Exegetical Exercise – Psalm 23

The Psalmist

The Uniform Series text for Sunday is Psalm 23. This is such a familiar text, it’s almost pointless to make notes on it. This is the NRSV’s version, which differs slightly from the probably more familiar King James:

(1) The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

(2) He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

(3) He restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

(4) Even though I walk through the darkest valley (alt: the valley of the shadow of death) I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

(5) You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

My cup overflows.

(6) Surely goodness and mercy (alt: steadfast love) shall follow me all the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

The Psalm is indicated as being “of David,” which would make it old, from around the late 10th century BCE. Which, if we stop to consider how people ever since, down to the present, have found it expressive of a resonant desire to trust in an overarching, protective presence, is rather amazing.

The metaphor of the shepherd – here, it seems, a reliable caretaker; the shepherd was also used as a metaphor for royalty – kings were shepherd of their people; maybe something in that;

“restoring my soul” might suggest that after there has been some period of scarcity, the shepherd remedies the problem; the word for “soul” can also mean “throat,” there are other places in scripture (e.g., Numbers 11:6) where the soul gets dry; just the opposite happens here;

Everyone comments on the sudden shift to 2nd person singular (“you”) in verse 4. It’s really striking. There is a definite image of the sheep (if we want to get sentimental, the little sheep) sort of summoning a little burst of courage because s/he’s right next to the shepherd at this point; [if we consider our own lives, we have probably had both kinds of experiences: times we were a little less stressed just because someone was there (in the ER or the funeral parlor or with the car on the side of the road or wherever), and other times when we didn’t have that benefit and noticed it; I think this language hooks our visceral knowledge of that reality.]

But now the speaker seems more human, less sheep-like; there are elements of human culture (tables, cups, the sign of anointing oil that might have something to do with putting someone in a prized position, or might just be a gesture of hospitality);

“surely goodness and mercy/steadfast love shall follow me” – everyone mentions that the verb translated “follow” is literally “pursue” – these good qualities will be constantly on the psalmist’s trail; I read someone’s commentary who always thought of them as two sheep dogs (probably because of the shepherding context), Goodness and Mercy … not really a bad image.

I used to always think of “the house of the Lord” as the Temple in Jerusalem (which would be anachronistic for a psalm of David, actually), or maybe heaven (which may be why this psalm is popular at funerals), until I started asking myself, well, where exactly is “the house of the Lord” – I continue to think that is a productive and provocative question. Or perhaps the question is: where isn’t the house of the Lord?

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