NRSV The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
KJV The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake.
This psalm is actually one of the shortest—only six verses—but it's probably the most famous. Why? Because it talks about the presence of God in a quiet, everyday way.
Here we see God in green fields and quiet waters, pastoral images that are a long way away from fire and brimstone.
You had to fend off lions and bears, keep control of your sheep, and deal with constant isolation. Since they had so much time on their hands to practice, shepherds were also famed as great musicians.
It's no coincidence that King David and Moses both spent time as shepherds. It was kind of the "in" thing back then.
Quick Bible nugget: most biblical prophets, before they start talking about the end of the world, spend time in the wilderness on their own. It's called the "wilderness phase," and it creates a narrative that brings them closer to nature and God.
NRSV Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
KJV Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Naturally, the protagonist of the poem has to face some difficulty. First up: he walks in "the valley of the shadow of death," a scary image that combines the unknown of darkness with the unknown of death.
The shepherd didn't have many weapons: just his staff and his brains, nothing more. No guns, no GPS, and no Bowie knives.
God's presence is in the little the shepherd does possess. Sounds pretty special to us.
Translation alert! The literal translation would be "the darkest valley," but the King James Bible translates these words as "the valley of the shadow of death."
Most people know the mistranslation better than the original because—let's face it—it sounds better. But this is more than just a Harry Potter-esque difference between "Sorcerer's Stone" and "Philosopher's Stone." The text of this psalm is so old that the new translations of it add a layer to how we interpret its meaning.
NRSV You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
KJV Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The psalm ends as it began—with an everyday image endowed with holiness. The "table" here is not extravagant. It's just an expression of wonder that the writer is still alive after so many hardships.
In the olden days, "anointing a head with oil" was a mark of status. The shepherd here, King David, is marveling at how far he has come through simple devotion to God.
Given the wandering nature of a shepherd's job, this psalm asserts that God's protection follows a loyal person around.
Unlike elsewhere in Psalms, where God resides in the temple or on the battlefield, in Psalm 23, God's house seems to be wherever you make it.