Psalm 23 may be the most well-known and well-loved passages of Holy Scripture. It certainly ranks high on the “playlist” of most Christians. Especially notable is its use of the “shepherd” metaphor to convey God’s provision and protection of his people: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Unfortunately, many interpret this metaphor in purely pastoral motifs. They see Yahweh in terms of a rural shepherd but miss the strong royal overtones of David’s imagery. In doing so, they deprive themselves of some of the richness of the psalm’s encouragement.
A Shift in Metaphor?
The language of the first four verses comport well with the picture of a rural shepherd. Leading into “green pastures” (23:2), guiding in “paths” of righteousness (23:3), and protecting with “rod and staff” (23:4) easily fit a pastoral portrait. But the final two verses seem to introduce a shift in metaphor:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (23:5–6 ESV).
Yes: Shepherd and Host
Most commentators note the apparent change. For instance, Franz Delitzsch remarks, “After the figure of the shepherd fades away in ver. 4, that of the host appears.”1 According to Willem VanGemeren, “The structure of the psalm is both simple and complex…. There are two principle metaphors of the Lord’s goodness: he is like a ‘shepherd’ who is interested in each sheep (vv. 1-4), and he is like a host who has prepared a lavish banquet (vv. 5-6).”2 J. A. Alexander agrees but quickly avers, “The connection … is so close and the metaphors so akin, that the general impression remains undisturbed.”3 Thus, these biblical scholars see a shift from a “shepherd” providing for and protecting his sheep to that of a householder welcoming a guest to his table.4
No: Shepherd Only
A few commentators, however, see no shift in metaphors. Most notable is Phillip Keller’s commentary A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. With years of animal husbandry experience, Keller seeks to bring insight to the various pastoral motifs in the psalm. Many of his thoughts are helpful. Especially those that relate to the first four verses. But his exposition of verse 5 strains credibility. Consider, for example, Keller’s interpretation of the table God has prepared in the presence of the psalmist’s enemies. ”In thinking about this statement,” writes Keller,
it is well to bear in mind that the sheep are approaching the high mountain country of the summer ranges. These are known as alplands or tablelands so much sought after by sheepmen…. In some of the finest sheep country of the world, especially in the Western United States and Southern Europe, the high plateaux of the sheep ranges are always referred to as “mesas”—the Spanish word for “tables.”5
And if the “table” represents the sheep’s high-elevation feeding grounds, the “enemies” must refer to any treat or danger present in such places. Not surprisingly, Keller suggests such things as noxious weeds and animal predators.6 ”The picture here is full of drama, action, suspense—and possible death,” he writes. Then he remarks, “Only the alertness of the sheepman who tends his flock on the tableland in full view of possible enemies can prevent them from falling prey to attack.”7
Keller interprets the anointing of the head with oil as an allusion to the shepherd’s medicinal care for the sheep. “For in the terminology of the sheepman,” he notes,
“summer time is fly time.” By this, reference is made to the hordes of insects that emerge with the advent of warm weather…. Only the strictest attention to the behavior of the sheep by the shepherd can forestall the difficulties of ‘fly time.’ At the very first sign of flies among the flock he will apply an antidote to their heads. I always preferred to use a homemade remedy composed of linseed oil, sulphur and tar which was smeared over the sheep’s nose and head as projection against the nose flies.8
And what about the overflowing cup? Initially, he seems to take this expression figuratively to represent the relief sheep experience as a result of the shepherd’s application of the medicinal ointment.9 But then he offers a different, more literal reading by drawing from his own experience:
It is here that I grasp another aspect altogether of the meaning of a cup that overflows. There is in every life a cup of suffering…. In tending my sheep I carried a bottle in my pocket containing a mixture of brandy and water. Whenever a ewe or lamb was chilled from undue exposure to wet, cold weather I would pour a few spoonfuls down its throat. In a matter of minutes the chilled creature would be on its feet and full of renewed energy. It was especially cute the way the lambs would wiggle their tails with joyous excitement as the warmth from the brandy spread through their bodies.10
It’s difficult to suppress a smile or even a chuckle when one imagines inebriated lambs wagging their tails. Perhaps this is why Joel Beeke, who follows Keller’s pastoral interpretation for the most part, opts for a more sober reading of this expression. “Using a large leather bucket,” writes Beeke, “the Palestinian shepherd rapidly and laboriously draws from his deep well, pouring its liberating contents into large wooden cups set at well’s edge.”11 Unfortunately, Beeke doesn’t reference any biblical or archeological support for the use of separate wooden cups for watering livestock. Nor am I aware of any.
In the end, these attempts to interpret the entire Psalm within the rubric of a rural shepherd metaphor are more eisegetical (importing ideas into the text) than exegetical (deriving ideas from the text). Accordingly, we’re inclined to agree with Derek Kidner when he observes, “The attempt to sustain the first metaphor [i.e., shepherd-sheep] which is sometimes made … is hardly a profitable exercise.”12
But does that leave us with the two distinct metaphors, i.e., a rustic shepherd (23:1-4) and a banquet host (23:4-5)? Or should we take a further step and divide the Psalm into three metaphors, namely, that of a Shepherd and Sheep (23:1-2), a Guide and Traveller (23:3-4), and a Host and Guest (23:4-5)?13
I think not.
Shepherd Metaphor in the Ancient Near East
The principle of grammatical-historical exegesis requires the interpreter to understand the meaning of a word or a metaphor not only in terms of its grammatical and literary context but also in terms of its historical and cultural usage. As it turns out, the metaphor of “shepherd” in the historical and cultural milieu of Psalm 23 connotes something more than animal husbandry. It’s highly likely that David used the shepherd metaphor to portray Yahweh’s kingship.
King as Shepherd in Egypt
Ancient Near Eastern political ideology provides the historical and cultural background for this “royal reading” of Psalm 23. For example, the Egyptian Pharaoh Sesostris I (1971-1926 B.C.) says of himself, “[Ra] begat me to do that which he did, to execute that which he commanded me to do. He appointed me shepherd of this land…. He appointed me lord of mankind.”14 Similarly, Seti Merneptah, who ruled some 200 years before the Psalmist (1213-1203 B.C.), refers to himself as “Son of Re … the good shepherd … the father and mother of all.”15 Not surprisingly, many Pharaonic statues or sarcophagi feature the Egyptian king with a shepherd’s staff in hand.
King as Shepherd in Mesopotamia
This portrayal of kingship in shepherd metaphor was not limited to Egypt. The Babylonians employed it as well, using pastoral motifs that bear a striking resemblance to the language of Psalm 23. ”Marduk … gave to me,” claims king Samsu-iluna (1792-1712 B.C.), “the totality of the lands to shepherd (and) laid a great commission on me to make his nation lie down in pastures and to lead his extensive people in well-being, forever.”16 Ammi-ditanna, who reigned over Babylon a century later (circa 1683-1640 B.C.), claims he built a fortification “by the wisdom that the god Ea gave to [him], in order to superbly shepherd the widespread people of [his] land by means of fine pastures and watering places and to make them lie down in (safe) pastures.”17
King as Shepherd in Israel
The attentive reader will note that Psalm 23 contains more than just an echo of the royal epithet “shepherd.” David also uses the same imagery of verdant pasturelands and refreshing watering holes to depict Yahweh’s care and provision for his people. This connection between shepherding and ruling is made even more explicit in a psalm attributed to Asaph, which begins, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth” (80:1; emphasis added).
In summary, a more contextually sensitive reading of Psalm 23 looks beyond the metaphor of rural shepherd and sees a portrait of God as sovereign king. More precisely, Yahweh is King David’s King. After all, the OT Scriptures depict David himself as Yahweh’s appointed “shepherd over Israel” (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7; 2 Chron 11:2; Ps 78:70-72; Ezek 37:24). So when David refers to Yahweh as his shepherd, he’s acknowledging his own role as Yahweh’s “under-shepherd.” Or to use political terms, David is assuming the role of vassal king and paying tribute to Yahweh as his heavenly Suzerain.18 Thus, the “Shepherd” of Psalm 23 is King of kings, and Lord of lords. He is the “King of Glory” extolled in the next Psalm (cf. 24:1-10).
Ruling and Reigning at God’s Right Hand
This royal reading of Psalm 23’s shepherd metaphor nicely ties together all six verses. Read holistically, the kingly shepherd metaphor serves to highlight not only God’s present temporal blessing but also his future consummate reward.
David and Israel
As David’s Shepherd-King, Yahweh not only provided for David’s needs and protected him from danger (23:1-4); he also prepared David a lavish victory banquet in the presence of David’s enemies (23:5)19 and inspired within David the hope of a perpetual vice-regency in Yahweh’s Temple-Palace (23:6). As God’s “anointed,” David would rule and reign at God’s right hand forever. And the blessings and honor Yahweh bestowed on his “under-shepherd,” David, would extend to Yahweh’s “flock,” Israel.
Jesus and the Church
But Psalm 23 doesn’t just apply to David and Israel. It ultimately refers to Jesus and the church. When Jesus speaks of himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), he’s not just casting himself in the role of a rural sheepherder. Rather, he’s claiming to be David’s Greater Son and God’s appointed Messiah. Moreover, the “sheep” who “know [him],” “hear [his] voice,” and “follow [him]” (John 10:14, 27) constitute the true Israel of God. And these sheep not only enjoy their Savior’s love and protection in this life. They, like David and Israel, also have a future hope. With Jesus as their shepherd-king, they can rest in the assurance that “they will never perish”; nor can any enemy “snatch them out of [Jesus’] hand” (John 10:28).
Indeed, it gets better! “My Father, who has given them to me,” says Jesus, “is greater than all.” This is Christ’s way of portraying himself, like David, as the “vassal-shepherd” and his Father as the “suzerain-shepherd.” The result is double security: “and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). Moreover, as the Son is granted a perpetual throne at God’s right hand (Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55; Rom 8:34; Phil 2:9-11; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22), so those united to Christ can look forward with anticipation to ruling and reigning with him forever (Rev 22:5).
To return to the language of Psalm 23, believers can look forward to a victory banquet and a place in God’s house for all eternity. Hallelujah! What a Shepherd!
- Psalms: Three Volumes in One, trans. James Martin, in vol. 5 of Commentary on the Old Testament (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 1:331.
- “Psalms,” in vol. of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 214.
- The Psalms: Translated and Explained (1864; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), 109.
- See also John R. W. Stott, Favorite Psalms: Selected and Expounded (Chicago: Moody, 1988), 32.
- A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23: An Inspiring and Insightful Guide to One of the Best-Loved Bible Passages (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 99.
- Ibid., 100-102.
- Ibid., 103.
- Ibid., 111-113.
- Ibid., 123.
- Jehovah Shepherding His Sheep: Sermons on the Twenty-Third Psalm (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1977), 324.
- Psalms 1—72: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14a of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1973), 111.
- W. Graham Scroggie advocates this three-metaphor view and links each metaphor to the ideas of “provision, direction, and communion.” The Psalms (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1965),145.
- Cited in Jeffrey Neihaus, Ancient a Near East Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2008), 58.
- Ibid., 39.
- Ibid., 46.
- Gerald Wilson agrees and remarks, “That David, who understood himself to be the shepherd of Israel and who was acknowledged by the people as such, should speak of Yahweh as “my shepherd” (23:1) is a way of acknowledging that Yahweh is indeed the power behind the throne of David (and all the kings of Israel and Judah), and that in reality Yahweh is the true king of Israel.” Psalms, Volume 1, in The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 432.
- As Kidner observes, “The picture may be one of cool assurance under pressure …. But since the enemy is never taken lightly in Scripture … it more probably anticipates a victory celebration, where the enemies are present as captives; or an accession feast with defeated rivals as reluctant guests” Psalms 1—72, 112.