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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical

Psalms 23

 

 

Verses 1-6

Psalm 23

A Psalm of David

1 The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness

For his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me

In the presence of mine enemies:

Thou anointest my head with oil;

My cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

EXEGETICAL AND CRITICAL

Its Contents and Origin.—Under the figures of the shepherd, Psalm 23:1, and the host, Psalm 23:5, which were familiar to all Israelites, which are connected with that of the guide, Psalm 23:3, the Psalmist describes, in clear and flowing language corresponding throughout with his calm, confident, hopeful feelings, the comprehensive and more than sufficient care of God for him, who describes his present and future condition under the corresponding figures of member of the flock, Psalm 23:2, wanderer, Psalm 23:4, and guest, Psalm 23:6. These figures are so natural to the national life, that we cannot conclude from them that David sung this Psalm, if not in the times of his shepherd life, at least in a time when the recollection of those days was still fresh (Tholuck), or that the feast contains a reference to the meal in the house of David’s father after he was anointed, 1 Samuel 16. (Muntinghe). But we have no more reason to look away from every historical reference and from every particular reason for the use of these figures, and since there is no evidence of a prophecy of Christ (many ancient interpreters), or that it was directly meant for the congregation, to suppose that it was a free expression of feelings rejoicing in God, whether of an unknown poet (Hupfeld), or David in the latter peaceful and prosperous period of his government (Calvin and most interpreters). For the enemies, Psalm 23:5, seem not to belong to the past but to the present, and are mentioned in a connection, from which we may conclude that there was destitution, yet not a destitution among the enemies whilst the Israelites, under the Maccabean leaders besieged in the fortress at Jerusalem, had plenty (Olshausen), but with the Psalmist, who must certainly be regarded as remote from the house of God ( Psalm 23:6). If this is recognized likewise as a historical feature, it is easy to find the occasion for the preceding descriptions in a sojourn of the Psalmist in the wilderness, but not to think of an allegorical reference to the return of the people from exile (Kimchi), or a reference back to the Divine guidance of Israel from Egypt through the wilderness (Chald.), but to abide by David in accordance with tradition, and put this Psalm in the period of the rebellion of Absalom (Ruding, J. D. Mich, Ewald, Maurer, Delitzsch). Only we must not refer to 2 Samuel 18:26, for the tone and sentiment do not agree with it. But we may indeed think of 2 Samuel 17:27 sq, and compare with Psalm 3:6; Psalm 4:7. The resemblances to Psalm 27. and63, are of an entirely different kind from those to Psalm 25:21; Psalm 37:4, as it is then too bold to refer to Jeremiah, on account of the style and the sentiment. Respecting the house of Jehovah vid. remarks upon Psalm 5:7.

Str. I. Psalm 23:1. My shepherd.—God is thus named already by Jacob, Genesis 48:15; Genesis 49:24. This figure is afterwards frequently used ( Psalm 80:1; Psalm 78:52; Micah 7:14; Isaiah 63:13 sq.). It is likewise applied to theocratic rulers, Jeremiah 3:15; Jeremiah 23:1, and is used with reference to the Messiah, Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34.; compare Zechariah 11:4 sq, and hence is applied to Jesus in the New Testament, John 10:1-16; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4. In accordance with this the people are called His flock or the sheep of His pasture, Psalm 74:1; Psalm 79:13; Psalm 95:7; Psalm 100:3; Jeremiah 23:1. The expressions which follow are taken from the life of the shepherd and correspond with the figure. The oasis of the wilderness is not merely a station of rest for the tired flocks at the time of the noonday heat ( Song of Solomon 1:7), but at the same time a place of refreshment by means of the green meadows and the waters, which are mentioned either as flowing quietly and therefore without danger in contrast to the wild mountain brooks and rushing streams (Calvin, Geier, De Wette, Hitzig [Alexander, Barnes]), or as the indispensable condition of refreshment for the pleasant resting-place where the flocks lie down for recreation (Sept, Stier, Hengst, Hupfeld [Perowne]).[FN19] The imperfects are not to be regarded as futures (Hengst, et al.), or indeed as referring to the past (Sept, Chald.), but denote actions continuing and repeated in the present.

Str. II. Psalm 23:3. He restoreth my soul.—This does not mean conversion (the ancient translations), but the refreshment of the soul under the figure of leading back him who was about to flee away, comp. Psalm 19:7.—[He leadeth me.—The oriental shepherd does not drive the flock before him but goes before the flock and leads them, vid. Thomson’s The Land and the Book, p 202 sq.; Smith’s Dict, of the Bible, Article, Shepherd.—C. A. B.].—In right paths.—In the figurative language of this Psalm it is evident that the “right paths” are not to be regarded as in similar passages, excluding the figure, as ways of righteousness (Hengst. [A. V.]) in the moral sense, or passing over the intermediate member, as ways of salvation (De Wette, Ewald, Hitzig), but as straight and even paths, excluding error and stumbling, direct and leading certainly to their end (most interpreters after the Rabbins), which are then really paths of righteousness and salvation.

Psalm 23:4. Even when [A. V, Yea, though] = even then when.—The contrary of Psalm 23:2 is supposed as an objective possibility; but only with reference to the external condition in life and circumstances threatening with peril of death.—Valley of the shadow of death.—In order to explain this figure De Wette cites from Morier’s second journey to Persia, p. Psalm 179: “In the vicinity of Ispahan is a remarkable valley, barren, gloomy and destitute of water, which is called the valley of the angel of death.” [It is unnecessary to go beyond the Holy Land itself. The Psalmist refers to those deep wadies or wild and gloomy ravines, which abound in the mountains of Palestine, the rocky sides of which are filled with caves and caverns, the abodes of wild beasts of prey. It is often necessary for the shepherd to lead his flocks through these wadies and across these ravines, and it is always perilous even to the shepherd himself. There is no reference here to death itself, but to the peril of death go often experienced in life.—C. A. B.].—Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.—The soul when thinking of the possible danger, is quieted and comforted by the assurance of the faithfulness of the Divine Shepherd. The shepherd not only leads the flock, but defends it, hence the mention of two staves; so likewise Zechariah 11:7, upon which an especial emphasis is put by the pronoun. It follows from this that this verse is not a general description of the rest of trust (De Wette, Hengst.), nor has a poetical and rhetorical fulness of meaning, nor indeed that one of the staves was given by the guide to the wanderer, the other retained by himself.[FN20]

Str. III. [Perowne: “God is even more than a shepherd who provides for the wants of his sheep. He is a King who lavishes His bounty in rich provision for His guests.” Although the figure of sheep and shepherd pass over into that of guest and host the ideas are the same, though in different forms. There is a beautiful correspondence throughout. As the sheep lie down satisfied with the rich provision of the shepherd, in the green pastures and by the refreshing waters, so the guest sits down satisfied with the rich provisions of the table of the Lord.—In the presence of mine enemies.—As the wild beasts surrounded the sheep in the gloomy wady and they were comforted by the shepherd’s rod, so the enemies surround the guest, and he is comforted by the table of the monarch. In the Orient the host was obligated not only to entertain the guest but to protect him from his enemies, and when once the meal of hospitality had been partaken all the power and strength of the host became assured to the guest. He was now safe and secure, and his enemies were powerless to injure him, for from this time forth he was the guest and friend of the host and would be protected and defended by him. Thus the idea is not of a hasty meal upon a battle-field, after which the fight was to be renewed, but of a calm and secure repose at the table of the host, with the assurance that all danger was past and the enemieswere no longer to be regarded or feared.—C. A. B.]

After that Thou hast anointed my head with oil.—Anointed, literally made fat, as a perfect subordinate to the imperfect, refers to the sprinkling of the beard, hair, etc, with sweet-smelling essences, which in ancient times preceded the festival meal, hence the figurative use, Psalm 45:7; Psalm 104:15.[FN21]My cup runneth over.—The ancient translators have instead of this, drunkenness, which meaning, however, is admissible only in the Aramaic, but not in the Hebrew. The Sept. has connected the first words of the following verse with this clause and translated, ῶς κράτιστον.[FN22]

[The rendering of the A. V, “surely”, is better.—C. A. B.].—Happiness and grace will pursue me.—“Pursue” is used not only in the sense of follow or accompany (Olsh.). as an inversion of the usual figurative phrase used of men: pursue something sectari=aspire after (Hupfeld), but is used in contrast with the pursuit of the enemies. [His enemies had pursued him even to the presence of his host, henceforth grace and joy will pursue him and load him with blessings.—C. A. B.].—And returned shall I dwell in the house of Jehovah to length of days.—The closing word does not mean: lifelong (Hupfeld), but in contrast with the short affliction (Delitzsch), opens a prospect of an indefinitely long time, Psalm 21:4, and indeed of communion with God and the enjoyment of His grace, Psalm 27, which is afforded by the use of the religious institutions of grace. Many ancient translations have, after the Sept, “my dwelling,” etc. They have likewise regarded the infinitive with the suffix as from yashab. So likewise Geier, Rosenm, De Wette, Hengst. But then we must read shibthî, as Psalm 27:4. But our text has shabthî, which vocalization the Masoretic Punctators could only have fixed in accordance wish tradition. Now some have regarded this form after De Muis as a perfect of yashab, supposing that the first syllable has fallen away. But the possibility of such an aphæresis is disputed by Olsh. and Hupfeld as ungrammatical. The examples cited in its favor are explained by the former as mutilations of the text, and are regarded by Delitzsch partly as a corruption, as Jeremiah 42:10, partly as only belonging to the vulgar tongue, as 2 Samuel 22:41. Hitzig, however, again appeals particularly to Judges 19:11, together with Jeremiah 42:10. In any case the matter is very doubtful, and therefore the derivation from shûb (=return) is preferable, yet it cannot be translated: I return to the house (Knapp, et al.), for it is followed by the preposition בְ and not אֵל and duration is expressed. This leads to the acceptance of a pregnant construction (Delitzsch). The idea of dwelling is not expressed in words, but is indicated as a consequence of the return, by the nature of the closing word, as already mentioned. The perfect with the vav consec. after the imperfect has likewise the meaning of a future. Misericordia Dei præcedit, comitatur et subsequitur nos (Augustine). [Alexander: “Dwelling in the house of Jehovah does not mean frequenting His sanctuary, but being a member of His household and an inmate of His family, enjoying His protection, holding communion with Him, and subsisting on His bounty.”—C. A. B.].[FN23]

DOCTRINAL AND ETHICAL

1. Every member of the congregation of God may appropriate in faith the promises which God has given to the people of the covenant, but he must likewise make earnest use of the privileges graciously bestowed upon the congregation, and have, hold, and confess the God of the covenant as his own God, in order to have in himself the evidence and experimental sense of the all-embracing and all-sufficient care of God, which is always comforting and refreshing in every circumstance of life. Comp. P. Gerhardt’s hymn which has grown out of this Psalm: Der Herr, der alter Enden.

2. He who would truly experience in himself that love, power, and faithfulness of God, whereby believers are called, sustained, preserved and entirely furnished in this world as a flock of the good shepherd, must likewise, in the constant sense of his need and weakness and at the same time in unshaken faith in the willingness and the power of God to help him, lay hold of for himself and use the means of grace and salvation prepared and offered to him; he must likewise truly let himself be led, refreshed, protected, cared for and saved by God, and meet the condescension of God with the resignation of himself to God. “Although this confidence in the care of God does not exclude provision for the body, yet we are to think chiefly of the supply of all our spiritual need, which comes down from above” (Umbreit).

3. Trust in God and resignation to His will is essentially facilitated by the fact that we have to do, not with an unknown and hidden God, but with the God of historical revelation, who has made known His name by His word and His works, and has declared therein what we have to think and expect of Him. On this fact we should base ourselves in the changeable fortunes which meet us in this world, and should hold fast to it amidst the changing feelings and dispositions of the heart: for that is “the golden art, to hold on to God’s word and promise, decide according to it and not according to the feelings of our hearts; thus help and consolation will surely follow and we shall not lack anything at all” (Luther).—“But now when God has revealed Himself as the Shepherd in the person of His only begotten Song of Solomon, much more clearly and more gloriously than formerly to the fathers under the law, we do not sufficiently honor His keeping, unless we tread under foot all fear and danger by fixing our eyes upon Him” (Calvin).—“For David here prescribes one common rule for all Christians, that there is no other means or expedient on earth of escaping from all kinds of trouble, than for a man to cast all his cares on God, apprehend Him by His word of grace, hold fast to it and let it in no wise be taken from him. He who does this can be satisfied, whether it fares well with him or ill, whether he lives or dies, and can likewise finally endure, and must prosper in spite of all the devils, the world and misfortune” (Luther).

4. The best consolation in trouble is the certainty of the nearness of God, as this is the strongest reminder of our duty when successful. But we have these, not that “we may make of His benefits a ladder by which we may ever ascend nearer to Him” (Calvin), but we have them on the ground of His condescension to us, in virtue of His dwelling among us and in consequence of our reception into His house and to His table, where He has Himself prepared what serves for our sustenance and complete satisfaction, and where He likewise anoints those who partake of these blessings, good things and joys, that Isaiah, He festively prepares, distinguishes, and adorns them. This advances by many stages from the typical to the fulfilment, from the Old Testament to the New, from time into eternity. For a time is coming when wandering will cease and the shepherd as the host will not allow His guests again to leave His house. But first of all we must abide by this. “This presence of the Lord is not to be perceived with the five senses; faith alone sees it, which is sure of the fact, that the Lord is nearer to us than our own-selves” (Luther).

HOMILETICAL AND PRACTICAL

The glad spirit of a Christian in life and in death: 1) how it shows itself; 2) whence it springs; 3) whither it moves and leads.—The happiness of those who can confess: the Lord is my shepherd: 1) in what it consists; 2) how it is attained; 3) how it is preserved.—Who goes most successfully through the world? 1) The wanderer in God’s flock; 2) the guest at God’s table; 3) the child in God’s house.—He who lets himself be led by God will likewise be kept and provided for by God.—Even pious people are not spared the walk in the dark valley; but they have a threefold comfort: 1) that the Lord leads them in; 2) that the Lord remains with them; 3) that the Lord in time helps them out.—The certainty that the Lord is with us: 1) on what it is based; 2) what its effects; 3) what supports it.—We will attain that happiness and grace will step in the place of our persecutors when we resign ourselves entirely to the guidance, care and training of God with willing obedience, humble desire and hearty trust.

Starke: The ungodly man may call Jesus a shepherd, but not his shepherd, which is only for those who appropriate Him.—It often seems as if the little flock of Christ lacked many things in this world; yet these words of Christ must remain true for all time with respect, to spiritual things ( John 10:11), and with respect to bodily things they may be satisfied with the loving provision of the Great Shepherd.—Believers find in the pastures of the Gospel not only complete satisfaction, but likewise gentle rest.—The many who do not experience refreshment of heart from the Gospel have only themselves to blame.—The ungodly grudge believers a piece of bread; their Good Shepherd, however, gives them not only this, but likewise the heavenly manna.—That which seems to be needful, pleasant and good, is not good unless it is a gift of the mercy of God ( James 1:17).—It is well for him who has his portion in the house of his heavenly Father; there are many mansions there; but the most joyous thing is that their possession endures to all eternity.—Renschel: Christ carries the rod woe and the staff mild.

[Matth. Henry: If God be as a shepherd to us, we must be as sheep, inoffensive, meek and quiet, silent before the shearers, nay, and before the butcher too, useful and sociable; we must know the shepherd’s voice, and follow Him.—Let those not fear starving that are at God’s finding, and have Him for their feeder.—Those who would be satisfied with the fatness of God’s house must keep close to the duties of it.—F. W. Robertson: Beneath the burning skies and the clear starry nights of Palestine there grew up between the shepherd and his flock a union of attachment and tenderness. It is the country where at any moment sheep are liable to be swept away by some mountain torrent, or carried off by hill-robbers, or torn by wolves. At any moment their protector may have to save them by personal hazard. …And thus there grows up between the man and the dumb creatures he protects a kind of friendship. …You love those for whom you risk and they love you; therefore it is that, not as here where the flock is driven, the shepherd goes before and the sheep follow him. They follow in perfect trust, even though he should be leading them away from a green pasture, by a rocky road, to another pasture which they cannot yet see. He knows them all—their separate histories, their ailments, their characters. … Alone in those vast solitudes, with no human being near, the shepherd and the sheep feel a life in common. Differences disappear; the vast interval between the man and the brute, the single point of union is felt strongly. One is the love of the protector: the other the love of the grateful life; and so between lives so distant there is woven, by night and day, by summer suns and winter frosts, a living network of sympathy. The greater and the less mingle their being together: they feel each other. “The shepherd knows his sheep, and is known of them.”. Try to feel, by imagining what the lonely Syrian shepherd must feel towards the helpless things which are the companions of his daily life, for whose safety he stands in jeopardy every hour, and whose value is measurable to him not by price, but by his own jeopardy, and then we have reached some notion of the love which Jesus meant to represent, that eternal tenderness which bends over us—infinitely lower though we be in nature—and knows the name of each and the trials of each, and thinks for each with a separate solicitude, and gave itself for each with a sacrifice as special and a love as personal, as if in the whole world’s wilderness there were none other but that one.”—Spurgeon: Sweet and full are the doctrines of the Gospel; fit food for souls, as tender grass is natural nutriment for sheep.—These twin guardian angels (goodness and mercy) will always be with me at my back and my beck. Just as when great princes go abroad they must not go unattended, so it is with the believer. Goodness and mercy follow him always—the black days as well as the bright days, the days of fasting as well as the days of feasting, the dreary days of winter as well as the bright days of summer. Goodness supplies our needs and mercy blots out our sins.—C. A. B.]

Footnotes:

FN#19 - It is better to translate this latter clause with Ewald and Hupfeld: To waters of refreshment He leadeth me. The idea is not of a flock grazing in a rich meadow land on the banks of a quiet stream, but that of a flock led by the shepherd to their resting-place and watering-place. In this place they lie down satisfied, in the midst of the richest abundance of pasture and refreshing water, all their wants being supplied. It is not necessary to think of a stream, since in the Orient flocks are fed from wells or fountains in troughs, Genesis 29:10-11; Exodus 2:16-21. Vid. Tristram, Natural History of the Bible, p142.—C. A. B.]

FN#20 - The reference is still to the shepherd guide. The rod and staff are synonymes, expressing the twofold use of the crook in ruling and defending. The crook is essential to the shepherd’s business. He uses it as a walking stick in ascending and descending the mountains; he uses it to punish the rebellious and stubborn sheep. It has a curve on one end with which he catches the sheep by their hind legs and urges them on. It is likewise a weapon to beat the dogs and ward off the beasts of the wilderness. Then finally he uses it when he puts the sheep into the fold, causing them to pass under the rod as he tallies them off to see that none are missing. Thus the crook is the symbol of his power and authority, and at the same time of his love, care, and protection. When the flocks are led through the gloomy wadies they crowd close together, and the rod and staff in the shepherd’s hands reassures them and gives them a sense of comfort and security, though the wild beasts roar and growl about them.—C. A. B.]

FN#21 - The entertainment was royal, the guest was received with the highest honors. Oil was used at the feasts of the wealthy to do honor to their guests. It was used to anoint the head as a symbol of the grace of God which the host would have his guest enjoy. It is not unusual at the present day n the Orient to sprinkle the guests with perfumes and to burn incense in the festival rooms, diffusing delightful odors. Vid. Lane’s Modern Egyptians, p203. Vid. Amos 6:6; also Luke 7:46, where Jesus contrasts the devotion of the woman with the neglect of the host who did not honor Him with the basin of water, the kiss of friendship and the anointing oil.—C. A. B.]

FN#22 - For the meaning of the cup vid. Psalm 16:5. It is full and satisfying and more than abundant. As the oil was the symbol of grace and favor, so the cup is the symbol of joy and gladness.—C. A. B.]

FN#23 - Wordsworth: “David, the shepherd of Bethlehem, could speak from personal experience of what the shepherd feels for his sheep. He had led his flock through the dark defiles of the rocky fastnesses of Judah, which presented an image of the gloomy valley of the shadow of death, and he experienced in his exile the loving care of hospitable friends, like Barzillai, who spread for him a table in the wilderness, when he fled from Absalom his son ( 2 Samuel 17:27-29), and his eyes were raised upward from them and their affectionate care, to a loving contemplation of his home and Father in heaven.”—C. A. B.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 23:4". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/lcc/psalms-23.html. 1857-84.

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