Psalm 23 (Part 2)

Dear Reader,

I covered my translation of Psalm 23 and some technical issues relating to it in an earlier post. Now it is time to discuss the meaning of the psalm. Here again is the translation I am working from:

1 The LORD [is] my shepherd; I do not want.

2 In pastures green he makes me lie down.

3 By waters calm he leads me; My soul he revives.

4 He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

5 Although I walk in the valley of death’s shadow I do not fear evil.

6 For you [are] with me.

7 Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

8 You prepare before me a table opposite my enemies.

9 You anointed with oil my head;

10 My cup [is] overflowing.

11 Surely goodness and loving-kindness pursue me all the days of my life.

12 And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for long days.

I began my explaining to the children the structure of lines 2 through 5. You can read the details in that earlier post, but basically all four have a very similar grammatical structure. Lines 2 and 3 go “preposition-noun-noun verb,” and lines 4 and 5 go “verb preposition-noun-noun.” This actually came up right away because my older daughter said that line 3 should have been divided in two to put “my soul he revives” separately. I explained that I did not do this because it would mess up the parallel structure found in these four lines. Instead I left “my soul he revives” where it is as  a sort of addendum to line 3 in much the same ay that line 4 has “for his name’s sake.”

But what, you may ask, is the point of all this? Why do we care about similar structures in the Hebrew? Here is why: look at the prepositional phrases in these four lines. They all describe places one can be. Which ones are good? Where would you like to be? The kids were able to see that the first three are all good places, but the last is not. In fact, it is about the darkest of the dark. There is a juxtaposition here. It is that age-old conflict between what we think we should experience as God’s people and what we actually do experience. The psalmist expresses confidence that God is leading in good places, but at the same time he acknowledges that sometimes he finds himself in the dark. Yet he still trusts his standing before the LORD, saying “I do not fear evil.” Why? The answer is in the next line: “Because you are with me.” It is the gap between our very real standing before God, safe in Christ, and the reality our eyes often see which can be quite dark and fearful.

We also noted a shift in line 6 from the third to the second person. Hebrew does not seem to mind these transitions.

My older daughter looked at what God does in this psalm: he guides, leads, revives, prepares, and anoints. We asked what picture we get of God in this psalm. For once it is easy to see! The LORD is my shepherd. I also asked what other things we get beyond the first line that show this shepherd picture. The kids were able to pick up on the rod and staff being the shepherd’s tools and the green pastures and calm waters being good places for sheep.

One of my sons noticed that LORD appears only in the first and last lines. It makes kind of a framework for the psalm, like a pair of bookends.

Finally we talked about the verb tense in line 9, “you anointed my head with oil.” As I discussed in the earlier post, most of the verbs in this psalm are the imperfect, expressing uncompleted action. But this one is the lone exception. It is in the perfect tense, showing completed action. It is possible we could amend this form or take it as a narrative form which looks like the perfect but is really imperfect. But I like it the way it is here. Because who is the psalmist? It is David. And he has been anointed as king over God’s people. It is the one fact here that is accomplished and is not ongoing. It is something for David to look back on when those dark times come, much as we can look back on our baptisms as a sign and seal of God’s covenant with us.


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