The sounds of Psalm 23 is somewhere between poetry and prose – it's a lot like hip-hop lyrics, actually. Except for, you know, some slight differences in content. Some people think that hip-hop is just like poetry, and while we agree that rap can be as inventive as poetry, the sound is usually different. English poetry is traditionally not written to be accompanied by outside music, but the Hebrew psalms were, in fact, written as musical pieces, something they also share with hip-hop lyrics. When translated into English by the crew that created the King James Version of the Bible, Psalm 23 has that same half-spoken, half-sung quality as rap music. Maybe that's why the phrase, "as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" from line 4 worked so well in Coolio's song, "Gangster's Paradise."
Like a lot of rap songs, Psalm 23 uses simple sentences structure that can be repeated over and over to build a sense of rhythm: "He maketh," "He leadeth," "He restoreth," "I shall not want," "I will fear no evil," "My cup runneth over." The psalm is made of up phrases that pair up very well with one another because they have a similar sound.
Also, because the King James Version is a translation, line breaks aren't particularly important. The six "lines" you usually see numbered in a Bible are simply divided by sentences. Line breaks are not as essential to rap, either, though they're crucial to almost all poetry, with a few exceptions (like prose poems).
So, Psalm 23 is not organized as a self-contained piece of music-in-language, like, say, a Shakespearean sonnet or an Emily Dickinson hymn. It has both musical elements and prose-like elements. The musical elements are found in the repetition we described above, the quality of the words and images, and in the use of poetic rhythm in some places. In particular, the poem uses a lot of anapests (see "Form and Meter" for more information on anapests), a very distinctive metrical unit that sounds like galloping horses' hooves. These anapests serve a similar function in propelling the psalm forward as the background beat in a rap sound does in propelling the rapper.
Finally, if you still don't believe us about the similarities between this song and rap, check out these two lines. One is slight modification of the first line of this psalm (we bolded the change), and the other is the first line of a song by Jay-Z...
Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want.
Jay-Z, "99 Problems": I got ninety-nine problems, but a ***** ain't one.
It would make for a pretty weird song, but you could read both of these lines to the same exact beat!
The word "psalm" is derived from a Greek word meaning "song." But before these poems were translated into Greek, they were written in Hebrew. In Hebrew the Book of Psalms is called "Tehillim," which means "praise song." A psalm was written as a song, perhaps accompanied with a lyre or harp. You'll often notice that traditional images of David, the supposed author of Psalm 23, show him with a harp in his hand. That's because he is known as the singer of the psalms.
The psalms are sometimes called "Hymns of Praise." Modern famous modern poets, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, have drawn inspiration from the psalms to write their own hymns of praise (check out his "Pied Beauty" and "God's Grandeur"). Not all of the psalms are devoted to praise, but many of them are. Some scholars believe that the word "praise" indicates that the psalms were intended for use in formal religious services, which were largely dedicated to the praise of God (source).
The psalm had no title except for "Psalm 23," but many people refer to it using its first phrase, "The Lord is My Shepherd." We have no idea whether the original author, whoever he or she may have been, used a formal title or not.
The setting of Psalm 23 is, for the most part, pretty generic, and we don't mean that in a bad way. It follows the patterns of a certain genre: the pastoral poem. The classic pastoral poem is about the good life of being a shepherd in the hills, far from the worries of urban life. They're filled with images of calm, domesticated nature. Where a later Romantic nature poem might have images of violent storms, tossing waves, and wild winds, pastoral poems are calmer; the "green pastures" and "still waters" of line 2 are quite typical. The difference between Psalm 23 and other pastoral poems you might have read is that it was written thousands of years ago, when pretty much everyone led a pastoral life.
The poem's setting takes place in two different imaginative spaces: the outside world and the inner soul. Everything that's described in the real world is really a means of symbolically representing what the speaker feels in his soul. This is why the setting doesn't seem particularly realistic, and in some places it leaps directly into the land of symbolism, with images like, "paths of righteousness" and "the valley of the shadow of death." This last image is surely the most famous and memorable in the poem. It's as if death were an ominous mountain like Mt. Doom, casting its dark shadow on the speaker below.
In the last two lines, the setting shifts completely. Say good-bye to pastoral images and say hello to social ones. The poem provides fleeting glimpses of a rollicking banquet, with the Lord playing host. Any aspiring fiction writers out there should take note of how the poet creates an entire atmosphere of luxury and abundance using a single image: "my cup runneth over." Throughout the psalm, small details like this are stitched together to create a mood of safety, ease, and confidence in the continued blessings of the Lord.
The speaker is such a sheep. No, really. He's a lovable little lamb frolicking out in the hills. OK, not exactly, it's still just a metaphor. But comparing himself to a sheep is the speaker's way of showing his humility. He places himself completely in the power of the nurturing shepherd. Another way to look at it: God is to the speaker what humans are to domesticated animals. Any success or comfort that the speaker has attained is not through his own doing; the Lord has provided it. The phrase, "God helps those who help themselves" doesn't really apply to the poem, as the speaker does not help himself. Good fortune just continues to rain down upon him.
The speaker doesn't seem to be a man who's enduring great hardship, though he may have had hardships in the past. In fact, he reminds us of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. Like Ned, the speaker has nothing to complain about and maintains an almost impossibly sunny attitude in the face of everything. (When Ned was asked whether he liked mosquito bites, he replied, "Mmmm! Love to scratch 'em!" Now that's optimism for you).
God isn't testing the speaker, as God tested Job. Pleased as punch with his position in the world, the speaker is probably pretty wealthy, healthy, and secure. He feels safe from his enemies, though that fact in itself is pretty interesting: the guy has enemies. The poem sometimes feels like an unrealistically perfect vision of the world (though maybe that's because it describes a "spiritual" world that exists only in the soul), and the presence of enemies reminds us of dangers. It might also lead you to think that perhaps the speaker isn't completely perfect, because not everyone in the world seems to like the guy. Still, the speaker likes to think he is a morally upstanding guy who has followed the "paths of righteousness" as best he can.
Readers who believe that King David wrote Psalm 23 often point out that the imagery of shepherding aligns with the fact that David was a shepherd as a young man. At the very least, the speaker is familiar with the humble pastoral life.
Psalm 23 is about a simple and straightforward as poetry gets, which is part of the reason why it's one of the most popular religious texts of all time. Even accounting for the somewhat archaic language of the King James Version, there are no difficult or confusing words or images. The symbolism is sometimes vague, but this isn't a poem where pinning down symbols is essential. Psalm 23 is all about conjuring a mood, an atmosphere, and an emotion, and most readers have had no difficulty in connecting with the author despite the thousands of years that separate us from Biblical times.
The psalms are intensely personal prayers, or hymns. They were written as songs with harps and singers, and like a song the emphasis is on an emotional connection. The psalms are really like songs of praise or love songs to God (Yahweh). The author (or authors) of the psalms is quite direct about his audience, and in Psalm 5 he writes, "Lord, hear my words. Listen to what I am saying to you." The poetic term for this kind of address to someone outside the poem is apostrophe.
A "psalm" is not really a form, it's more of a genre. The psalms are considered "praise songs" (see "What's Up with the Title? for more), and they were probably meant to be sung as music. But this is not exceptional: a lot of ancient poetry takes the form of song. The classical symbol of poetry is the lyre, a harp-like musical instrument.
The Biblical Book of Psalms includes diverse group of works, but as a whole they are intense personal expressions of devotion. They're expressions of feeling and not so much doctrine or theology, though of course theologians have been poring over them for literally thousands of years now. Many of the psalms are addressed directly to God. Not all of them are expressions of praise of God's glory, but Psalm 23 certainly is.
The translation we use comes from the famous King James Bible, completed in 1611 in England. While the King James Version has often been supplemented by newer translations that are thought to be more strictly accurate and are written in modern speech (no "thy" to be seen), the King James Version's poetic brilliance is on fine display in this psalm.
Following the tradition for putting together the Bible, each full sentence of the psalm is considered a separate "line" (or verse). It's best not to worry too much about line breaks – they're not really a part of the meaning of poetry composed around this time around.
Meter, on the other hand, plays an important role in making this translation great. The King James Version of the Bible was created in Shakespeare's time, when some of the greatest masters of poetic meter were at work. While Psalm 23 does not follow any particular metrical form, it contains many examples of anapests, or two short beats followed by a long one (da da DUM). The most famous example is in line 4:
though I walk through the val-ley of the sha-dow of death
Those anapests just pile up one after another to form a memorable musical phrase (just ask Coolio). See how many other examples of anapests you can find. It's interesting to think how much the traditions of English poetry have influenced the way we read a religious text originally composed in Hebrew!
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Psalm 23 has two major extended metaphors. The first is the analogy between the Lord (God) and a shepherd, a guy who herds sheep. An extended metaphor is just a metaphor that continues for more than just one line or phrase in the poem. It's woven throughout several lines, or sometimes the whole poem. The metaphor comparing the Lord to a shepherd appears in the first four lines of the psalm. The big point of the metaphor is that the Lord looks after and nurtures his flock, and the speaker is part of that flock.
You have to remember that shepherds were as common in ancient Israel as coffee shop baristas are in Brooklyn. To an ancient audience, a shepherd isn't this quaint, romantic wanderer that sometimes appears in later literature. It was a real – and very important – profession, though it wasn't a job that a rich person would normally do.
The second major extended metaphor in the psalm is the analogy between the Lord and a host. A good host makes sure his guests have enough food and shelter, and that's what the Lord does, too. The roles of host and shepherd are similar in some ways. For example, in both cases, your responsibility is to take care of others, to keep them safe, happy, and healthy.
Also, both the host and shepherd are in some way superior to the people (or sheep) they're tending. The shepherd is a human, while the sheep are animals. And the host is the one who has the means to provide for the guest. In the same way, the Lord is in a superior position relative to humans. One important difference between the two roles: the shepherd belongs to a natural environment, and the host to a social one.
Believe it or not, there are poems in the Bible that are highly erotic…but this isn't one of them.