Study Guide

Psalm 23 ("The Lord is My Shepherd") Quotes

  • Humility

    The Lord is my shepherd; (line 1)

    The central metaphor of the first half compares the Lord to a shepherd and the speaker to a member of his flock. He's like, "I'm just a sheep," which we'd say is pretty humble. We associate sheep with followers.

    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (line 2)

    The speaker admits he has been rather blessed. But he humbly gives all the credit for his happy conditions to the Lord. He hasn't really accomplished any of it on his own. He means that he could not have accomplished anything without God's assistance.

    He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (line 3)

    Here again we get that strange mix of pride and humility. He's like, "I'm a good person!" But he adds, " ...Only because the Lord wanted to express the goodness of His nature." The speaker's goodness is a way of glorifying God's "name."

    thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (line 4)

    A rod and a staff are basically the same thing; they're used to guide sheep when they stray off the path and away from the flock. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins picked up on this image in his poem "God's Grandeur," where he writes, "Why do men then now not reck his rod?"

    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: (line 6)

    This means: "As long as I continue to trust in the Lord, things will continue to work out in my favor."

  • Religion

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (line 1)

    The Lord is Yahweh, the God of Moses and Abraham. Many Christians, who often read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, take the Lord to represent Jesus Christ. Notice how the name "Lord" used in the Bible already hints at the relationship of host or patron that's explored in this poem.

    he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (line 3)

    This is probably the only direct mention of ethics (right and wrong) in the psalm. Without the Lord's guidance, the speaker would not be able to see what's the right thing to do. He would "stray" from the path.

    thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (line 4)

    The speaker shifts and directly addresses God this time, revealing that the psalm is really a prayer. The Lord is for the speaker what we would nowadays call a "personal God."

    I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (line 6)

    Hmm... "the house of the Lord." Would that be...heaven? Or is the speaker just following up on the extended metaphor of Lord-as-host? And does "forever" mean "for the rest of my life," or does it mean, "for eternity"?

  • Happiness

    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (line 2)

    The happiness of the speaker is innocent and pastoral – the kind of thing you see in a lot of nature poetry, both corny and not. "Pastoral," by the way, that means having to do with shepherding. A lot of more modern writers have seen shepherding as the ultimate quality-of-life profession – you get to spend your days in the outdoors tending to adorable little lambs.

    He restoreth my soul (line 3)

    In the third line, the speaker shifts from talking about physical happiness (rest! nourishment!) to spiritual happiness. Like the pastoral landscape, the speaker's soul feels fresh and new.

    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (line 4)

    Well, this poem certainly took a leap into darkness. It's as if the shepherd took a wrong turn from green pastures and suddenly landed in death-haunted valleys. But the speaker makes clear that this dark part of the journey is unavoidable and may even be essential.

    thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. (line 5)

    The happiness is in the second part of the poem is social, and returns to the idea of physical nourishment and even luxury.

    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: (line 6)

    Perhaps the most important part of the speaker's happiness is his optimism and hope about the future. If he thought that the bottom could fall out at any time, he might not be so darn happy in the present. But he believes that the Lord will never desert him, and vice versa.

  • Good vs. Evil

    he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (line 3)

    There are a lot of "good" things in this psalm, but this line is the only one that discusses righteousness, or goodness of the soul.

    I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (line 4)

    The speaker admits that the world has evils, but he doesn't describe in detail what they are. The psalm is quite specific about good things like oils and still waters (even if they're still just symbols for other things), but very vague about the bad stuff – something about a valley of the shadow of death...? Also, the shepherd's rod is used to keep the sheep in line. Maybe this is the speaker's way of saying he's glad there's someone to reign in his excesses and to prevent him from doing evils, and not merely from having evils done to him.

    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: (line 5)

    Once again, not very specific about the evils. Who are these enemies, and how did he make them? Would you want to have a feast in the presence of all your enemies? Wouldn't that be kind of awkward? The gist of the line is that the speaker doesn't have to worry about suffering harm from his enemies. He can just kick back and eat.

    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: (line 6)

    The word "mercy" is a hint that maybe he doesn't deserve all this goodness that he has received. You ask for "mercy" when you fall short in some way, right? Also, by "goodness" does he mean good things happening to him, or does he mean that he'll continue to be a good person?

  • Morality

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (line 1)

    The Lord protects the speaker from physical ills and harms, i.e., protects him from death. That's what a shepherd does – protect the flock from predators (like wolves) and lead the sheep to food and water. Metaphorically, the line also means, "my spirit will be provided for."

    He restoreth my soul: (line 3)

    We're interested to know what he means by "restoreth my soul." And to dig even further, we really want to get all theological and ask him what he means by "soul" and whether he believes that his "restored" soul is eternal. But the psalm is only six lines long, alas, so we'll cut him some slack and settle for the poetry of it.

    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (line 4)

    This is the line that you frequently hear at funerals. The speaker doesn't fear death or any other evil because he has the protection of the Lord. We wonder if this "valley" represents a specific point of his life – a battle, for example – or simply life as a whole.

    I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (line 6)

    The last line seems to point beyond the speaker's mortality and into eternity. Maybe the "house" is heaven, or maybe it just vaguely means, "under his protection and guidance." Either one works for us.