Psalm 23, often just referred to as "The Lord is My Shepherd," is the most well known of all the psalms, and is revered by Christians and Jews alike. According to tradition, all of the psalms were written by King David, one of the earliest kings of Israel, a.k.a. the guy with the slingshot who took out Goliath. He reigned from around 1055-1015 BC, give or take a few decades (source). In other words, a really long time ago.
Many modern scholars, however, believe the psalms were actually written by several different authors, but David's supposed authorship is all part of the traditional story about them. Picture it like this: You have this enormously powerful king, the man who brought down the terrible Goliath, but through these psalms you learn that even this great figure is capable of tender and humble worship. So the psalms basically suggest that if David, who had every right to be as arrogant as Kanye West at an awards show, can practice such devotion, then everyone else sure can.
In very plain and direct language, Psalm 23 compares God to a shepherd guiding his flocks. God comforts people facing death and is a kind master who makes sure everyone in God's house is fed properly. In the Christian tradition, the shepherd is associated with Jesus Christ, who in the Gospel of John is called "The Good Shepherd." In Judaism, the shepherd is simply God, or Yahweh.
The most famous line here is "as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." It's gorgeous poetry, as musical as Shakespeare, and you have to give props to the fellows behind the King James Version of the Bible for writing such a memorable translation. We've decided to present the King James Version here, despite all the "-ests" and "-eths" that can trip you up, because it remains the most famous. Just don't forget that all the language you read is just a translation: the psalms were written in Hebrew.
Psalm 23 became especially popular after it was included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and it's often used in funerals. It has provided comfort for millions, and has been quoted in popular culture in countless film funeral scenes and even in Coolio's strangely poetic "Gangster's Paradise."
It may be that the only exposure you've had to Psalm 23 is at a funeral. Or, if you haven't been to a funeral, at least you've seen one on TV.
We at Shmoop have watched the classic Hollywood "funeral scene" a million times. You know the one – you've got a gathering of mourners on a bright green lawn, all dressed in black. The women dab at their faces with handkerchiefs. Cut to the priest reciting this psalm, or maybe just the line, "as I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil." The priest drones on in a monotone, never showing any emotion. Cut to the end of the funeral when the mourners disperse. Then, for some reason, it always starts to rain. End scene.
Well, it may be stock imagery by now, but the funeral-scene version of Psalm 23 misses one thing: it's meant to be a happy and uplifting poem, folks! The Lord is like a friendly mentor, taking the speaker to all these great places, comforting him in tough times, and ending the day with a big meal. The speaker is incredibly optimistic and believes that the Lord's presence has saved him forever.
Even the much-maligned Protestant sourpuss John Calvin (sorry, Calvin-lovers, we know it's just a stereotype) could find nothing dark in this psalm. In his commentary he wrote, "This psalm is neither intermingled with prayers, nor does it complain of miseries for the purpose of obtaining relief; but it contains simply a thanksgiving [...]" (source). No miseries, no asking for stuff, just a simple "Thank you very much, Lord."
In our era, when religion is too often thought of as a transaction (I give God this, he gives me that...), it's refreshing to return to this psalm, which is purely the expression of an emotion and nothing else. It is full of that thing the priest in the Hollywood funeral scene always seems to lack: genuine human feeling.