Notes on Psalm 23
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 28 July 2013; Revised 16 October 2013
Scripture: The Scripture text of this Psalm is taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Other versions may be quoted. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Quotations marked with the initials "BR" indicate the translation of the commentary author.
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the psalm. References to the Mishnah and Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations. Quotations from the Targums are taken from Edward M. Cook, The Psalms Targum: An English Translation (2001).
Syntax: Unless otherwise indicated the meaning of Hebrew words is taken from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981). Parsing information for Hebrew words is taken from John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament (1991). Unless otherwise indicated the meaning of Greek words used in the Septuagint (LXX) is from Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1957).
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Hebrew and Jewish nature of Scripture I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament) and Besekh (New Testament), as well as the terms Yeshua (Jesus) and Messiah (Christ). This commentary contains the Name of God. If you print it out, please treat it with appropriate respect.
Chapter: 23 in the MT; 22 in the LXX. (Psalms 9 and 10 in the MT are combined in the LXX.) See the Hebrew text and English translation at Biblos Interlinear Bible.
"A Psalm of David," verse 1 in the MT. The Targum also has "A Psalm of David" (Cook). The LXX has "a psalm by David," although the ABP translates as "to David." The Grk. David is in the dative case, but owing to the lack of a preposition between "psalm" and "David" the dative case should be treated as a instrumental dative of agency; therefore "by David" is more appropriate. Certainly this was the intention of Jewish translators of the LXX. Nevertheless, there is scholarly debate over whether the superscription l'David, which heads almost half the psalms, intends authorship by King David for the psalms identified with his name. For liberal scholars the superscription has no relevance since they give a post-exilic date for the whole book. However, Broyles explains that the Hebrew preposition l' (לְ) can have a variety of meanings.
(1) "of" or "(belonging) to" David in the sense of possession, because he authored the psalm;
(2) "(belonging) to" the Davidic collection of psalms (similar phrases are so used in other ancient Near Eastern poetry) - in other words, a royal collection of psalms (as distinct from Levitical collections, such as those of Asaph and Korah), reflecting the royal patronage of the temple;
(3) "(dedicated) to" David or to the Davidic king (like a book dedication);
(4) "for (the use of)" David or the Davidic king, that is, for the king to use either personally or as the leading liturgist in public worship;
(5)"concerning/about" David (27-28).
For Broyles the potential meanings of l'David leaves Davidic authorship uncertain. Yet, the use of l'David as a heading in so many psalms confirmed for the Jewish Sages that l'David indicated Davidic authorship. That is the straightforward meaning. The opinion of the Sages, who lived so much closer to the event than modern scholars, should carry greater weight.
Type: Psalm of Trust-Individual.
Usage in the Besekh: None.
Morris summarizes the thematic organization of the psalm as follows (146):
In addition, the God of Israel is the central figure in the psalm, beginning in verse 1 with the mention of YHVH ('LORD'). In verses 2 and 3 David uses third person singular verbs that describe actions by YHVH. In verses 4 and 5 David uses second person singular verbs to address YHVH and then again mentions the Sacred Name in verse 6.
The psalm employs a variety of verbal images. Two principal metaphors are used of God, the caring shepherd and the gracious host (Anderson 195).
The superscription offers no information on the historical period, although Delitzsch suggests that it belongs to the time of the rebellion under Absalom (207). The psalm probably draws on David's experience as a shepherd for his father's flocks (1 Sam 16:11, 19; 17:15, 20, 28, 34; Ps 78:70-72).
(1) A Psalm (Heb. mizmor, a melody) of David.
A Psalm: Heb. mizmor, a melody, a term associated with 57 psalms (TWOT 1:245). Mizmor is a technical musical term implying a composition meant to be sung with instrumental accompaniment. of David: l'David ("leh-Dah-veed"). David is one of the most important figures in Israelite history. His name first appears in 1 Samuel 16:13 when God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint one of his sons as the next king. At that time David was only a shepherd. Yet, from that humble beginning he would eventually (after many difficulties) become the King of Israel at the age of 30 and reign 40 years (2Sam 5:4; 1Chron 3:4). David made a tremendous impact on the nation of Israel. In the military sphere he broke the power of all the pagan peoples in the land of Canaan and in the civil sphere he made Jerusalem his capital and solidified central authority.
Perhaps most important is his accomplishments in the religious sphere. He erected the Tabernacle on Mt. Zion, centralized religion in Jerusalem and established Levitical choirs. He wrote many psalms and 73 psalms are specifically ascribed to him. He was known as the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2Sam 23:1). Especially important is that he compiled and organized psalms into what we now know as the Book of Psalms (2Chron 29:30). David was a true worshipper, a man imbued with the Holy Spirit (1Sam 13:14; 16:13; 2Sam 23:2). God chose David to be king because He "sought out for Himself a man after His own heart" (1Sam 13:14). Then, God made a personal and everlasting covenant with him by which God promised that He would establish the throne of David forever, build a house for Himself and send forth a king from the loins of David to rule over his people Israel (2Sam 7:12-14; 23:5; 2Chron 7:18; 13:5; Ps 89:3; Isa 55:3; Jer 33:21).
David's family life is the subject of much analysis and not a little criticism among commentators. He was a polygamist with 8 wives and 10 concubines (2Sam 3:3-5, 13-14; 5:13; 12:7-8, 24; 15:16). The concubines were probably the servants of his wives (2Sam 6:20-22). He had 19 named sons of his wives, besides the sons of his concubines, and one named daughter, although many other daughters were born to him (1Chron 3:1-9; 14:3-7). Thus, his adultery with Bathsheba and conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah was especially egregious (2Sam 12:7-8).
Yet, in spite of his moral failure the Scripture record is highly complimentary of David. During the time of the divided kingdoms there is an oft repeated phrase to describe the good kings of Judah, "He walked before me as David his father walked" (1Kgs 3:3, 14; 11:4, 6, 33, 38; 14:8; 15:3, 5, 11; 2Kgs 14:3; 16:2; 18:3; 22:2). Jeremiah left a simple eulogy of David's life: "David did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite" (1 Kgs 15:5). The last comment on David's life in the Tanakh is from Ezra who twice refers to David as a "man of God" (2Chron 8:14; Neh 12:24).
David also has a highly favorable standing in the Besekh. The apostles tell the story of Yeshua as the story of the Son of David from His birth (Matt 1:1; Rom 1:3; 2Tim 2:8; Rev 22:16). At least twelve times the apostolic narratives refer to Him as “Son of David.” David is cited as a model of behavior (Matt 12:3), identified as a servant of God (Luke 1:69) and regarded as a Spirit-inspired prophet (Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 2:34; 4:25; Rom 11:9; Heb 4:7). David thus took his place in the roll call of faithful heroes (Hebrews 11:32). This was “David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfill all my will” (Acts 13:22).
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
The LORD: Heb. YHVH (Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey), the tetragrammaton of the God of Israel, referred to in Judaism as either Adonai (Lord) or Hashem (the Name). YHVH dominates in the Tanakh, first occurring in Genesis 2:4. While not reflected in Bible translations YHVH is not a title or a word for a deity, but the personal name of the God of Israel (Ex 3:15; 2Chron 14:11; Isa 42:8). Translating YHVH with "the LORD" is actually strange since there is no definite article associated with the Hebrew name and it would be equivalent to saying "the Jesus." The Genesis narrative identifies YHVH on the lips of Eve (Gen 4:1), then Seth and his descendants when "men began to call upon the name of YHVH" (Gen 4:26), Lamech, father of Noah on the occasion of his birth (Gen 5:29) and then by Noah himself when he blessed the line of Shem (Gen 9:26).
Abraham addressed the One who called him out of Ur as YHVH Elohim (Gen 15:2) and in that conversation God offered his first self-revelation as YHVH (Gen 15:7). The prolific use of YHVH in the book of Genesis presents something of a conundrum because God told Moses, "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty [Heb. El Shaddai], but by My name, LORD [Heb. YHVH], I did not make Myself known to them" (Ex 6:3; cf. Gen 17:1). The statement implies that Moses inserted YHVH into the Genesis narrative. The rationale could be two-fold: (1) the usage of YHVH in Genesis asserts that the Creator-God is the God of Israel; and (2) the usage of YHVH also demonstrates that the true people of God had always worshipped the Holy One of Israel.
Nevertheless, by Moses' own record God also revealed his Name to Abraham, "I am the LORD [Heb. YHVH] who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it" (Gen 15:7). Thus, the patriarchs (and those before them) were not ignorant of YHVH. The point of Exodus 6:3 is that the God of the fathers not only had established his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but had now heard the groaning of the children of Israel and remembered his covenant. The significance of the revelation to Moses and all Israel, not previously explained, is that YHVH is a deliverer and redeemer. See my article The Blessed Name for more discussion on this subject.
is my shepherd: Heb ra'ah, Qal active participle, 1st person, to pasture, tend or graze. The participle functions as a substantive, thus the translation of 'shepherd' or even 'herdsman'. The participle says something of who God is and what He does. The first person of the participle asserts the personal relationship David felt toward the God of Israel, who is declared to be the Shepherd of the patriarchs and of Israel (Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 28:9; 80:1; Eccl 12:11; Jer 31:10). David was chosen to be the shepherd of Israel (2Sam 5:2; 7:7; Ps 78:71-72; Ezek 34:23; 37:24), but he acknowledged that there was one greater who was his shepherd. Yeshua declared that he was the Shepherd of Israel (Matt 25:32; 26:31; John 10:11, 14, 16) and the apostles echoed the truth (Heb 13:20-21; 1Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17).
I shall not: Heb. lo, adverbial negative particle, 'not'. want: Heb. chaser, Qal imperfect, 1st person, to lack, need, be lacking, to decrease. David likens himself to a sheep totally dependent on the Shepherd for sustenance. The confident statement may allude to the fact that during the forty years in the wilderness Israelites lacked for nothing (Deut 2:7). The Psalms Targum takes this retrospective interpretation by rendering the verse as "It is the Lord who fed his people in the wilderness; they did not lack anything" (Cook).
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
He makes me lie down: Heb. rabats, Hiphil imperfect, to stretch oneself out, lie down, lie stretched out. The verb is a specialized one for making animals lie down (Alter 78). in green: Heb. deshe, grass. The translation of 'green' is probably used to indicate suitability for eating, lit. "grassy." pastures: Heb. na'ah, habitation, house, pasture or meadow. The flock is not being taken to a desert void of vegetation. Clarke explains the "green pastures" as cottages of turf or sods, such as the shepherds had in level open countryside; places in which they could rest safely. Pens were constructed where the flock might be safe all the night. They were enclosures where they had grass or provender to eat. Yeshua alluded to this practice in John 10:1-3, 7-9.
He leads me: Heb. nahal, Piel imperfect, to lead or guide to a watering place, bring to a place of rest, refresh. The verb illustrates the practice of the eastern shepherd who gently guides his sheep, going before the flock (Anderson). Yeshua said that the good shepherd "calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). beside: Heb. al, prep., upon, above or over. quiet: Heb. menuchah, resting place, rest. waters: Heb. mayim, water, waters, a term referring to water that might come from a variety of sources. Here 'waters of rest' might imply a pond or small lake in contrast to a stream and a comfortable place nearby or the idiom may suggest that the waters bring refreshment as illustrated by the next clause of "he restores my soul."
3 He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.
He restores: Heb. shub (pronounced shoov), Po'el imperfect, to bring back, to restore, to refresh. my soul: Heb. nephesh may mean a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, or emotion. Nephesh refers lit. to that which breathes, that which animates a being to provide life. The word first occurs in Genesis 2:7 in which God breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life. The life of nephesh lies in the blood (Lev 17:11-14). Alter suggests the word picture is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life (78). Also, it should be considered that in Hebrew thought a person is not compartmentalized. Nephesh represents the whole person and in context "my nephesh" would be a circumlocution for "me," a frequent idiomatic expression in the Psalms (149 times).
He guides me: Heb. nachah, Hiphil imperfect, to lead or guide. The Hiphil form of the verb can be a metaphor of treating kindly, especially in the path of blessing. in the paths: Heb. magal, an entrenchment or track, such as a wagon track. of righteousness: Heb. tsedeq, rightness, righteousness or justice. The Hebrew concept of righteousness refers to right or ethical character and behavior. It is based on the character of God and his revealed standards. Tsedeq also carries the sense of salvation (deliverance) and judgment (justice). The Targum renders the noun as "the righteous" (Cook). In other words, God leads us in company with other righteous people. The paths may also be those that lead to happiness, welfare and blessedness (Anderson). For His name’s sake: This is an idiomatic expression for maintaining one's reputation or demonstrating one's character.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
Even though I walk: Heb. halak, Qal imperfect, to come, go or walk. through the valley: Heb. gay, a valley. There are several Hebrew words used to designate various kinds of valleys in Israel's topography. Gay is a deep narrow ravine or gorge, usually with a stream at the bottom (Isa 40:4; Zech) (NIBD 1085). Gay is used figuratively here of a grave danger which one might experience. Valleys of all descriptions would have been known to David the shepherd, but one would stand out in his memory. A significant gay valley in David's life is the location of where Israel's armies faced off against the Philistines with Goliath as their champion (1Sam 17:3).
Another of the most famous (or infamous) gay valleys is the Valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. In later Israelite history child sacrifice was conducted here under King Ahaz (2Chron 28:3) and King Manasseh (2Chron 33:6). After King Josiah abolished the abominable practice (2Kgs 23:10), the valley came to be associated with the judgment of sinners (Jer 7:32; 19:6). Later the place was made a garbage dump and fires were often burning there. Gehenna does not occur in the LXX or other early Jewish literature in Greek (DNTT 2:208), but the apostolic writers transliterated gay hinnom into the Grk. gehenna. Yeshua applied the term to hell, the place of eternal punishment (Mark 9:43).
of the shadow of death: Heb. tsalmaveth, death-like shadow or deep shadow. Owens has 'deep darkness.' Delitzsch says the word signifies the shadow of death as an epithet of the most fearful darkness, as of Hades (Job 10:21-22), but also of a shaft of a mine (Job 28:3-4), and more especially of darkness such as makes itself felt in a wild, uninhabited desert (Jer 2:6). The metaphor could draw on David's shepherd experience of walking through a ravine perhaps late in the day when no sunlight reaches the bottom and the danger from wild animals lurks in the darkness. The valley of death could also allude to that historical situation in which David faced the possibility of death when he faced Goliath.
I fear: Heb. yare', Qal imperfect, to fear or be afraid. no evil: Heb. ra, evil as a moral quality or bad in the sense of adversity or something unpleasant. for You are with me: David affirms that the transcendent God whose throne is in heaven nonetheless is very immanent, not merely in the sense of being omnipresent, but as a companion who shares the journey.
Your rod: Heb. shebet, rod, staff, club, or scepter. A rod or staff may be used for smiting, such as driving away threatening animals that would endanger the sheep. The club refers to a shepherd's instrument used in mustering or counting sheep. The scepter is a mark of authority. The LXX translates shebet with Grk. rabdos, which refers to any rod, stick or staff. Rabdos also referred to the ruler’s staff or scepter, which does have an application here. and Your staff: Heb. mishenah, staff, from the verb sha'an, to lean on or trust in. Elijah had one (2Kgs 4:29-31), as did the Angel of he Lord in Judges 6:21 and the nobles in Numbers 21:18. Here mishenah refers to the shepherd's staff (TWOT 2:945). they comfort me: Heb. nacham, Piel imperfect, to comfort, ease or console. The rod and staff in the hand of God preserve to David the feeling of security, and therefore a cheerful spirit (Delitzsch).
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.
David now transitions from the metaphor of shepherd to that of host. You prepare: Heb. arak, Qal imperfect, to arrange or set in order. a table: Heb. shulchan, table, meaning an item of furniture, although its root meaning is a skin or leather mat spread on the ground. Non-festival meals were normally eaten while sitting on the floor or ground (Gen 27:19; 1Sam 20:5; Jer 16:8; Ezek 44:3; Matt 14:19; 15:35; Luke 17:7). In the LXX shulchan is rendered with Grk. trapeza, which essentially means a surface on which something can be placed. In the Besekh trapeza is used of a dining table from which crumbs fall (Matt 15:27), a table for money transactions (Matt 21:12; Mark 11:15; Luke 19:23; John 2:12), and a table for the showbread in the tabernacle (Heb 9:2). The table used for dining was not high enough to use chairs, but low so that eating the meal necessitated sitting or reclining on the floor. So, it's reasonable to assume that a low wooden table intended here.
before me: Heb. paneh, face. The preposition-noun signifies a very personal attendance. in the presence of: Heb. neged, Qal active participle, in sight of, in front of, opposite to. my enemies: pl. of Heb. tsarar, someone who shows hostility toward or vexes. David's enemies must look on without being able to do anything (cf. Ps 31:20). Delitzsch notes that even though David fled from Absalom, was forsaken by many of his people and in danger of destruction, an abundance of daily provisions nevertheless streamed to David and those with him (2Sam 17:27-29). You have anointed: Heb. dashen, Piel perfect, to be fat, to grow fat, i.e., to anoint as a symbol of festivity and joy. fat.
my head: Heb. rosh, head in a physical sense. with oil: Heb. shemen, fat or oil, generally from the olive. Oil was normally poured over the head for anointing, whether the ordination of a priest (Ex 29:7) or the coronation of a king (1Sam 16:13). My cup: Heb. kos, cup, usually a drinking goblet (TWOT 1:434). The use here is figurative in a positive sense. overflows: Heb. revayah, saturation. The word is not a verb, but a noun describing the state of the cup. This verse easily portends the last supper of Yeshua. He ate his last meal before his death surrounded by enemies on the outside and a traitor on the inside at his table. A few days prior to the meal he had been anointed with a special oil.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Surely: Heb. ak, adverb, surely, no doubt. The adverb is often used to introduce or emphasize an expression of truth. goodness: Heb. tov, pleasant, agreeable or good. Here the noun has the meaning of a good thing, a benefit or welfare, even prosperity or happiness. and lovingkindness: Heb. chesed, favor, kindness. The LXX translates the word with eleos, "mercy." The characteristic is an evidence of God's love toward those who love Him and keep His commandments (Ex 20:6; Ps 25:10). Motivated by chesed God forgives (Ex 34:6-7; Num 14:18-19; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 145:8) and thus the trait may be translated as "lovingkindness." God's chesed also prompts Him to remember His covenant with Israel and David (Deut 7:9, 12; 1Kgs 8:23; 2Chron 6:14; Neh 1:5; 9:32; Ps 89:1-4, 28; 106:45; Isa 54:10; Dan 9:4).
will follow me: Heb. radaph, Qal imperfect, to pursue, to chase, to attend closely upon. all the days: pl. of Heb. yom, day or daylight. Yom is generally used in Scripture as a specific division of time denoting the daytime portion of a 24-hour day (Gen 1:5) or a complete solar/lunar cycle of 24 hours (Ex 2:13). The plurality indicates indefinite length. of my life: Heb. chay ("khah-ee"), to be alive or living. And I will dwell: Heb. yashav, Qal perfect, to sit (on a seat or sit down), remain (stay or tarry) or dwell. The MT has shuv, to return, but the LXX translates the Hebrew verb with katoikeo, to live or stay as a resident, to inhabit or settle. The Syriac, Targum and Vulgate also have the verb meaning to dwell or remain. The NASB Exhaustive Concordance identifies the verb as yashav (309). No Bible version translates the verb with "return," but treats the verb here as a parallel to the verb "dwell" in Psalm 27:4. In contrast Anderson, Broyles, Clarke, Delitzsch and Owens (294) prefer the MT reading, with the point of the metaphor stressing the right to participate in the regular worship at the sanctuary of the Lord.
in the house: Heb. bayith, a dwelling used for habitation. The word may also be used figuratively of a family or household. of the LORD: Heb. YHVH, the God of Israel. See the note on verse 1 above. The tabernacle could properly be called the house of the LORD since He dwelled in the holy of holies. However, the tabernacle itself had no living spaces for humans. During the years of the tabernacle temporary apartments were apparently constructed nearby for priests and Levites serving in the tabernacle. forever: lit. "length [Heb. l'orek] of days [Heb. yamim]," a parallelism of "all the days of my life."
Following the MT David would be saying 'I shall keep on returning to the tabernacle year by year and sharing in its festivals and worship there as long as I shall live.' The late date of the MT could be seen as correcting the reading of the LXX and Targum which could reflect the point of view of Levites who lived in the vicinity of the Temple. However, as attractive as the MT reading is, the early date of the LXX and Targum would argue for a Hebrew text with yashav. The rigorous Jewish translators were devoted in rendering the Hebrew text as they understood it at the time.
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