Psalm 23 is a beautifully crafted poem, well known and often memorized for good reason. It is an encouraging example of resolute faith in Yahweh and the comforting peace that comes with it. I have been meditating on the passage while resting my own mind and body, in a grassy paradise beside the most refreshing waters I know, in the midst of family and overflowing abundance. It seems a fitting meditation. The following are some brief notes from studying the chapter and comparing various exegetical resources.
This metaphor is of course very common throughout both the OT and NT. The psalmist using this metaphor as a premise for the first half of his poem is effective for its relevance both culturally and theologically. Imagining God as a shepherd is familiar, and sets us up to understand the images to follow.
The grassy meadow is a symbol of nourishment and provision in abundance. The Hebrew word means a grazing place, settlement, or stopping place.
The peaceful stream in Hebrew is literally “Waters of resting places” which parallels and corresponds to the resting place of pasture. Both food and water are provided by the good shepherd, in a safe and peaceful environment of rest.
This is clever wording. Normally translated “Soul” I favor the translation “Life” in this case. The psalmist is using a common idiom, which can be translated a number of ways. Consider Lam 1:11 (ESV), Lam 1:19 (ESV) where the same Hebrew phrase is translated “to revive their strength.” It refers to an overall refreshment, a return of life and strength to a weary mind and body. Because the word Nephesh can also be literally translated as “throat” the context here also follows poetically and logically the preceding line. The provision of safe drinking water is a literal refreshment to one’s throat, giving life and strength along a tiring journey.
The leadership and protection of Yahweh is of obvious benefit to his sheep. However, the psalmist recognizes the ultimate beneficiary is the shepherd, who seeks to protect his own reputation and delights in the wellbeing, happiness, comfort, and security of his sheep. He is motivated by his own benefit, to our benefit.
After meditating on the blessings of comfort and provision, the psalmist acknowledges the “even when” of troublesome times that are inevitable in life. However, in those dark times the presence of Yahweh dispels all fear of harm or danger. The rod and staff at the end of the stanza is sometimes interpreted as disciplinary action. However, in this context, the comfort is derived from the rod being used to fight away enemies (its primary use for shepherds was to fend off predators) and the staff being used to count the sheep and direct them along the right path. Knowing Yahweh can defend and lead us simultaneously is a comforting thought.
Verse 5 shifts over to a different metaphor, now portraying Yahweh as a host for a banquet, feast, or celebration.
Since Yahweh is the most hospitable and competent of hosts, his guest can confidently and fearlessly eat at his table without worrying about the surroundings or even the other guests. The host has everything in control, the guest is simply there to enjoy what the host has prepared.
The anointing of oil is a rather foreign reference to us, but it was a traditional custom for a host to anoint his guests as they arrived to a banquet or feast. The overflowing cup shows Yahweh’s generosity; he provides more than we need. The references to oil and wine describe a generous host who makes his guests comfortable, not withholding anything.
The last verse summarizes the tone and mindset of the psalmist as he concludes his meditation. He is confident in the goodness and love of Yahweh. He is assured and settled, knowing he is part of Yahweh’s family to the end of his days. The Hebrew phrase sometimes translated “forever” is le'orekh yamim, which is elsewhere translated literally as “For length of days” meaning “For a very long time” which does not necessarily refer to eternity but does cover the foreseeable future. This suggests less of a statement about (though does not necessarily exclude implication of) the kingdom of heaven and more of an assurance in day to day life, for the rest of his life.