Study Guide

Psalm 23 ("The Lord is My Shepherd")

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

The Lord (God) acts as a shepherd to the speaker. He makes sure the speaker isn't lacking any necessities.

The Lord takes the speaker to peaceful and relaxing places, like green fields and calm waters.

He also tends to spiritual well-being, making sure that the speaker stays on the right path.

The speaker walks through the valley of the shadow of death, but he doesn't need to be afraid. The Lord will continue to protect him like a shepherd protects his sheep.

Even when his enemies are at hand, the speaker can enjoy a fine banquet thanks to the generosity of the Lord. He lives in abundance, even luxury, with rich oils and more wine than his cup can handle.

This happy state of affairs will continue for the rest of the speaker's life, and beyond. He doesn't ever plan to leave the protection of his host and shepherd.

  • Line 1

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

    • The speaker says that the Lord (God) is like a shepherd to him. This sets up an explicit metaphor in which humanity, or at least the community of believers, is a flock of sheep tended by God.
    • The role of a shepherd is to lead his sheep to green pastures, to protect them from predators, to make sure that none get lost or go astray. You could take shepherd as synonymous for "protector."
    • Be careful with the phrase, "I shall not want." The speaker's not saying "The Lord is my shepherd, but I don't want him."
    • Instead, he means that with God as his protector, he won't lack anything he needs. The word "want" means "lack."
    • The speaker's complete confidence in God is apparent early on. This is no crisis of faith or doubt.
    • It is common in the English translations of the Bible for God or Yahweh to be translated as "Lord."
    • Christians also call Jesus "Lord." Some Christians interpret the Lord mentioned here as Jesus, though according to Christian doctrine, God and Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) are one and the same, part of the Holy Trinity.
  • Line 2

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

    • Here the metaphor of sheep and shepherd is still goin' strong. The speaker is declaring himself a sheep here, so don't be surprised if he acts like one.
    • The Lord takes the speaker to fertile green pastures where he can eat his fill and then lie down to rest. This is a good image because green pastures are alluring to both sheep and humans, though for different reasons.
    • We may think that a green pasture is just a beautiful, peaceful spot, but for a sheep it's a vital necessity in order to find enough food. This line, then, gives a specific example to back up the point that the shepherd won't let his sheep lack any essentials.
    • The Lord also takes the speaker-as-sheep to calm waters to drink and refresh himself. His thirst is quenched: another example of a necessity met.
    • The availability of food and drink also serves as a nice implied metaphor for the way that God satisfies the speaker's spiritual (as opposed to literal) hunger and thirst.
    • The stillness of the waters indicates that there are no storms or winds to disturb this peaceful scene. Also, a still pool of water is probably more pleasant to drink from than some rushing stream. We can vouch for that one.
    • The word "maketh" does not mean "forced" here – don't picture some shepherd shoving a poor sheep down into the grass! It means "creates the opportunity for."
    • Don't be put off by all the old-fashioned diction. That's just the King James Version for you.
  • Line 3

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

    • Now the psalm transitions away from the metaphor of shepherd into an explanation of the spiritual meaning of "shepherd."
    • God cares for the speaker's soul as well as his ability to know right from wrong and pick the right path.
    • The translation of "restores" (oh sorry, "restoreth") is tricky. Is he saying that his soul was lost before God restored it? We would guess that "restore" means something more like, "bring back to full vitality." Or, put more simply, "refresh."
    • What does it mean that God leads the speaker to righteousness for his name's sake?
    • What the phrase "for his name's sake" most likely means is the old idea that good actions are performed for the sake of goodness only. And God is ultimate goodness.
    • The opposite of "for his name's sake" would be "for my sake."
    • Some Christian commentators interpret this line in light of the idea of unearned and undeserved grace.
  • Line 4

    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.

    • Now the psalm turns to a darker note – this part of the psalm is why it's so often read at funerals (and yet not at Thanksgiving, perhaps?).
    • Even though the speaker walks in the shadow of death, he doesn't have any fear because God is there.
    • God's shepherd's rod and staff comfort the speaker. These two things are actually the same thing – a big stick that a shepherd uses to guide the flock.
    • Images of staffs are common in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. You might remember that Moses had a staff that he used to part the waters of the Red Sea. Also, one of the symbols for the Catholic pope is a staff.
    • What is this valley anyway? Is its name "Shadow of Death Valley"? Isn't that somewhere in California? Where do I find it on a map?
    • All kidding aside, a valley is a place surrounded by hills or mountains, which often cast a shadow below. So this is not some pleasant little valley, and those imposing mountains that surround it are symbolic of death. It's a place of danger where many bad things or "evils" could occur.
    • Some people think that the valley is also a symbol of general despair or dark times, as opposed to a specific fear of death.
    • But the speaker has absolute trust that even in a dangerous environment the shepherd will guide him in the right way.
    • You might interpret that the path through the valley is the "path of righteousness."
    • The "yea" at the beginning of the line isn't celebratory – "Valley of Death! Yesss!" In the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, the "yea, though" is translated to "even though."
  • Line 5

    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

    • Some readers consider lines 5 and 6 to be the second part of the psalm because it's thematically different.
    • The metaphor of the shepherd completely disappears now.
    • The line describes how God lays out a banquet for the speaker, even when his enemies are nearby.
    • What is the role of the enemies, do you think? Has God made peace between the speaker and his enemies, and now they're sitting down for a meal together? Or do the enemies merely symbolize danger, in the presence of which the speaker is still safe and able to enjoy a luxurious banquet?
    • The whole of the poem is highly symbolic and you should not take the individual images too literally. They're open to a wide variety of interpretations.
    • That said, the passage doesn't say anything specific about bringing peace, so the main point seems to be that the speaker feels enough at ease to enjoy himself and have a good time. Also, he doesn't even have to do any of the cooking!
    • "Anointment" is a sacred act of setting a person apart and and making him holy. It is symbolized by rubbing oil on the person.
    • There's so much wine (or insert preferred delicious beverage here) in his cup that the liquid is literally overflowing the cup. God doesn't just provide enough, He provides more than enough.
  • Line 6

    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.

    • There is just no doubt in the speaker's mind that with God on his side; he's totally set for life. The amount of trust and confidence expressed in these words is remarkable.
    • There's no sense that God could withdraw his mercy at any moment and send the speaker plunging into misery – no sir. This isn't the Book of Job, where this happens.
    • God will continue to lead him on the path to "goodness." Not only that, God will also show mercy if, for some reason owing to his clumsy sheep-like nature, he wanders off the right path.
    • He plans to live in God's house forever. Why would he ever leave? It's like crashing on the couch in the Vanderbilt Mansion. And God doesn't seem to care how often the speaker raids the fridge.
    • There are two sides to the idea that he plans to dwell in the Lord's house. First, that the speaker has no wish or desire to be anywhere else. Second, that God will never kick him out.
    • "For ever" may point beyond the speaker's life and into eternity or some kind of afterlife.
    • Notice how in the first part of the poem the Lord is a shepherd, and in the last two lines God is more like a great host.