By Christopher Reese
No Psalm is more beloved by believers than the 23rd, and none has exercised greater influence in popular culture. Christians frequently look to Psalm 23 for encouragement in the face of trials, and for comfort when encountering death. The Psalm is also frequently quoted or alluded to in modern movies and music. In the movie Titanic, for example, a priest reads it aloud as the ship sinks. Musical groups and artists including U2 (“Love Rescue Me”), Pink Floyd (“Sheep”), and Kanye West (“Jesus Walks”) have all referenced Psalm 23 in their music. These are some of the reasons Psalm 23 is so popular. In this article we’ll take a brief tour through this notable Psalm so that we can engage with it in a deeper way.
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What Is a Psalm?
The original Hebrew title of the book of Psalms means “Songs of Praise.” Our English title “Psalms” comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which titled the book Psalmoi (“Songs”). The Psalms are songs (poems) that were set to music and sung in various contexts in the life of Israel. The Psalms can be grouped into various categories according to their content, including praise, lament, thanksgiving, and Messianic Psalms, among others. The Psalms are also quoted extensively in the New Testament, especially the Messianic Psalms, which foretell numerous details about the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.
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Who Wrote Psalm 23 and When Was Psalm 23 Written?
The title, or superscription, of Psalm 23 indicates it is “A psalm of David”—that is, King David, Israel’s second and most famous king, who wrote nearly half the Psalms. David drew from personal experience in this song, since he had been a shepherd himself before becoming king (1 Samuel 16:11). David reigned from approximately 1010-970 BC, so he likely composed this Psalm sometime during that 40-year period.
What Is the Meaning of the 23rd Psalm?
We can summarize the message of Psalm 23 as David’s thankful recognition of God’s loving supervision and provision for him, and by extension all of God’s people. In verses 1–4, David compares God to a shepherd, and in verses 5–6 he likens God to a gracious host.
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Why is the Book of Psalms in the Bible?: An Interview with Sandra L. Richter]
In the first four verses, David illustrates several ways God is like a shepherd. This also implies that God’s people are like sheep. Isaiah draws on this same image when he writes, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). The author W. Phillip Keller, who worked as a shepherd for several years, observes, “It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways. . . . Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels.” 1
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Want a Transparent, Resilient, and Fearless Life of Faith? Read the Psalms: An Interview with W. David O. Taylor]
The green pastures and quiet waters (v. 2) point to nourishment, rest, and peace, resulting in refreshment for one’s soul. Since the desert hillsides in Israel could be treacherous for sheep, the shepherd had to “guide them along the right paths” (v. 3). In the same way, God guides his people “for his name’s sake,” so that the way they live their lives brings glory to him (similarly, Proverbs 3:5–6).
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Taking Comfort from Psalm 91]
“The darkest valley” (v. 4) represents the most difficult challenges a believer may face. As pastor and author James Montgomery Boice notes, “the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.” 2 Though these valleys are dark and we’re tempted to fear, we need not, because the Shepherd is with us. God’s “rod” and “staff” are symbolic of his strong protection and benevolent guidance.
Beginning with verse 5, the metaphor for God shifts from a shepherd to an hospitable host. God arranges a meal for David in the presence of David’s enemies. This may indicate a meal of victory in which David’s enemies are present and held captive, or that his enemies are nearby but dare not attack because of God’s attendance.
[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, How to Protect Yourself from Satan’s Whispering Lies: An Interview with Louie Giglio]
In David’s day, a guest of honor at a banquet was anointed with oil. This and David’s overflowing cup (v. 5) suggests lavish hospitality. As the apostle Paul would later write, God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20) and to “bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).
In light of all the demonstrations of God’s love described to this point, David is confident that God’s “goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6). The word “follow” in Hebrew suggests the idea of pursuit—God will pursue his people with goodness and love. The “house of the LORD” probably refers to God’s eternal, heavenly home in which David looked forward to living “forever.”
For followers of Christ, Psalm 23 takes on even deeper significance because Jesus declared he was “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He’s willing to leave the 99 sheep who are safe in order to rescue the one that is lost (Luke 15:1-7). Even in eternity Jesus will continue in this role, as described in the book of Revelation: “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’” (Revelation 7:17).
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Engaging with Psalm 23
Engage with Psalm 23 more deeply using the The Abide Bible with your Bible Gateway Plus membership (see the notes Contemplate: Psalm 23:1–6 and Engage Through Art: Green Wheat Field with Cypress by Vincent van Gogh).
Also use other Scripture engagement practices, such as praying Scripture. Simply follow these steps:
- Take a moment to ask God to bless your time in Scripture, to keep you focused, and to help you pray his Word.
- Start reading through Psalm 23 slowly, meditating on each word and verse.
- As you finish a sentence or a verse, stop and turn your thoughts into a prayer. Bring the ideas or truths of the passage into a conversation with God.
- Use the words of the Bible to guide prayers of worship, confession, thanksgiving, and petition for yourself and others.
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1. W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 7, Kindle edition.
2. James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 211.
BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.
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