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.