Study Guide

Psalm 23 ("The Lord is My Shepherd") Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By David

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

The Shepherd

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.

  • Line 1: You really couldn't ask for a metaphor to be more clearly spelled out. The Lord = shepherd. The speaker = sheep. Got it. This metaphor makes specific reference to the shepherd as provider of necessities, or "wants."
  • Lines 2: The metaphor of the sheep and shepherd is extended into the second line. Green pastures as a symbol of nourishment, because sheep eat grass, and also comfort, because the sheep is lying down. Still waters are also a symbol of nourishment, and also peace and tranquility. Just remember that the body of the sheep is implicitly analogized to the soul of the speaker. The Lord brings peace, comfort, and nourishment to the speaker's soul.
  • Line 3: In a very basic metaphor, righteousness is compared to a path. As a shepherd, the Lord keeps his flock on the right path. The Lord's "name" might be a symbol for reputation.

The Host

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.

  • Line 5: The analogy between the Lord and the host is implicit. That is to say, it isn't spelled out directly, but who else but a host would be serving meals? The image of a cup overflowing with liquid represents abundance.
  • Line 6: The Lord's protection, generosity, hospitality, and _[insert other good qualities]_ are symbolized by the idea of being allowed to live in the Lord's house. The house itself is metaphorical.

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