Expositions on the Psalms: Psalm 23
By far the most popular and most used psalm in the world today is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Many use it in movies for their own purposes without knowing its true meaning. It is my intention then, to give a helpful exegesis on Psalm 23 and discover its true and intended meaning. We will first look at its original historical context and from there, we will then examine the spiritual aspects which can be found in Psalm 23.
Let us begin with the original historical or literal context of Psalm 23. We should begin by asking who was the author? The author of Psalm 23 appears to be David. There is internal evidence for this claim, mainly the superscription that reads “A Psalm of David.” As Michal Barber has illustrated, the first book of Psalms (Psalms 1-41) is considered by scholars to be the songs and prayers of David.1 Also, Drs. Brant Pitre and John Bergsma say that “In the literal sense of the text, the psalm refers to David being shepherded, protected, and provided for by the Lord.”2 Therefore we can conclude with some certainty that Psalm 23 has David as its author.
This conclusion then leads us to another question. When did David author Psalm 23? Psalm 23 begins:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his names sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and staff, they comfort me. (Ps. 23:1-4)3
These verses show us that although David is being protected and taken care of, he still seems to be in some sort of trouble: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary says that Psalm 23 can refer to David's persecution by Saul.4 David places his entire trust in God and knows that He is guiding him, even though Saul is trying to kill him. Thus, Psalm 23 is a prayer of thanks and praise to God Who is ever protecting His servant David.
Verse 5 of Psalm 23, “ thou anointest my head with oil” could refer to David's anointing by the prophet Samuel: “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (1 Samuel 16:13)
Having surveyed the historical and literal interpretation of Psalm 23 we will now turn to the spiritual interpretation by going through each verse. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Ps. 23:1) The very first verse calls to mind Jesus' words, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11) They are also evocative of the book of Revelation: “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:17) As Pope Benedict XVI said about Psalm 23 in one of his Wednesday General Audiences:
The beautiful prayer begins with these words, evoking the nomadic environment of sheep-farming and the experience of familiarity between the shepherd and the sheep that make up his little flock. The image calls to mind an atmosphere of trust, intimacy and tenderness: the shepherd knows each one of his sheep and calls them by name; and they follow him because they recognize him and trust in him.5
This Psalm can be applied to each of us. Jesus is our Shepherd. It is interesting to note that in the Middle East, shepherds do not poke and prod their sheep to take them places. They simply call out to their sheep, who are used to the shepherd's voice, and follow him. This also calls to mind Jesus' words in the Gospel of John: “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (John 10:4) We must learn to hear and follow the voice of Jesus so that we do not fall prey to the errors of His enemies.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” (Ps. 23:2) “Green pastures” implies that there is an abundance of food and that God gives superabundantly. It is interesting that in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand as recounted in the Gospel of Mark, we are given a very specific detail about the grass on which Jesus commands the people to sit on: “Then he commanded them all sit down by companies upon the green grass.” [empahsis added] (Mark 6:39) In the miracle that takes place in Mark 6, we see that not only does Jesus feed His “flock,” but He does so in great abundance:
And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (Mark 6:41-44)
Since the Bible is authored by both God and man, St. Mark and the Holy Spirit are calling to mind Psalm 23 to show the readers of the Gospel that Jesus is the shepherd in the Psalm. Thus, we see that since Jesus is the Good Shepherd, He is not stingy with us, but gives us His grace in abundance. It is, however, our job to respond correctly to these graces, otherwise, they do us no good. We can either accept or reject them.
The “still waters” of which the psalmist speaks can refer to the waters of baptism. Sts. Augustine and Tomas Aquinas both agree that this verse refers to baptism: “This is the water of baptism.”6 and “By the water of baptism, whereby they are refreshed who have lost health and strength, has He brought me up.”7
“He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Ps.23:3) Although he used a slightly different translation, St. Thomas Aquinas, points out that there are two ways in which God restores or converts the soul:
The first is interior, in the conversion of the soul to God, which completely draws one away from the things of this world. The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones (Ps 18:8). And conversion comes about by the power of God. Convert us, O Lord, to you, and we shall be converted (Lam 5:21). Another effect is exterior, that he accomplish exterior works, so he says, he has led me on the paths of justice; [Aquinas' translation has 'justice' which is synonymous with 'righteous'] now these are good works. Make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God (Isa 40:3).8
Thus, the conversion of the soul which takes place is to draw one away from the world and yet also to do good works in the world. This beautifully reflects Pope St. John Paul II's words in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, “We must be in the world but not of the world.”9
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” (Ps. 23:4) Here we see the immense trust that the psalmist places in God. Pope Benedict XVI has a brief yet profound reflection on this verse, “Those who walk with the Lord even in the dark valleys of suffering, doubt and all the human problems, feel safe. You are with me: this is our certainty, this is what supports us.”10 Christ Himself assured us that He would be with us until the end of time, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
“Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.” (Ps. 23:5) In its spiritual sense, the table that is prepared can be understood to be the table of the Eucharist. As Fr. Haydock says, “No mention is made of the ancient sacrifices; and as this psalm must be understood in the spiritual sense, the prophet speaks of the blessed Eucharist, which imparts the unction of grace...”11
It was an ancient custom in the East to anoint a guest's head with oil as we see in the Gospel of Matthew: “Now when Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him and with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table.” (Matthew 26:6) The overflowing cup once again relates to how God gives His gifts in abundance.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; snd I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” (Ps. 23:6) Since God is guiding the psalmist and he is willing to be guided, he is confident that God will continue to bestow His blessings upon him.
In its original historical context, the “house of the Lord” is possibly a reference to the tent which held the Ark of the Covenant. In its spiritual context, however, the “house of the Lord” is not a physical place but rather the Kingdom of Heaven. The psalmist concludes by trusting in God's mercy that he will one day gaze upon the Beatific Vision for all eternity. Because of this heavenly longing and hope, Psalm 23, in a liturgical context is often used at Masses for the dead.
In conclusion, then, we have seen that Psalm 23's original historical context is as a prayer of trust in God by David. We have also seen that the spiritual interpretation of Psalm 23 is about the abundance of gifts and graces which God gives to us His people. God has used the image of a shepherd to give us a better understanding of how much He cares for and loves us.
1 Barber, Michael. Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God's Kingdom, (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2001), 86-92, 175.
2 Pitre, Brant and Bergsma, John. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 592.
3 All quotes from the Bible are from the RSVCE unless stated otherwise.
4 Haydock, Leo. Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary, (New York, New York: Edward Dunigan and Brother, 1859), Psalm 22, Ver. 1.
5 Benedict XVI. General Audience. October 5, 2011. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20111005.html.
6 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Psalms, (https://aquinas.cc/la/en/~Psalm.Ps22.n203.19) Psalm 22.
7 Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, (https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801023.htm) Psalm 23.
8 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Psalms, (https://aquinas.cc/la/en/~Psalm.Ps22.n203.27) Psalm 22.
9 John Paul II. “Evangelium Vitae.” The Holy See, 25 March 1995, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html par. 82.
10 Benedict XVI. General Audience. October 5, 2011. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20111005.html.
11 Haydock, Leo. Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary, (New York, New York: Edward Dunigan and Brother, 1859), Psalm 22, Ver. 5.