Psalm 23 – An Eschatological Reading

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.

Psalm 22:25-31 – A Messianic Conclusion

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, 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.

Psalm 72 – The Ultimate King

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, 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….)]

Psalm 72 begins with a prayer for the king to rule with justice and righteousness (verses 1-2).  This is a good connection to the life of Solomon, since when he began his reign he requested “wisdom to rule the nation.”  Here the king is to be endowed with justice and righteousness, corollaries of Solomon’s wisdom.  The way a king demonstrates justice and righteousness is by defending the cause of the “afflicted ones,” verse 2 and verse 4.  The needy will be saved, but the oppressor will be destroyed.   The king is to function as the “redeemer” and defender for those people within the society who have no natural defender.

A king that reigns in righteousness will bring prosperity to the nation (verse 3).  This is a function of the Deuteronomic covenant.  God has established his law, and if the nation does that Law, they will find that they are blessed with prosperity; if they do not they will be cursed.  The psalmist does not mention the sacrificial law here – the king does righteousness by taking care of the outcasts of society, not by properly performing sacrifices.

The word translated by the NIV as “prosperity” is the Hebrew שלוֹם, shalom. While typically this word means “peace,” there is far more to the biblical idea of shalom than no war.”  Shalom is the state of the world as God created it. This which function correctly, the way that God designed them to function, are in a state of shalom.  This is an allusion to a future, eschatological age when the whole of creation functions once again as God created it.  This is a case where the Psalm goes beyond David and Solomon and looks for a future, ideal “son of David” who will bring true peace to the world, the messiah.

Is there an application of this Psalm to modern nations?  Does God really give prosperity to modern nations if they are godly?   It is important to interpret this Psalm for what it is and avoid the application of the language of this psalm to America.  It is not appropriate to cite this psalm as evidence for the idea that God will bless America if our government is godly.  This is a promise for Israel’s king and evokes the deuteronomic covenant.  If Israel keeps the covenant they will be blessed, if they do not, they will be cursed.

It is wrong to make a transfer of this promise to the Church, or to any “Christian society” since it is a promise made to a historical Israel and serves as a foundation for the hope of restoration for Israel in the future.  America does not “take over” this covenant because we are allegedly a Christian country.

On the other hand, God does require the nations to conduct themselves morally and ethically.  The king is responsible for the ethical behavior of a nation, and God will judge a nation if they abuse the widow and the orphan, or the alien who lives in their land.  In fact, if there is a “blessing” offered to the nations, it is based on wisdom and the created order rather than the Covenant with Israel.  Nations which treat people properly tend to be more prosperous than those who oppress the poor.  That is the natural way God has designed human relationships rather than a function of Law.

Drawing an application to the messianic age, the rule of the Messiah will be one that is perfectly just and righteous.  There will be no one who “falls through the cracks” because the messiah will always give justice to those who deserve it.   It is important to observe that Jesus does this even in his earthly ministry, focusing his attention on the poor and oppressed, politically, physically, and religiously,

The future kingdom is usually described as a society which cares for the needs of the poor and oppressed.  It is a kingdom which does the heart of the Law perfectly.  This time of justice and peace is a common description of the messianic age (Isa 2:4, 11:6-9). As verse 4 says, the eschatological age will be the time when the poor and needy receive justice because the oppressor has been crushed  (verse 4).  The verb translated as “oppressor” (עשק) in verse four has violent connotations.  While it is used to describe the exploitation of the poor, such as “a debtor unable to pay” or “the weaker party in a business contract,” it is sometimes used for the “the (politically or socially) oppressed” (HALOT).   Usually the oppressor crushes the needy, but this is reversed in the coming kingdom.  The verb “crush” (דכא) is applied to the poor in Isa 3:15, here the oppressor is the one who will be ground to dust.

Once again, the description points to a future age when the oppressors will be judged and the oppressed find themselves vindicated before a righteous God.