The 23rd Psalm is the most famous Psalm in the world. Sometimes familiarity can not only breed contempt but can blind us to the presence of things we should have seen. For many, the 23rd Psalm has brought comfort at funerals or memorial services but I believe this Psalm has more than just comfort to give us. Let me point out a few structural elements of the Psalm we should take note of right way. This Psalm is personal, as the word “my” is used 17 times. Many Psalms are communal but this Psalm comes from the individual within the community. This Psalm begins in verse 1 with YHVH, and the last verse also has the same Divine name. By enveloping the Psalm with “the name,” it’s as if G-d has surrounded the whole of life with His presence. Finally, in the very middle of this Psalm is the phrase “you are with me.” Once again the presence of G-d among His people takes center stage.
Psalm 23 opens with the phrase “YHVH is my Shepherd,” and within the Hebrew Scriptures and the Ancient Near East the metaphor of shepherd refers to the king. Psalm 80:1 refers the Shepherd of Israel who sits “enthroned upon the Cheruvim.” Psalm 95:1-7 refers to YHVH as the Great King and to the people of Israel as the flock He watches over. Earthly Kings in the Hebrew Scripture were portrayed as shepherds (I Kings 22:17; Jeremiah 23:1-4 and Ezekiel 34:1-10). In Ezekiel 34:10-16, YHVH is portrayed as a shepherd who will provide food and safety for His flock (See Luke 19:10). Interestingly enough, within the Apostolic Scriptures Yeshua refers to Himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14), alluding to numerous references in the Hebrew Scripture. If YHVH is the shepherd, then His people are the flock of sheep He tends, and the Hebrew Scriptures often refer to the people of G-d as sheep (Psalm 100:3).
Following the assertion that YHVH is our shepherd (King), the next line says “I have no lack.” This same Hebrew word, khaser, is used used in Nehemiah 9:21. The Nehemiah text is referring back to the time Israel was in the wilderness following her deliverance from Egypt. In the wilderness YHVH provided Israel with water, manna, and their shoes, which never wore out the 40 years they wandered the desert. The Exodus generation truly “lacked nothing” as G-d provided for their every need. Confirmation that the root word used in verse one refers back to the Exodus generation occurs in Deuteronomy 2:7, where we are told that those coming out of Egypt “lacked nothing.” The history of G-d’s work to provide and protect Israel for 40 years in the wilderness gave the Psalmist confidence that the same G-d could protect and provide for him just as He did for them.
Moving to the center of the Psalm we find the phrase “for you are with me.” This idea of YHVH being “with” His people is a powerful motif in the Hebrew Scripture. At key points in the life of His people, YHVH reminds them that He will be “with” them. The Hebrew word for with, ‘im, was used extensively in Ancient Near Eastern covenants. The idea of G-d being “with” His people is always anchored in the numerous covenants YHVH established with the children of Israel. In Joshua 1:5 and 9, YHVH tells Joshua that just has He had been “with” Moshe. He would be “with” Joshua in his efforts to inhabit the land of Canaan. In Isaiah 7:14, the child to be born would be called “Immanuel,” which comes from three parts of Hebrew grammar. The word “‘im” means with, the word “anu” means us, and the word “el” is a name for G-d referring to His might or strength. Notice that the last words recorded of Yeshua before He left this earth were “I am with you always” (see Matthew 28).
In the last verse of Psalm six, Hebrew readers of the text are given some translation options not available to English readers of the modern Bible. The first option comes with the word that is often translated “dwell.” Most Hebrew words have a trilateral root but lose letters from the beginning or end of the word due to other grammatical additions on the front or back of the word. The Hebrew word “yashav” can mean to sit or dwell, and that’s how most translations move us. There is also the possibility that the root could be from the word “shuv,” which would mean “turn” or “return.” The text could be saying “I will return to the house of the Lord” instead of saying “I will dwell in the House of the Lord.”
The second thing a Hebrew reader will see is the the traditional words for “forever” are not used in this text. The last two Hebrew words of the Psalm are “l’orek yamim” meaning “length of days,” and this is governed by the previous line where the Psalmist says “all the days of my life.”
The Psalmist could think of nothing better than to spend his time in the “House of the Lord” (Temple), where the presence of G-d lived in residence.
Brent Emery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.