A Meditation, Verse by Verse, Word by Word, on Psalm 23

I have been meaning to write a meditation on the 23rd psalm for a while now.  I am continuing to study the bible with Dr. Bill Creasy (see http://www.logosbiblestudy.org/), and right now I am studying the psalms.

Dr. Creasy examines the psalms, as he does the rest of the bible, from a literary perspective.  His training is in literature, so that is what he teaches.  He examines the bible as a single literary work, inspired by God.  The characters are God and his people.  The conflict is sin.

When looking at the psalms from this perspective, he examines the structure and symbolism, and he focuses on what they tell us about the characters and the biblical story.  David, son of Jesse, wrote about half the psalms, so more than any other character, the psalms tell us about David.  Dr. Creasy focuses on this to some extent.

I want to focus on what the psalm means to the reader, to me.  When we pray the psalm, what are we asking for?  And why is it so popular, being one of the most familiar, and most memorized psalms of the bible?  Or, more accurately, why is Psalm 23 such an important psalm and prayer for me?

Like Dr. Creasy, I will take the psalm apart and proceed verse by verse.  For the 23rd psalm, that is easy.  It is only 6 verses.  For reference, the psalm is available, here: NIV, KJV.  I have memorized an amalgam of those translations, so please bear with me:

1. The LORD is my shepherd:
        I shall not be in want.
2. He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
        he leads me beside still waters.
3. He restores my soul.
        He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4. Yay though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
        your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5. You set a table before me in the midst of mine enemies; you anoint my head with oil;
        my cup overflows.
6. Surely goodness and love (or mercy) with follow me all the days of my life,
        and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

“The LORD is my shepherd”: notice the “LORD”, originally “YHWH” or Yahweh.  This is the personal, covenant name of God: the name God gave Moses to give to his people.  This name is so holy that God’s people would not pronounce it out loud, and instead would say LORD.

“shepherd”: conjures a ideal pastoral image, a life with more time, less stress, and less noise.  More time to be with the God.  Time to be in nature, with animals, leading a taking care of animals.

“The LORD is my shepherd”: notice that is is the LORD who is the shepherd, not us.  He takes care of us the way we take care of sheep.  He feeds us.  He guides us.  He keeps us from danger, and when we find trouble and danger anyway, he saves us.  When we take care of animals, and we must “be the human”.  That is we must lead, make decisions, control them, and care for them.  God does this for us.

“I shall not be in want.”: this sums up and emphasizes what has been said.  If the LORD is our shepherd, if he takes care of us, protects us, and leads us, then we shall have all we need and all we want.  We must follow the LORD as a sheep follows its shepherd, so we shall not be in want.

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures;”  “makes me”: we do not have a choice.  “lie down”: more that just brings us there, he makes us stay.  “green pastures”: good places, good situations.  Also, food.  He brings us to our food, he brings us to what we need, and he makes us stay there.

“he leads me beside still waters.”  Watering holes are very important for life.  But they are full of danager.  Lions, predators, and bandits lie in wait at watering holes. Competing flocks and animals are also at watering holes.  The LORD leads us to the water, and we drink.  But we do not stay.

“still water”: raging water is a common symbol of distress.  Flood water can cover our heads.  Deep water can overwhelm us.  But still water is good.  Still water is like a still soul: it is good.

“He restores my soul.”  Now let a simple shepherd try that!  God is no shepherd; he is the Lord Almighty.  He is God our creator, and only he can restore our souls.  As we wrestle and fight with God, our souls become roiled.  As we separate from God, we lose contact with our soul.  God restores us.  He makes us whole.  He is our creator.  He is our father.

“He leads us in the paths of rightness”: again amplifying the previous verse.  Not only does he restore us, bring us back to him, and make us whole, he then leads us where we need to go, along the “paths of rightness”.  Life is not a destination, but a journey.  If God is our guide, shepherd, and leader, if he is our lord, our life will be righteous.

“for his name’s sake”  not for us.  Not for love of us.  He does all this, he leads in righteousness, “for his name’s sake.”  His most holy name, that name that is so holy that his people would not even pronounce it out loud.  It is a great comfort that God has such a strong motive to take care of us, and to bring us to righteousness.

“The paths of righteousness”, like the watering hole, are not safe.  They are filled with danger, adventure, and death.  So they both foreshadow verse 4.  If we follow God in the paths of righteousness, we with surely end up walking through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death”.

But this meditation has gotten long.  It is time for a break.  Please look forward to the second half of Psalm 23 in my next post, part II.