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The first six verses of the Psalm described God’s continuous silent revelation of his existence and attributes to the whole world. Despite the testimony of creation, not all people recognize the God of creation and fail to give him his proper glory. He therefore has revealed himself more specifically in his Law. This is a written revelation, and like creation, it is a constant and steady witness to God’s existence and attributes. While creation reveals the creator God is powerful, the Torah reveals he is fair and just in all his commandments and these commandments are good for those who follow them.
God’s revelation is described with six different terms: law, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, and judgments. All four give the impression that “comprehensive emphasis that all of the words of the Lord are beneficial” (Ross, EBC, 182). Testimony is covenant language and is a retelling of God’s saving acts (HALOT). This is not a written document, like the Torah, but a testimony to what God has done for his covenant people. Precepts and commandments are the individual elements of the Torah. Precepts are the “procedures” for how the Law works (פִּקּוּדִים, only in the plural in the HB, exclusively in the Psalms, 21x in Ps 119). Commandment is the standard word for the law (מִצְוָה 43x in Deut alone).
Each of these six words for God’s revelation are described with adjectival phrases to highlight the reliability and perfection of God’s revelation.
- Perfect or blameless is a word (תָּמִים) which refers to the perfection of sacrificial animals: they are to be without fault (Exod 12:5, for example). It can have the sense of complete, there is nothing left out of the Law or nothing which is incomplete.
- Sure (nifel participle of אמן) has the sense of enduring or permanent. A thing which is enduring is reliable, always there at all times in the sense of being faithful and reliable. The word is translated “steadfast” in some of the Psalms.
- Upright or straight (יָשָׁר) is a common word used to describe something which is morally correct (a straight path, for example), or a person who is living a morally correct life. The phrase “upright in heart” is used in the Psalms frequently.
- Pure is a rare word in the Hebrew Bible (בַּר II), although it is used in Ps 24:4, a person with a pure heart may ascend the holy hill of the Lord.
- The fear of the Lord is “clean,” a word which refers to ceremonial cleanliness (טָהוֹר)
- The Hebrew word for “true” (אֱמֶת) is common, but covers far more than the English word. Something which is faithful and trustworthy is true, perhaps the analogy of an arrow which hits its target, the “aim was true.” The word is frequently associated with God’s character. Psalm 31:5, for example, describes God as a “faithful God.”
God’s revelation is described by six phrases. The first four are the results of an encounter with the word of the Lord; the final two are further characteristic of God’s revelation. Syntactically, these are all participles with an object.
- Reviving the soul. The verb can be refresh, restore, etc. (the common שׁוב in the hifel). When one is aligned with the word of God properly, then ones inner person is restored to where it originally belonged.
- Making wise the simple. The simple are in experienced people who do not know how to get through life. God’s word can give them the categories of thought that help them to understand how to live life to the fullest.
- Making the heart rejoice. The heart is a person’s inner being, what they are at their inner core. God’s word provides and enlivening of the soul, a strange happiness despite circumstances.
- Enlightening the eyes. The ESV follows many modern commentators who take the verb often translated as “warned” as cognate to “illuminate,” this is probably correct, since in the context the sun has been mentioned. The word of God shed light on everything, and light exposes things which are hidden. To read tiny writing, you need light at just the right angle to make out the letters. So to the word of God brings to light aspects of our lives which need to be addressed, but also shed light on how to live out a godly life.
- Enduring forever. That God’s word endures forever is repeated often in the Bible, Jesus said not even the smallest mark or letter will pass away. But what does an eternally enduring word of God mean? Like the general revelation of creation, God’s propositional truth claims are always true. For example, God declares he exists in creation, and in the special revelation of the Bible God reveals creation is good and humans have become estranged from God because of sin. This is true and that truth will endure forever (science will not prove humans are not in rebellion against God, for example).
- They are entirely righteous. There is nothing about God’s special revelation which is not just and fair.
Even though creation is constantly pouring forth speech, it is not enough to fully reveal God. It is only through the special revelation of God’s word one can fully encounter God.
The first half of Psalm 19 is a meditation on Genesis 1. Heavens and sky refer to all of creation. The “heavens” is the atmosphere in this case, and the skies are the firmament from Gen 1:7 (רָקִיעַ). In the worldview of the Ancient Near east, the “vault of heaven” was a kind of “beaten metal plate” on which the sun, moon, and stars moved. The Psalmist uses this commonly understood description of the world and argues it reveals something important about God.
The heavens both “declare” and “proclaim.” These common verbs refer to speech acts, although “declare” can have the sense of making a formal record, often a written record. Usually this word has the sense of a pronouncement of some important information, even a “report.” It is the verb, for example, used for the report from the twelve spies in Numbers. Both verbs are participles, emphasizing the ongoing nature of this testimony: the heavens are continually declaring God’s glory. Coupled with the “day and night” of verse two, the writer is clear this revelation is constant and ongoing.
“Pouring forth speech” is a vivid metaphor of rapid speech. The verb (נבע) refers to “bubbling” or “gushing” water. Think of the way an excited five-year old tries to relate a story, words gush from the kid as fast as they can talk (usually one long sentence you can’t follow anyway!) Creation is a constant flow of information about God.
The content of all this constant speech a revelation of knowledge. This knowledge certainly contains facts, but there is more to it than a series of propositions since biblical knowledge leads to proper response to God. In Prov 9:10, for example, parallels the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom of God with knowledge of the Holy One.
This testimony goes out to the whole world even though there is no speech (19:3-4). In theological terms, this Psalm is talking about creation as general revelation from God. Humans can know some things about God from observing nature, his existence and power, for example. By analogy, there are universal symbols virtually every culture knows and understands (poison is a skull and crossbones, for example). You may not know what the poison is in the bottle, but anything with that symbol is understood as dangerous, especially if there are red letters and exclamation points.
This revelation is so clear there is no one who can escape God’s self-revelation, he is like the sun in the sky, a bridegroom proudly going up from a wedding or a warrior charging into battle. “Just as the sun dominates the daytime sky, so too does Torah dominate human life” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50; WBC, 184). This is similar to Paul’s point in Romans 1:18-25. God clearly reveals his existence and some of his attributes in order to draw people to himself, but humans suppress this knowledge and worship created things rather than the creator.
If God reveals himself so clearly in creation, why do people twist or reject that revelation?
Psalm 1:4-5 says the wicked will not “stand in the judgment” or “in the congregation of the righteous.” These two descriptions indicate the wicked will be expelled from the people of God. Standing in judgment puts this psalm in an eschatological context.
To stand in the “congregation of the righteous” refers to defining God’s people. The “assembly” (עֵדָה) refers a gather of anything into a large group. Very often it refers to the people of Israel (Exod 12:6, for example). Modified with “righteous” it refers to people assembled to worship God (Psalm 111:1, for example). There can be no wicked in the assembly of the Lord (Psalm 25, for example).
The righteous are the people of God, the tzadik (צַדִּיק). The word can refer to an innocent person, but also to a person who is a devout follower of God. Ezekiel 18:5-9 provides a description of the righteous person:
Ezekiel 18:5–9 (ESV) “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.
This description is important since it includes some of the behaviors we normally associate with Law-keeping Jews (no idolatry or defiling a neighbor’s wife, walk in the statutes of the Lord), but the majority of the characteristics of the righteous person are social justice issues: they do not oppress the poor economically and they care for the hungry.
Modern Christians have misunderstood the Law to be a list of rituals which someone made people right with God, but the righteous person is the one who responds proper to God by caring for people who cannot care for themselves, the poor, widows, orphans and resident aliens.
In contrast to the way of the righteous, the way of the wicked will perish. The verb the writer uses here is not death, but rather “to become lost” (אבד). Psalm 119:176 uses the word to describe someone who is no longer following the commands of the Lord, he is like a “lost sheep that has gone astray.” A lost sheep will probably die, this is true, but the emphasis is on someone who has drifted from the path of righteousness by walking in the counsel of the wicked, standing int eh way of the sinner, or sitting in the seat of the scoffer (1:1).
Rarely does someone wake up one morning and announce they are recanting their faith (although that might happen). Usually there is a slow process of wandering away from the Word of God, slight, easy steps most people do not even notice. It is not until the final judgment that they will realize how far they have drifted from the Word of the Lord.
[NB: I am teaching through some of the wisdom Psalms this summer at Rush Creek, so I thought I would use some of this material here.]
In Psalm 1:2-3 the one who is actively avoiding fools delights themselves with the Law of the Lord. The Word of the Lord is the delight for the blessed person. The noun is used in the wisdom literature for things which bring you joy. This is a remarkable description, since the most un-joyful time in a typical worship service is the Scripture reading, and perhaps the sermon itself.
Meditating on the word of the Lord is to think deeply or dwell on his word. The verb has the sense of muttering in a low voice, and is sometimes associated with reciting a text to oneself. The implication is the Word of the Lord is memorized and turned over in the mind slowly and carefully.
The content of this joyous meditation is the Law of the Lord. Most Christians cannot imagine a joyous meditation on verses from Leviticus, but the word is broad enough to refer to the whole revelation of God at that point in salvation history. It is therefore easy enough to apply this delight to the whole canon of Scripture.
This blessed person is like a tree, planted by streams of water. This metaphor is very clear and would be quite striking to people who lived in the arid world of the Middle East. Hosea 9:13 and Ezekiel 17:8-10 both use the metaphor of a palm or a vine planted near water as a metaphor for God’s care for his people Ephraim. Jeremiah 17:7-8 is a very close parallel to this Psalm:
Jeremiah 17:7–8 (ESV) “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8 He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
But there are also a number of parallels in the ANE as well. Terrien mentions a text describing king Shugli of the First Dynasty of Ur as “the Gracious Lord, a palm-tree planted near the canal …a cedar rooter near gushing waters, who gives pleasant shade” (Terrien, Psalms, 74). The parallels with the Sayings of Amenope are remarkable for both the blessed and cursed. The difference is the definition of the “blessed.” In Amenope, he is the silent man (in contrast to the heated man), in Psalm 1 the righteous are those who delight in the Word of the Lord and meditate on it daily.
Sayings of Amenope, Chapter 4: As for the heated man of a temple, He is like a tree growing in the open. In the completion of a moment (comes) its loss of foliage, and its end is reached in the shipyards; (or) it is floated far from its place, and the flame is its burial shroud. (But) the truly silent man holds himself apart. He is like a tree growing in a garden. It flourishes and doubles its yield; it (stands) before its lord. Its fruit is sweet; its shade is pleasant; And its end is reached in the garden.… (James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 422.
The “streams of water” are irrigated channels which provide water from a spring. In Psalm 46:4-5 a flow of water comes from the habitation of the Lord. Even today in the Middle East there is a need to channel water from a river or spring to a place where plants are growing.
The tree by plentiful streams of water is successful. In order to give fruit in season, a tree needs a good supply of water. Date palms, for example, need careful irrigation if they are going to grow and eventually bear fruit. Since it is always benefiting from the water, the tree does not wither. Again, this is a clear metaphor since everyone has had a plant they forgot to water and it shriveled up and died. Without constant, appropriate water supply, a plant will wither and die.
The blessed person is therefore in a place where they can prosper in the way God has designed them to be. This is not a “health and wealth,” it is simply an observation that the wise person delights in the word of the Lord and avoids situations which are dangerous.
The Psalter therefore begins by pronouncing a blessing on those who drink deeply from the Word of God and meditate on it constantly, inviting them into the book for worship.
Psalm 43 begins with the writer asking God to “vindicate” him. Verse one uses a legal metaphor common in the prophets to picture the writer and his enemy before God as his judge. About 40% of the occurrences of the word שפט have God as the judge, nine times the verb is used as a noun to describe God as the “judge.” Sometimes God is called on to judge between two people who are at odds. The phrase “defend my case” is also the language of a lawsuit. The verb ריב and the related noun are both used in the context of someone taking someone to court to sue them. The psalmist is picturing himself going to the city gates of his town and standing before the elder of the town, a king’s magistrate. In order to get real justice, perhaps he has to go to the king himself and plead his case.
The psalmist is calling on God to “do justice” in this case. In a human court, the goal is to hear the evidence on both sides of that case and let the judge decide who is “right” and who is “wrong.” If God is the judge, the Psalmist can be assured of justice because God is ultimately just in his nature.
Like most modern translations, the ESV has “vindicate” here. In English, “vindicate” has the connotation of clearing someone from suspicion, or to prove that they are in the right. In this court context, the writer is asking God to judge the case and declare that he is in the right, and the enemy is “in the wrong.”
Just as in a human court, the psalmist offers evidence against his enemy. First, his enemy is “an ungodly nation.” The noun is simply nation (גּוֹי), although in the context most translations render the word as referring to non-Jewish, pagans or heathens. In the next Psalm, for example, the word is used for the nations the Lord drove out of the land (44:2).
Second, they are not faithful . One of the cornerstone virtues in the Hebrew Bible is faithfulness(חָסִיד). The word does not mean “full of faith,” as if it is a synonym for “a believer.” The idea of faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible is an action, one “does faithfulness.” The word is frequently used to describe those who abuse the poor and needy, to be “unfaithful” to the covenant (Mic 7:2).
Third, they are unjust. The noun מִרְמָה has the connotation of being a fraud, a trickster. The writer’s adversary tries use some sort of subterfuge to get his way. The word describes Jacob stealing his brother’s blessing (Gen 27:35) and the actions of Simeon and Levi when they made a false covenant with the king of Schechem (Gen 34:13). Micah 6:11 uses the word to describe dishonest weights, which look like the real thing but intend to steal from the unaware. The word is among the many things listed in Psalm 24 which qualifies someone for going up to the Holy Hill of God to worship (someone who does not swear deceitfully).
Last, they are oppressing the writer (v. 2). The noun לַחַץ does not appear frequently in the Hebrew Bible, but it does appear in each of Psalms 42-44 (and only in this series of Psalms in the Psalter). Exod 3:9 and Deut 26:7 use the noun to describe the oppression Israel faced when they were in Egypt. The verbal form of the root is used in a number of other passages which describe foreign oppression Judg 2:18, 4:3, 6:9, 10:12; Isa 19:20(, oppression which is sometimes a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness )Amos 6:14,
This description of an enemy is applicable during the life of David, either when he was running from Saul or later from Absalom. But it is also generic enough that this Psalm would be a great comfort for someone living outside the land during the Exile – when has Israel not been oppressed by a faithless enemy?
This psalm is a promise that God does in fact judge fairly, he will vindicate his people and render justice.
The writer describes his oppression as being desperate with thirst, longing for water. The opening line is a vivid metaphor for thirst, the writer’s soul thirsts after God “as a deer pants for water.” The verb is rare, only used here and in Joel 1:20, where it refers to animals panting for water after a fire has destroyed all water. But do not think of a dog panting, that is how the animal cools itself.
The verb has the sense of craving. When someone “craves” a food, they psychologically have to have whatever it is. The animal is dying for water in the midst of a drought. In this case, the animal is nearly dead and it is desperate for water. The verb in the second verse is usually associated with literal thirst, such as Israel in the wilderness (Exod 17:3). The craving for water here is to meet a basic need or the animal / psalmist will die.
But rather than being refreshed by God, the writer drinks his tears day and night (v. 3) The song does not describe why the writer is crying out, only that his tears on constant. The irony is that he has water to drink, but it is undrinkable tears.
Because of his desperation, his adversaries taught him, asking where his God is now? This is a common theme in the Psalms, the enemy of the songwriter mocks the writer because he has faith in God in spite of his suffering. There is a hint of the common view that God will reward the righteous and punish the sinner. This is not always the case, frequently in the Psalms the reverse is true, the wicked prosper If the song writer is suffering, it is possible that his enemies are using that as proof that God is punishing him.
As with other Psalms of Korah, the writer remembers leading worship in the house of God. The writer is the leader of a procession, going into the Temple. At the very least he is a worship leader (as the sons of Korah were), although there could be a hint of David’s life since he did lead a festive crowd into Jerusalem when the ark was first brought to Jerusalem. If the song writer intends himself to stand for all of Israel, perhaps he is looking back to that kind of joy under David, in contrast to the “present” time of the exile. The “festival” could refer to Tabernacles, which is a feast associated with great joy, recalling Israel’s time in the wilderness, or even Passover, recalling the time of God’s salvation of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.
When the Psalmist Remembers the Lord, He Is Overwhelmed by Water (42:6-7). Is this water a positive or negative metaphor? It is possible that verses 6-7 refer to additional suffering. Being caught in raging water is often used as a metaphor for extreme suffering, and these lines are often taken as a reference to the underworld, as if the writer finds himself swept away by primordial chaos into the caverns of Sheol.
On the other hand, the writer began by describing his great need for water, and in these verses he recalls the supplies of water in the Land of Israel. At the moment of his greatest need, God overwhelms him with water!
The writer remembers his God by mentioning three specific locations:
The Land of Jordan. This is a reference to the Jordan River, the main river for most of the land, especially from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. While the river is quite dry today because most of the tributaries are dammed, in the ancient world the river flowed freely. Recall that Joshua was not able to cross the river at flood stage.
Mount Hermon. This mountain in the far north of the Land of Israel is nearly 10000 feet (in Lebanon and Syria today). But the reference here is likely not to the mountain itself, but to the foothills. The Hebrew word used here חֶרְמוֹנִים, the plural of Hermon, referring to the whole range of mountains )like “The Rockies”(. There are three sources for the Jordan which flow south into Galilee, eventually feeding the Jordan River. At Dan and Banias in Israel today there is a constant flow of water fed by snows on Mount Hermon. The area is extremely fertile and jungle-like.
Mount Mizar is an unknown location, although it is often identified with. The Hebrew word מִצְעָר means small, or “a few,” so it might refer to foothill near Hermon and the sources of the Jordan.
But the writer does not simply take a drink to satisfy his thirst, he is overwhelmed by water! When the Lord responds, it is as if he is standing in a roaring waterfall. The word is rare, only used here an in 2 Sam 5:8 (where the meaning is disputed). The Hebrew צִנּוֹר refers to gushing, flooding water, a fast flowing stream, etc. The “deep” is a word which usually refers to the deep sea, the abyss (תְּהוֹם). “Deep calling to Deep” gives the impression of a constant thunderous flow of water. The parallel line is a similar image, waves and breakers sweep over the writer. The first word is used literally for waves in Jon 2:4, and as a metaphor for disaster in Ps 88:8, 2 Sam 22:5, and for God’s strength in Ps 93:4, the second word is far more common and is frequently used to describe restless power.
God’s grace is often overwhelming; at the moment the writer felt he was about to die of thirst, he is overwhelmed with more water than he can imagine!
[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]
In a previous post I argued that Psalm 23 should be read as a corporate song expressing the hope Israel has in their God as a Good Shepherd. The song is laced with messianic hope for a future true Shepherd who will lead them out of the “valley of the shadow of death” to the House of the Lord, where they will live forever. As I stated previously, the two metaphors (God as shepherd and God as host) are common metaphors expressing messianic hope in the Hebrew Bible and they are often paired (Ezekiel 34 and Isa 40-55, for example).
The presence of the Shepherd is a comfort to the flock. Unlike Psalm 22, the worshiper feels the presence of God in a very real way and he is comforted by this. While it is true that “to comfort does not mean to sympathise but to encourage,” (HALOT, 689, citing Elliger), the word has a very tender and compassionate undertone. It is often associated with comforting someone after the death of a loved one. The word is used in Gen 37:35 to describe the effort of the family to comfort Jacob after Joseph appears to have been killed (cf. Jer 16:17).
The word appears in several Messianic contexts. In Isa 61:2 the activities of the “anointed one” includes comforting those who mourn. This is the text Jesus read in Nazareth at the beginning of this ministry, directly applying it to himself as the Messiah, the good Shepherd who will comfort the one who mourns. In Isa 66:13, when Jerusalem is restored, she will be comforted by the Lord as a mother comforts her child.
There are a number of texts which describe God as tenderly comforting Israel (Isa 1:21; Ps 71:21 86:17 119:82; God comforts his people Isa 49:13, 52:9, 66:13, God comforts Zion, Isa 51:3; Zech 1:17; Isa 51:12 Jer 31:13, Lam 2:13; Ps 119:76, with hesed). Perhaps most significant for the argument I am making here is Jer 31:13 which describes the future time when God makes a New Covenant with his people. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” The future age will be characterized by a reversal of Israel’s mourning (Lam 2:13). Instead she will rejoice as the Lord tenderly comforts her.
Preparing a Table – Messianic Banquet. This is a banquet eaten in the presence of the enemy. This may be a result of a treaty (the enemy is invited to eat with the King who conquered them), or more likely the table is spread on the field of battle and the enemy is destroyed. To “spread a table” implies a sumptuous meal. While the word table can refer to any meal, it is used for a king’s banquet (Judg 1:7 1Sam 20:29, 34, 2Sam 9:7,10, 11, 13; 19:29 1Kings 2:7, 5:7 10:5 / 2 Chron 9:4; Dan 11:27; Neh 5:17), this does not have to be a table, but rugs spread out on the ground for a king to eat a banquet, as Isa 21:5. The term is used of an eschatological banquet in Isa 65:11, the Lord sets a table for Fortune, and in Ps 78:19 it refers to God setting a table in the wilderness, in Prov 9:2 Lady Wisdom has prepared a table.)
Anointing with Oil – Messiah. This is not the word typically used for anointed which becomes the title Messiah. The verb דשן in the piel has the connotation of refreshment or enrichment. But since the object is the psalmist’s head, and oil is used to “refresh his head,” anointing with oil seems to be the meaning. It is used in another messianic text, Psalm 45:7. The cognate noun is used to describe foods at the eschatological banquet, they are “fatty” (Isa 55:2, Jer 31:4, cf. Ps 36:9, 63:6, 65:12 for rich, abundant foods). This word is also a connection between the end of Psalm 22 and Psalm 23. Ps 22:30 may use a rare form of this verb meaning “grow fat.”
Overflowing Cup – The banquet described is abundant, the worshiper’s cup )goblet( of wine is never empty, it overflows. The word is rare in the Hebrew Bible, but in cognate languages the verb has the idea of satisfaction of appetite and even drunkenness, but also irrigation, springs, a good water supply.
The psalm began with an affirmation of faith in the gracious provision of the Lord even in the midst of suffering, but it ends with a future hope that the Lord’s people will dwell in his presence forever.
Despite the fact that we tend to personalize Psalm 23, read in the context of the Hebrew Bible, it is likely that God as Shepherd implies Israel as sheep. As the nation passes through the valley of the shadow of death, they need not be afraid since the Lord defends them and will comfort them when they suffer.
Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well-know texts in the entire Bible, one that provides comfort to those who have lost loved ones. It is often personalized – the Lord is my Shepherd, I will not want. But that is not the original intent of the Psalm. I want to argue in this short introduction to Psalm 23 that the nation of Israel as a whole is in view and that Psalm 23 is eschatological. What follows is an application of my dissertation topic to Psalm 23.
The Psalm is associated with David, the original shepherd-king (verse 1). As is well known, the phrase “of David” does not necessarily mean that David wrote the psalm, but in the case of Psalm 23 there is a certain attraction to the image of David watching his sheep, thinking about his relationship with God, and creating this song comparing that relationship to a Shepherd watching over his flock.
There may be more to this Psalm than a shepherd-king’s piety. The song may very well have been created by David after he has become king. Throughout his life he has certainly experienced the providential care of God, and he has certainly “walked through the valley of the shadow of death” many times in his rise to the throne. The final two verses describe victory of enemies and an anointing with oil, perhaps alluding to the fact that David has been anointed officially as king, he has established peace in the Land, and his kingdom is prosperous (his cup overflows). He looks forward to dwelling in the Lord’s house forever, perhaps an anticipation of building the Temple.
More likely, the psalm was written in order to express a hope in the future restoration of Israel, possibly during the exile. The Psalm combines two classic images of the future in the Hebrew Bible, a Good Shepherd and an eschatological banquet. Just as David was a pious shepherd-king, the coming messiah will be the ultimate Good Shepherd who will host a victory banquet which inaugurates a new age of peace and prosperity for all Israel in the Land of the Promise.
In the Hebrew Bible the image of God as Shepherd is common (Isa 40, Jer 23, Ezek 34, Ps 80) as well as in the Ancient Near East (King Hammurabi, ANET, 164b; Shamash, ANET, 388). The nation of Israel is God’s flock, the king is to be a “good shepherd” and care for the flock on behalf of the owner. The psalm could have in mind the experience of Israel in the wilderness, where God led them, provided for them, and brought them to the land of Promise. (A.A. Anderson, Psalms, 1:196–97; Craigie, Psalms 1–50 , 206-7, Willem A. VanGemeren disagrees, EBC, 7:215.) Ezekiel 34 points out that the shepherds of Israel (the kings) have been terrible and the sheep (the people) are not taken care of properly. The prophet therefore looks forward to a time when God will send a true and good shepherd who will care for the people properly.
The metaphor of the Lord as a host of a great banquet is also found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah 25:6-8 is the key passage for an eschatological banquet, but there are others. Isaiah 40-55 describes the Lord leading Israel out of exile and providing for them a banquet in the wilderness as the people come out of Babylon and return once again to the land of the promise. This banquet celebrates God’s victory over his enemies and the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. In fact,Ezekiel 34 combines the shepherd image with provision of food in a way similar to Psalm 23.
The combination of these two images (shepherd, host) is clearly messianic. The Psalm looks forward to the time when the Lord will provide a Good Shepherd to rule over the people, but also to a king who will preside over a great victory banquet. Jesus himself uses both the image of the Good Shepherd and the image of a banquet-host often in the gospels. The Parable of the Good Shepherd in Luke 15, “my sheep hear my voice,” and other statements make it clear that Jesus presents himself to Israel as the expected Messiah. Jesus’ table fellowship is often seen as an anticipation of the messianic banquet. While there is no one text in the gospels which allude to Psalm 23, the traditions found in the psalm resonate with the teaching of the historical Jesus.
Psalm 23 therefore represents a blending of two messianic images, a shepherd and a banquet-host. The canonical context is important – Psalm 22 concluded with an anticipation of an eschatological banquet at which the afflicted will eat and be satisfied, the prosperous will also eat and worship, but they will “bow down to the dust.”
Does this mean that reading the Psalm as God’s personal protection of individuals is wrong? This may be a case where personal application is valid, even if it ignores the original meaning of the Psalm.
[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]
This last section of Psalm 22 is the most future-looking section of the psalm, going far beyond a historic kingdom of David and Solomon, or any other period in Israel’s history. While this is typical of the messianic Psalms, I think that the whole nation of Israel is praying for deliverance in Psalm 22. Israel itself is in the midst of wild beasts intent on destroying it. This is consistent with Daniel 7-12, for example, which describes the future enemies of Israel as wild beasts rising from the sea to oppress the nation. The nation is surrounded by enemies intent on destroying it and a worshiper any time during the Second Temple period may have thought of God as silent and distant (22:1-3).
The only way Israel can survive is if the Lord acts to rescue her from her oppressors. The nation was oppressed and needed the Lord to defend it over and over again. This is the reason the worshiper recalls the “fathers” who trusted in the Lord and were rescued (22:4-5). During the exile the nation looked forward to a new Exodus, they looked forward to God acting again as he has in the past. Isaiah 40-55 makes this especially clear, calling on Israel to return to the wilderness and “make straight the paths of the Lord.” They are called to join the procession out of Babylon. As they travel once again through the wilderness, God will re-create the desert place as the Garden of Eden.
Read this way, the Psalm has an application in nearly every generation of Israel’s history. Even after the Temple was rebuilt and some Jews returned to Jerusalem, there was still a sense that the exile continued since they were under foreign domination.
There is a universal aspect to Psalm 22: all the earth will bow down because the Lord has dominion over the whole earth. The whole earth will feast and worship the Lord in Zion. As in Isaiah 25:6-8, both Israel and the nations will stream to Mount Zion to worship God. When the Lord prepares the banquet, he will remove the disgrace from his people and defeat the final enemy (Death itself). But in Isaiah 25:6-8 there is some ambiguity since the nations do come to Zion, but it is unclear that they will be worshipers or if they will face judgments. Most English translations highlight only the universalism of the text based on Christian assumptions. Jewish interpreters regularly took the banquet in Zion as time of judgment on the nations rather than universal salvation.
This ambiguity is found here in Psalm 22 as well. In verse 26 it is the afflicted who seek the Lord who will “eat and be satisfied.” This is a “reversal of fortunes,” the afflicted ones will be lifted out of their troubles, they will no longer fear the oppressors. In verse 29, however, the “prosperous of the earth” will eat and worship as they bow down to the dust. This may be a reference to a future judgment of the nations at the beginning of the messianic age.
While Psalm 22 is read by Christians as foreshadowing the crucifixion, this future hope of restoration should not be ignored. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, Israel had endured hundreds of years of exile and domination by Gentiles. Many longed for the Messiah, they one who would finally liberate them from these “wild animals” who encircled them. Psalm 22 is one of the few places in the Hebrew Bible which combines the idea of a “suffering servant” with that of a triumphal Messiah.
There is much more work to be done with the Psalm as a foundation for early church Christology.
For the psalmist, God is silent (verses 1-2). The verb traditionally translated as “forsaken” (עזב) is occasionally used for divorce, perhaps this is a vivid metaphor for the feelings of the worshiper. God promised his love and care, yet at the moment God seems to have forgotten and abandoned the worshiper (Terrien, Psalms, 231). The psalmist is relentlessly pursuing God in prayer (day and night), wearing himself out crying out to God, yet God does not answer. He describes his cries as “anguish” (שְאָגָה, a word used to describe the roaring of a lion (Isa 5:29, Ezek 19:7) or the bellowing of a bull (in Canaanite literature). Elsewhere it is translated “groaning.” I imagine the worshiper sounding a low, rumbling groan as he cries out to the Lord.
Yet God is the enthroned one! He is seated in heaven with all authority and power (verse 3). That God is the ruler of all creation is foundation for the theology of the Hebrew Bible. He is the creator and therefore he is sovereign over all creation. The point here is that God is capable of saving the Psalmist.
The psalmist combines the sovereignty of God with his holiness. If the writer is being unjustly oppressed, God must act according to his holiness and judge, bringing the oppressor to justice. Not only can God save him, he must do so because it is part of his character to act in holiness.
The Psalmist recalls the history of Israel, those who have trusted the Lord in the past (verse 4-5). The “fathers” likely refers to the general history of Israel, but especially the Exodus and Wilderness. When God saved Israel out of Egypt it was in response to their cries of oppression in Egypt. They were surrounded by their oppressors, they cried out to God and God answered their cry. The psalmist is therefore evoking the history of Israel. God has already acted on behalf of his people, the writer wants God to act once again to rescue him from violent oppressors.
This may be a hint of the circumstance of the psalm. While it is true David was often surrounded by his enemies, it is possible this psalm was inspired by the somewhat regular national crises in the later history of Israel and Judah, including the Exile. It is possible the worshiper is in Exile in Babylon, literally surrounded by his enemies. God seems to have abandoned him. In fact, the prophets regularly described the Exile as a divorce or separation of God and his unfaithful bride. The psalm could be used at virtually any time in Israel’s history until messiah comes (anticipating verses 27-31).
God therefore is capable of saving the worshiper because he is sovereign, he ought to do so because he is holy, and history shows that he has acted to save his people on any number of occasions. This is the “crisis” of the psalm: the worshiper is surrounded by troubles he cannot handle, he has cried out to God, but God has not answered him – yet he does not stop because he knows that God will not forsake him: God will certainly answer his plea.