The 23rd Psalm has become one of the best known of the Psalms because of the comfort it provides at funerals up and down the land. Whilst it is obviously good to be able to provide succor at such times it is somewhat unfortunate that this passage of scripture has been pigeon holed into such a narrow application. Properly understood the author was communicating far more about how to live life than he was about how to die. The purpose of this paper is to take a brief look at this most famous of Psalms and hopefully to draw out one or two thoughts that may inspire a little for today as well as providing a sense of assurance for tomorrow.
In many Bibles this Psalm is described as a Psalm of David; those annotations are an addition however and not a part of the inspired writ. Notwithstanding, as the Psalm focuses primarily upon a metaphor of 'the Lord as shepherd' it is not difficult to understand how David was selected as the probable writer. Some see this Psalm written much later after the exile as they apply the restoration of Ps 23:3 and the perilous journey of Ps 23:4 to the captivity. However for me this corporate application of the Psalm is a mistake. The writer is writing very personally in the first person and to depersonalize this narrative is a mistake.
Ps 23:1 - The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
I believe that the opening verse is essentially the thesis upon which the rest of the Psalm hangs. It essentially can be analyzed into three distinct thoughts:
Ps 23:2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.
The association between Psalm 23 and death automatically causes us to start thinking that this is some picture of eternal rest. However I suggest that this actually breaks the metaphor. The sheep is still wandering in Ps 23:3 which we do not expect to happen in heaven. Verse 2 is not eternal rest; it is actually a picture of healthy, productive and very much alive sheep. The shepherd has found plentiful pasture upon which the sheep may find nourishment and a safe source of water. We should not view this as wearied 'crashing' out. Instead this is supposed to picture stress free growth, fitness and productivity.
Ps 23:3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake.
This verse has to be one of the better arguments for attributing the Psalm to David. Whilst it is true that all of us stray from time to time David is one of the more famous cases especially amongst the Psalmists. Within the shepherd metaphor we have a picture of the sheep wandering off on its' own. Matthew Henry states that the sheep more than any other animal is prone to wandering. I don't know if that is true but I certainly believe that the human heart, even the saved one, is very apt to wander from God sporadically. This verse states categorically that in that situation the shepherd will restore us and lead us in the paths of righteousness.
It is interesting too that this verse also shows the extent to which God has vested Himself in His sheep. He almost certainly would return us to Himself out of sheer love; however there is also the element that His own name is on the line. We are His sheep. We are marked as His sheep. God does not want His own flock to be a motley and ill groomed rag bag of ill cared for sheep.
Ps 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
JFB claims that this valley is an actual place and that whilst it may picture death it is really any dangerous and perilous enterprise. Adam Clarke makes the useful observation that it may not be an individual sheep walking through the valley but that God the Shepherd may be driving His whole flock through this place. Whichever is true I think it is worthy to note that God is guiding the sheep in question. However dark and treacherous the terrain may look and however ill prepared the sheep may feel to traverse it the guidance of the shepherd is all that is required to navigate the route successfully.
I have tackled the usage of the rod and staff in my essay upon Zechariah's Shepherd. Suffice here to state that the rod provided protection against external foe and the staff was used to move the sheep in the right direction. The effect is worth expanding upon however. A sheep fully trusting God is able to navigate the terrain without fear and in fact in reasonable mental comfort. And whilst I have argued against this being viewed purely as a death psalm it should be noted that fear of death is something that has held people in bondage over the years.
The most enlightening comment I have seen upon this verse comes from Spurgeon in his 'Treasury of David'. The observation he makes is that this is not the valley of death; but the valley of the shadow of death. There is no true death for the believer. To cast a shadow there has to be light and thus as we see the shadow of death we should focus upon the light source and not the object forming the shadow.
Ps 23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.
The easiest reading of the fifth verse is that now we have a view of heaven. Death was dealt with in verse four and thus a scene of heaven appears. This nicely parallels verse six with showing a walk on earth followed by eternal rest in the house of the Lord. However there is a problem. The feast in verse 5 is prepared in the presence of enemies. We would not expect any enemies to be present within heaven. Thus I believe we have to view verse 5 as appearing on earth.
Given that verse 5 is upon the earth we are faced with two exegetic choices. Either we have to side with Adam Clarke and make Ps 23:5-6 into a separate allegory or we have to accept that the valley of the shadow of death is not referring to our call to heaven. I can readily sympathize with Clarke. A banquet table is different from a field of grass. However I also believe that it is unlikely that the psalmist would create such a strong allegory only to drop it for a single verse. I think verse 5 is most strongly and accurately viewed as taking place during the duress of a walk through the shadow of death. What can more readily demonstrate the provision of God than a sumptuous feast where the individual is honored despite the fact that the vultures are circling?
Ps 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.
The Psalmist started with a simple logical proposition that he 'would not want 'as 'God was his shepherd'. It is followed by four verses that describe growth, backsliding and terrible peril possibly even death all in the context of God's shepherding. The Psalmist is thus able to conclude that goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life and that after his life things would get even better. This is a mandate to live a full Christian life; reserving this information to the point someone dies is a great loss.
One extremely hot and headachy afternoon I waited in line for over an hour and a half with an anxious 4 year old to go upon a particularly favorite ride at Disney. Just as I got to the front of the line I remembered that I had a fast pass for the ride in my pocket. If only I had remembered earlier. I believe that leaving Psalm 23 to your burial is a similar but far more serious mistake. God is our shepherd today; not just upon our death bed. I hope that this simple overview will encourage you to take hold of the words and make them a basis upon which to go forward in trust and assurance. Now.