Psalm 23 – The Shepherd and the Host
Psalm 23, like Psalm 4, is classified as a Psalm of Confidence. Throughout the psalm, the words and images evokes security, trust, and blessing which come from God, the model of the Good Shepherd. Though some today may be critical of the “shepherd” image as passé, or belonging to a distant culture and time, we dare not neglect or abandon this rich theological motif, recurring so frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. An understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the shepherd in the biblical imagination opens up ideas and concepts rich in potential for spiritual reflection. Among ancient Near Eastern cultures, the “shepherd” image was applied to both gods and kings. Notions of protection, guidance, and watchful care of a flock were eminently applicable to any significant position of authority or leadership to ensure that the needs of those entrusted to his guardianship will be provided for. One way of approaching Psalm 23 is to compare it with what precedes it in Psalm 22. Both psalms speak of the bonds that relate God and the Psalmist; expressions like “my God” and “my shepherd” embody this relationship clearly. In Psalm 22, the anguished sense of God’s absence that opens the psalm is only later relieved with a conclusion of ebullient praise. But from the beginning to the end of Psalm 23, the Psalmist speaks confidently of God’s intimacy with and care for him; when traversing the potentially threatening “valley of the shadow of death,” the Psalmist’s assertion that “you are with me” conveys a confidence and closeness that characterizes this trustful relationship. In vv. 5-6, the imagery changes, and the Lord is portrayed as bearing the traits of a typical Middle Eastern host, significant in a culture that sets great value on extending familial warmth and welcome to others. Images of preparing a meal, anointing the head with oil, and providing an overflowing cup all bespeak Semitic hospitality and graciousness. The early Christian Church found rich symbolism in this psalm, using its imagery as catechesis on the sacraments of initiation: the waters tell of baptism, the anointing of confirmation, and meal of Eucharist. And the closing line has long been the source of hope for many when used as a prayer on the occasion of the death of a loved one. The New Testament authors saw in this psalm a fundamental image of Jesus Christ himself, who is the good shepherd of the Church, never leaving his flock untended (Matt 9:35-38// Mk 6:34-44; Lk 15:4-7; John 10:1-42; Heb 13:20-21; 1 Pet 2:24-25; 5:1-4). For all of this and more, Psalm 23 continues to speak vitally to people of faith.
Psalm 23 (22)
1 A Psalm of David.
The Lórd is my shépherd;
there is nóthing I shall wánt.
2 Frésh and gréen are the pástures
where he gíves me repóse.
Near réstful wáters he léads me;
3 he revíves my sóul.
He guídes me alóng the right páth,
for the sáke of his náme.
4 Though I should wálk in the válley of the shádow of déath,
no évil would I féar, for you are wíth me.
Your cróok and your stáff will give me cómfort.
5 You have prepáred a táble befóre me
in the síght of my fóes.
My héad you have anóinted with óil;
my cúp is overflówing.
6 Surely góodness and mércy shall fóllow me
all the dáys of my lífe.
In the Lórd’s own hóuse shall I dwéll
for léngth of days unénding.
Prayer for Psalm 23
Lord Jesus, you are my shepherd. You lead with graciousness and fidelity, and you tend to the needs of your whole flock with loving care and devotion. May your goodness inspire your flock to follow you in showing to others the same devotion and loving care. To you be our constant thanksgiving and praise, forever and ever. Amen.