This relatively simple and beautiful Psalm is one of the most famous and beloved passages in all the Scriptures, immortalized for English speakers by the King James Version, in which form it has been treasured (and committed to memory) by millions of children and adults alike. So familiar is it in English translation, that many Christians today may be somewhat surprised by how it actually reads in the original Hebrew.
The superscription simply marks the Psalm as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”, with no other musical direction indicated. The meter is straightforward and balanced, but not consistent throughout. It is predominantly in 3+2 couplets, though verse 4 is made up of a pair of 2+2+2 tricola, and the initial line is 4+3. Structurally, it is best to follow this poetic versing, in which case the tricola of verse 4 may be seen as the center point (and central theme or message) of the composition:
- Stanza 1: Verses 1-3 (3 couplets)
- Stanza 2: Verse 4 (3 tricola)
- Stanza 3: Verses 5-6 (4 couplets)
“YHWH (is the One) tending me—I will not lack (anything),
in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along),
(yes, even) my soul He turns back (in rest);
He guides me in (the) tracks of righteousness,
for the purpose of (honoring) His name.”
The imagery is that of the herdsman (shepherd) and his flock—literally, one who tends (vb hu*r*) the flock. The emphasis is thus on the care that the herder shows to the sheep, concerned for their safety and well-being. This is summarized by the statement of the Psalmist “I will not lack (anything)”, using the root rs^j* which generally refers to a need or deficiency, i.e. something that is lacking.
Part of the true beauty of the poetry in these lines is the way that the parallelism is interlocking (and overlapping) within the rhythm of the couplets. Note, for example, the synonymous parallelism of the second line of the first couplet and the first line of the second:
“in a meadow of sprouting (grass) He makes me crouch,
upon waters of rest(fulness) He leads me (along)”
The imagery could not be more appealing, this charming pastoral scene of the sheep crouching down in the fresh grass, and then moving slowly alongside the gentle waters of a nearby stream.
There is subsequently a different kind of formal parallelism in the second and third couplets (both 3+2 meter). In the first line of these couplets, the emphasis is on the shepherd leading and guiding the sheep, using the similar verbs lh^n` and hj^n`. In the first instance, it is a natural image (sheep led alongside a stream), while in the second it is ethical and religious (people guided in “tracks of righteousness”). There is a comparable dual-imagery in the second line of each couplet, which interprets the motif in the first line (i.e., a kind of synthetic parallelism):
- Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
=> a person’s soul being given rest (“turned back”, i.e. restored)
- A person being guided in tracks of righteousness
=> that person living and acting in honor of God’s “name”
- Sheep being led alongside a restful stream
Again, there is tremendous beauty and power in the way that these complex ideas are expressed in just a few words (3 or 2 beats) of the poetic line. This sort of compression can also lead to difficulties for the translator which requires great sensitivity to the force and style of the poetic expression. For example, the last line of the third couplet simply reads omv= /u^m^l= (“for the purpose of his name”), which is not entirely clear unless one recognizes that “righteousness” (qd#x#) in the context of Israelite religion entails giving honor to YHWH (and His “name”). The noun qd#x# fundamentally denotes a straight line, and thus is appropriate for the visual motif of sheep being led in a straight path, by a well-established set of tracks (lG`u=m^ plur.) formed in the ground over the course of time.
“Even when I should walk
in (the) valley of death( ‘s) shadow
I shall not fear (any) evil,
for you (are) along with me—
your staff and your support
they (surely) guide me.”
As noted above, this verse consists of a pair of 2-beat (2+2+2) tricola; I have preserved this rhythmic structure in translation to distinguish it from the surrounding couplets of vv. 1-3, 5-6. This is the central section of the Psalm, which contains the primary message: the care YHWH shows to his people is such that they/we can trust in it, even during times of darkness and danger.
The expression “valley of death( ‘s) shadow” (tw#m*l=x^ ayg@B=) seems a bit overloaded as a construct phrase, but perhaps is intentionally so in order to emphasize the shift from the idyllic scene in vv. 1-3 to one of danger. However, the Greek LXX translates as “in the midst of [e)n me/sw|] (the) shadow of death”, which could mean that the underlying Hebrew word (ayG@, “valley”) was instead read as = wG@ (“back, midst [of]”), cp. Aramaic aW`G~. Dahood (p. 146f) follows this line of interpretation. In my view, however, the imagery in vv. 1-3, of the sheep traveling through a natural landscape (on safe/level ground), makes the contrasting motif of a valley appropriate here.
Presumably, the “staff” (fb#v@) here in v. 4b is the shepherd’s staff, and the paired noun hn`u@v=m! much the same (i.e. a staff for walking, etc). However, the fundamental meaning of the latter noun is a place of support (root /u^v*, i.e. something which gives support), and refers primarily to the support that YHWH provides. It is the staff of YHWH that provides this, in his role as shepherd.
The final line is problematic, as the apparent verbal root <j^n` (usually understood here in the sense of “comfort”) does not fit the imagery of the verse particularly well. Dahood (p. 147) suggests that the –m– in the form ynmjny is an infixed mem-enclitic. If so, its purpose here is presumably to fill out the rhythm of the 2-beat line which begins with the short beat of the pronoun (hM*h@). I tentatively follow this interpretation in my translation above, which reads the word ynmjny as a form of the verb hj*n` (“lead, guide”), as in v. 3a (cf. above). The point of the verse is that YHWH the Shepherd will lead his people even through the dark valley.
“You arrange a table (be)fore my face,
in front of (those) hostile to me;
you fatten [i.e. anoint] my head with oil,
(and) my cup (is) drenched full.
Surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all (the) days of my life,
and I will sit in (the) house of YHWH
for (the full) length of days.”
Following the dark intermezzo of verse 4, the theme of God’s blessed care for his people returns in the couplets of vv. 5-6. Only the pastoral imagery has been replaced by that of the hospitality shown to an honored guest. In verse 5, the motif is specifically that of a guest receiving grand treatment as he dines with his host; three of the four lines express the idea clearly enough:
- a table is arranged (vb Er^u*), set out in front of the person (lit. “to my face”)
- the guest’s head is anointed (lit. “made fat”, vb /v@D*) with oil
- his drinking up is filled (with wine) to the point of overflowing—the main point of the idiom is that the person will be completely satisfied.
The difficulty lies in the second line of the first couplet, which has the parallel of the table arranged before the guest’s face with its being arranged “in front of [dg#n#]” his enemies (those hostile to him). A comparable example of this detail may perhaps be found in the 14th century B.C. Amarna texts (100:33-35), which includes a request to the Pharaoh that “he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on” (Dahood, p. 147f). The shaming of one’s enemies makes the honored treatment all the much more conspicuous (and appealing). While this idea may conflict with our Christian ideals of humility, etc, it is generally in keeping with the ancient mindset and its associated social key values of honor and shame.
The couplets of verse 6 are rather more straightforward, in terms of our own religious vantage point. Even so, we may not fully appreciate the covenant-background of this imagery, and how it relates to the hospitality idiom of v. 5. The loyal and faithful vassal receives an honored place at his lord’s table, and receives blessings and benefits in turn. It this context, the general terms “goodness” (bof) and “kindness” (ds#j#) carry a specific connotation; in particular, ds#j# frequently connotes loyalty (i.e. to the covenant bond), while bof can refer to the benefits that result from the covenant.
Here, the “house” of God should be understood in these same terms, and not necessarily as a concrete reference to the Temple. It simply means the place where God dwells, presumably in the sense of his heavenly abode. The blessed life for God’s people—that is, the righteous, those faithful to the covenant—depicted in vv. 1-3, 5-6, strongly suggests that a heavenly afterlife is at least partly in view (cp. the imagery in Psalm 1:3, 6). The Hebrew of the Old Testament had no way to express the abstract idea of “eternity” or “eternal/everlasting life”; the Scriptures often rely on the more concrete idiom of long life. Living to a ripe old age was rare enough in ancient times that it came to be viewed as an ideal representation of blessing from God. In the final couplet of the Psalm there are two similar expressions:
- “all (the) days of my life”, which, I think, properly reflects what we would call temporal blessing—blessings experienced during our life on earth, and
- “for (the) length of days” —that is, the full length of days, both a long life on earth and its completion in the blessed heavenly abode (“in the house of YHWH”)
The Shepherd Motif
The widespread practice of sheep-herding, and the pastoral economy throughout the ancient Near East, made the motif of the shepherd immediately recognizable and appealing as a symbol. The herder was a leader and protector of the flock/herd, and thus served as a fitting symbol for leadership in society—i.e., of kings and other rulers. We need not go any further afield than the Old Testament Scriptures to see how common the image of the shepherd was as a representation of the kings and rulers of the nations—cf. Nah 3:18; Jer 10:21; 22:22; 23:1-4; 25:34-38; 49:19; 50:44; Ezek 34:1-10; Zech 10:3; 11:4-17, and Isa 44:28. This applied to the rulers of Israel and Judah as well (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7, etc), and the tradition of David’s role as a shepherd earlier in his life (1 Sam 16:11; 17:15, 20 etc; Ps 78:70-72) helped to shape the Messianic figure-type of the future Davidic ruler as a “shepherd” (cf. Jer 3:15; 23:4; Ezek 34:23; 37:22,24; Zech 13:7, and the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2; Mic 5:4ff). The idea of the people as “sheep without a shepherd” emphasizes the lack of proper leadership (Num 27:16-17; 1 Kings 22:17; Mark 6:34; Matt 9:36).
Jesus himself made use of this shepherd-imagery, even identifying himself as the “Good Shepherd” (Matt 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7; John 10:1-29; cf. also Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Rev 7:17), while the Messianic association is alluded to in Mk 14:27 par. Elders and ministers who served a leading role in the early Christian congregations were similarly called “shepherd” (poimh/n), as in Acts 20:28-29; 1 Pet 5:1ff; Eph 4:11 (cp. John 21:15-17), a usage that continues with the title “pastor” today.
It is somewhat less common to refer to God as a shepherd, though it is a natural extension of the use of the motif to represent leadership and kingship. Apart from Psalm 23, the most notable references to YHWH as a shepherd are: Gen 48:15; 49:24; Psalm 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:15ff; Amos 3:12).