Psalm 23 – An Eschatological Reading (Part 2)

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 sympathize 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.

Verse five has three metaphors which are usually found in the context of the Messiah elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. A Banquet Table

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. Psalm 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 – 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.