shepherd made one thing clear some centuries after Psalm 23 was first composed, at the end of the cosmic day we really will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms . . .”
People who know about such things say that whereas cattle need to be herded from behind and driven forward, sheep prefer to be led. Although as noted above the narrator of Psalm 23 has the perspective of the sheep and not the shepherd, you nevertheless get the sense that whoever wrote this did so from personal shepherding experience. Because throughout this entire psalm, you consistently can picture the shepherd as being up ahead, as being out front, as leading along. Even at the very end when perhaps (as also noted) the pastoral imagery ends once we hit the banquet image, even so the host of the banquet was out ahead of the psalmist, preparing the table ahead of time, setting everything up just so, and then serving the food and keeping the wine goblet filled to overflowing again and again and again. It is a great image: the God who goes before us.
If you would like to preach on Psalm 106: 1-6, 9-13, here is a link to a CEP commentary: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2017-10-09/psalm-1061-6-9-13/
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