was somewhere deep in the Early Bronze Age (3150-2200 B.C.), working vigorously at layers of ancient soil—with a paintbrush. The sun was beating mercilessly on my back, and there were clouds of dust flying all around me. Another day at Tell el-‘Umeiri I was participating in an archaeological excavation in the country of Jordan, east of the river Jordan, high up on the plains of Moab, close to Mount Nebo, where Moses had overlooked the Promised Land.
Every morning we started digging at 5:00,while it was still nice and fresh, with a short break at 9:00 for some falafels and watermelon. By noon one couldn’t go on because the sun was so hot, shining directly from above so that it was impossible to make out any contrasts in the soil.
One morning about 11:00 saw me with a very small pick in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, working adjacent to an ancient tomb on an interesting layer of soil that appeared to be a plastered surface possibly used during burial rituals in the third millennium B.C. But at this stage it was all just dust. I was hot, my back was aching, and I was wondering what on earth I was doing here day by day in the dust.
Then I heard a shouted “y’alla, y’alla,
” which my basic Arabic identified as meaning “let’s go—hurry up.” I looked up, thankful for the opportunity to straighten my back and have a short break above the dust, and there he was: the shepherd! It appeared that he had stepped right out of Psalm 23 as he was slowly leading his flock around the bottom of a hill somewhere in modern Jordan. I scrambled for my camera as I watched him leading the flock to greener pastures and sweeter waters just with the tone of his voice, a staff in his hand, and a scarf around his head. It looked as if nothing had changed during the three millennia since David—another shepherd leading his sheep as they had always done.
Psalm 23 is a familiar text, and most of us know it by heart. However, sometimes familiarity grows into indifference, and meaning disappears behind words that can become mere liturgy. Maybe it is time for a fresh look at Psalm 23 in order to discover some new and surprising vistas of this poem.
Yes, this is poetry, Hebrew poetry, with short phrases, deep meaning, a bucketful of important theological and spiritual concepts, but most of all, full of imagery: God as a shepherd and maybe more than just a shepherd. It is this imagery that tells of how David viewed his God on a very personal level, which in turn helps us to form or revise our own image of God. So often our image of God is distorted by human images that are deep-rooted within ourselves and often reflect past experiences (e.g., the angry father, the overprotective mother, the indifferent parent, etc.). But without further ado, let’s go to the text.
A Psalm of David.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1).1
David, king of Israel, former shepherd, and poet, is closely associated with this psalm. Being the king and with that not just a former shepherd but also the current shepherd of his people, he sets the record straight right from the beginning with a short declaration: Yahweh is my shepherd! It is the Lord who is leading the king; it is the Divine Shepherd leading the human one. Although David is king, ultimate authority belongs to God. He is the one who directs our paths—and not from a distance; to David He “is my shepherd.” There is something very personal going on between David and his God.
David’s shepherd makes sure that His sheep don’t lack anything, and the second part of verse 1 follows almost logically. If the Lord is my shepherd, then there is no way I shall lack anything. As long as I follow the shepherd I have everything I need. The Hebrew actually reads: “I lack nothing.” Maybe this doesn’t always correspond to what I think
I need, but rather what the shepherd considers necessary to sustain my life. There is an intriguing double meaning in the English translation: “I shall not want.” I hear so often “I want, I want, I want . . .” and probably also say it myself often enough. Today we want instantaneous gratification—from instant pizza delivery to instant dating services. What we definitely don’t want is to wait. The text focuses not on what I want
but on the fact that I will not lack anything, because the shepherd knows exactly what I need.
“He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righ-
teousness for His name’s sake” (Ps. 23:2, 3).
David now unpacks what the shepherd does in order to provide for his sheep. Three expressions appear to allude to the daily tasks of a real shepherd in ancient Israel: the shepherd leads his flock to grassy pastures (literally “dwellings of grass”) to feed his flock; he searches for still waters (literally “waters of rest or tranquillity”); and he leads them along right paths (literally “tracks of righteousness”). The images describe overabundance.
If the shepherd leads like that, I’d definitely rather be a sheep. No worries, just green grass, clear water, and straight paths. However, David chooses his words carefully to make sure that nobody is tempted to think of this tranquil bliss only in terms of material blessings. He uses words that have strong theological implications throughout the Old Testament: there is “rest” that elsewhere refers to the rest God has promised His people on the threshold to the Promised Land (Deut. 12:9).
Moving beyond the Old Testament we remember the ultimate rest promised in Hebrews 4 in connection with the Sabbath rest. The idea is clear: we rest from our activities, and God acts. We could also call this righteousness by faith and not by works.
Then there is mention of “righteousness,”
another keyword of the Old Testament. It is an expression of God’s character (Ps. 7:17) and the criteria for His judgments (Ps. 35:24). All this serves to restore our soul, or rather, our whole being, which really goes beyond the idea of a mere sheep. The Hebrew word that is translated as “restore” actually means “make return” or “to bring back,” which is also used in the Old Testament as the technical term for repentance (1 Kings 8:33).
All this shows that Psalm 23 is more than a song about happy sheep; as a matter of fact there are no more happy sheep following verse 3.
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4, Niv).2
This verse is a turning point in the psalm, and it changes the tune in a number of ways. First of all, happiness and abundance are replaced by threatening darkness. The Hebrew uses a superlative expression here (“valley of the shadow of death”). This is exceedingly dark darkness. While sheep in ancient Israel certainly had to be herded through dark gorges and canyons, the choice of words again points beyond the basic “sheep” dimension to the spiritual experience that we as sheep on two legs go through. The dark and deadly valleys of our lives are as much a reality as are the sunny meadows and refreshing waters.
Another interesting change that occurs in verse 4 is a change from third to second person. David now speaks directly to the Divine Shepherd. The death-valley experience becomes a powerful personal experience with his God. It is in the death-valleys in our lives that we get the most intimate glimpses and understandings of God’s love for us.
Finally, verse 4 introduces a third important change: the shepherd imagery gradually makes way for another image: that of God as the royal host. It does so by mentioning the rod and the staff as the means by which the psalmist is comforted. The rod actually refers to a short scepter, the insignia of a king, whereas the staff is the longer shepherd’s staff by which the shepherd provides support for his sheep. The rod (scepter) serves to break up the nations (Ps. 2:9) or to punish (Isa. 10:5), and the staff is a means of support (Zech. 8:4).
One of the Church Fathers, Cassiodorus (A.D. 490-585), provides an interesting perspective on the rod and staff: “The ‘rod’ denotes the justice and strength of the Lord Savior. . . . ‘Staff’ indicates the support he provides for us.”3 In that way, justice (rod) and mercy (staff) meet each other in the hands of the selfsame person, our Comforter, and only our Shepherd and King can bring together justice and mercy.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5).
While the shepherd in verses 2, 3 did three things to provide for his sheep, the royal host in verse 5 does three things to make his guest feel truly welcome.
First of all, he prepares a table, which is the kingly thing to do (2 Sam. 9:7-13), but this table is set right in the face of enemies. One has to understand the rules of ancient Near Eastern hospitality, which dictate that a guest who resides under one’s roof cannot be touched. He is under the protection of his host, and the host will do anything in his power to protect his guest (Gen. 19). But God is the host, and we can sit down in peace even in the face of our enemies. Eating is a rather defenseless act, but at God’s table I don’t have to worry about defending myself against any enemy.
But more royal treatment is in store: oil is poured on the guest’s head, a treatment reserved for royal guests (Luke 7:46). The aromatic smell elevates and has healing properties, and one can truly relax and feel special in the house of the Lord. Then there is a cup that overflows and satisfies all possible thirst (John 4:14).
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).
As the shepherd image moved beyond the material needs of the sheep to our spiritual needs, so does the image of the royal host. While righteousness
was the theological keyword in the first image, mercy
now points to the theological dimension of the second image. If I’m a guest in God’s house, mercy will not just “follow,” but will “pursue” me until it catches me, and consequently I will always want to return to the house of the Lord.
Again, as in the first image, the word “return” is used, and the royally treated guest comes to the conclusion that this is the place to which he’ll return again and again. It is the house of the Lord that has this permanent attraction, and it is a place where justice can be found and where big feasts are celebrated.
A friend of mine, while doing an archaeological survey somewhere in modern Jordan, came across a Bedouin who was sitting in his tent with the side flaps rolled up to catch a little breeze. The Bedouin invited my friend to join him for a cup of high-octane Arabic tea. They sat down next to a low table, and tea was served. So my friend’s cup was filled up, and they drank together. My friend emptied his cup and thought he would soon be on his way again, but then his cup was refilled. Being a culturally sensitive person, he did not want to offend, and obligingly emptied his cup again. When he put down his empty cup, his Arab host looked a little surprised and filled up the cup once more. This continued for a couple more cups, and my friend was by then definitely suffering from the effects of the tea, wondering how he would survive to tell the story. Eventually he gave up and decided that he would not be able to finish another cup, so he left the cup half full. Strangely enough, his host looked almost relieved and got up to wish him farewell. Only then did he realize that he as a good Westerner had always finished his cup, while the Bedouin as a good Easterner had always taken this as a sign that his guest wanted him to refill the cup.
“My cup overflows” and it overflows with goodness and mercy. Bottomless grace, again and again and in superabundance! This is the message of Psalm 23. An image of God’s grace as it pursues us for endless days, inviting us to return again and again into His presence. He leads, provides, restores, comforts, justifies, and heals us. “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want . . .”
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
3 Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin, eds., Psalms 1-50, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2008), vol. 7, p. 180.
Martin G. Klingbeil, D.Litt., and his family recently moved to Southern Adventist University, in Collegedale, Tennessee, where he serves as professor of biblical studies and archaeology, as well as associate director of the Institute of Archaeology. This article was published July 28, 2011.