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by Dr. Tony Ash
Ask nearly anyone to name the best known and most popular of the Old Testament psalms, and the answer will be Psalm 23. This poem is honored for the beauty of its poetry and for the message of care and protection which it delivers. Aside from the literary appreciation, countless lives have been blessed by these words.
The author makes no request of God, but simply throws himself on the Lords care with complete trust. Neither does he complain about his circumstances, though the psalm does note various perils, some of which may have existed in the authors past. The text uses various images to depict Gods care for beloved people. The first and best known is of the Lord as a shepherd. This image continues through verse 4, though some see a second image, as a guide, in verse 4. The final image is of a banquet at which the author is hosted by God, and at which he is protected from his enemies. The writer is confident of rest, food, renewal, comfort, protection, goodness and mercy. He describes circumstances when all is well, and those when danger is near. In each case God is trusted absolutely.
This poem offers little data by which it can be placed in a specific context, though hypotheses have not been lacking. One author sees various reminiscences of the exodus buried within the text. The house of the Lord in verse 6 may suggest some ceremony in the temple, though if we ascribe the psalm to David, as the heading indicates, that would pre-date the construction of the temple. The headings do not necessarily settle the matter but may only reflect later tradition.
... he simply throws himself on the Lords care with complete trust.|
We see here a writer who enjoys perfect peace of mind. His perspective is obvious from the fact he both begins and ends the poem with LORD (Yahweh).
- Verses 1-3 - NLT - RSV
The allusions in verses 1-3 describe sheep herding, and if found in another context might mean no more than that. Green pastures (vs. 2) is literally pastures of grass. Still waters (vs. 2) indicates a watering place where the sheep can rest (see RSV footnote). Restoration of soul in verse 3 (life, RSV footnote) denotes the refreshment of the sheep once they have had forage and drink. Paths of righteousness (vs. 3) is right paths, indicating the safe guidance of his sheep by the shepherd.
What elevates all this above mere sheep herding are the opening words of the psalm, the LORD is my shepherd. The reader is invited to see a double meaning in the various images, indicating how God has given the author provision, refreshment, and guidance.
Most Old Testament references to God as a shepherd have his relation to the nation in mind (cf. Pss. 74:1; 77:20; especially Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:15f.), though the sense of individual care is also found (cf. Gen. 48:15).
This psalm is not quoted in the New Testament, but the shepherd image was employed by Jesus in John 10:11, and later by Peter in 1 Peter 2:25, and 5:4.
- Verse 4 - NLT - RSV
The psalm now turns from provision to protection. Shadow of death is rendered deep darkness or the like in some translations. The difference depends on which vowels are used with the original Hebrew consonants. Deep darkness seems more appropriate in view of Jewish thought, though the matter cannot be resolved absolutely. Either translation affords a powerful image. The rod was a stout staff, or club, which the guide (shepherd?) carried for protection. The staff was his walking stick.
The use of the second person address to God moves this verse into the realm of prayer. The author may be thinking of specific perils in his own past through which God had protected him.
- Verse 5, 6 - NLT - RSV
Now God, as a host, graces the author with a banquet. Danger still lurks, for enemies are present. But they cannot harm the psalmist, who is under Gods protection. The anointing, done on special occasions in Israel, was also a part of hospitality. The overflowing cup shows how bountiful was Gods provision. He gives enough, and more than enough. Fear of foes is driven away by the assurance of the care of a far greater Power.
The last verse is a kind of testimony from the poet. He bursts forth with boundless happiness. Mercy is from the Hebrew term often translated steadfast love or loving kindness. It is the never failing covenant love of God. There is no greater resource upon which a life can be based.
The reference to the house of the Lord may indicate the writers joyful anticipation of life-long worship in the temple.
- After all analyses of this psalm, the ultimate question is to ask how it has spoken to the reader. The first line invites each one to make a personal afirmation the Lord is my shepherd. What does that mean to me? If we are able to make the submission to Gods love and care expressed in these words, we can come to know the peace and joy so wonderfully expressed in these lines. So lets consciously submit ourselves to the will and leadership of God as we say this wonderful Psalm.
- In other times in our lives, times filled with anxiety and fear about the future and worry about the present, lets say this psalm aloud to remind us of Gods care for us in all of lifes difficulties. Lets spend time reflecting on each phrase and what it says to us, and calls us to accept about Gods love for us. Perhaps the minister was right who recommended to an anxiety-ridden counselee that he repeat these words slowly and thoughfully several times a day for several days. They can have a truly transforming effect, as these great truths of Gods abiding care sink into the soul.
- As Christians, lets be thankful that Gods care for us as our Shepherd was not limited to his heavenly power and provision. In the coming of Jesus, his birth in a manger and celebrated by both angels and shepherds, kings and commoners, we are led to the profound reality that we do have a Shepherd who has chosen to come near and walk our fields, bear our burdens, and lead us to life.
Author: Dr. Tony Ash
Publication Date: December 16, 2001
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