You know the saying, "Pride goes before the fall"? Well, that's a religious saying, and it's very relevant to Psalm 23. Pride, and specifically the kind of pride that makes lesser beings want to put themselves on par with God, is a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The speaker of Psalm 23 is a blessed and fortunate individual who perhaps has a lot of reasons to feel proud, but he demonstrates the virtue of humility by giving all the credit for his success to God. Like a sheep that follows the shepherd to fertile pastures, the speaker doesn't do all the legwork – he merely follows the sound guidance of his leader. The humility of the psalm is all the more remarkable when you consider that it's author was traditionally said to be King David, the powerful king of Israel who is still famous for taking out Goliath. Of all types of people, rulers are perhaps the most tempted by pride, but Psalm 23 doesn't focus on control over others. Instead, it focuses on God's beneficent influence on the speaker.
In claiming to enjoy the favor of the Lord but providing no evidence for why he deserves it, the speaker opens himself up to the charge that his humility is false and self-serving.
The speaker demonstrates his humility by disclaiming any credit for the good things that have happened to him and placing himself in complete submission to God.
The speaker's humility is better demonstrated by the form of Psalm 23 than by its content.
How you read Psalm 23 depends in part on what religious perspective you approach it with. Christians are likely to emphasize the connections between the Lord in the psalm and Christ of the Gospels. In the New Testament, Christ is compared to both a lamb and a shepherd, pointing back to the pastoral analogy in this psalm. Jews will read the Lord simply as Yahweh, the same deity who spoke to Moses through the burning bush and assisted Abraham, the patriarch of Israel. Those who don't ascribe to the Judeo-Christian tradition can simply admire the beautiful poetry and the elucidation of the virtues of humility and gratitude, which have their place in a secular context, too.
Psalm 23 may seem to show only the merciful and comforting side of God, but the poem's imagery alludes to the importance of punishment and correction, as well.
Psalm 23 is by itself largely free of theological content and ideas – it only becomes theologically significant when read in the context of other texts and concepts from specific religious traditions.
We think it's useful to compare Psalm 23 to the story of Job, also from early Hebrew scriptures (or the Old Testament). Job was a good guy who was put through horrendous hardships, but continued to have faith in God. By contrast, the speaker of Psalm 23 also seems to be a good guy, but we don't know if he's ever been tested. You could compare him to Job before the poor guy went through the ringer.
Everything is going the speaker's way; he has all the physical and spiritual nourishment he needs, and he feels immune from the evils of that terrifying valley of death. But wait – he doesn't say that evil things won't happen to him, he just says he doesn't fear them. He doesn't expect God to prevent bad things from happening, but he thinks that if they do come up he can rely on God's "comfort" to get through it.
The reader shouldn't interpret the speaker's view that his happiness is assured too literally; rather, it must be taken in the context of an expression of thanksgiving that's given directly to God.
Spiritual happiness and the salvation of the soul are actually more important to the speaker than his physical well-being.
You might be wondering, "Evil? What evil? This poem is all about the good." True enough, but as the popular theological argument goes, good cannot exist without evil as its opposite. We can't conceive of one without the other. Throughout Psalm 23, every good thing has an evil associated with it: plenty is opposed to "want," restoration of the soul to abandonment, stillness to spiritual tumult, righteousness to erring, and green pastures to barren wastes. The subtext of the speaker's argument is that if he did not follow the Lord with such absolute devotion, he would stray from the path and immediately fall prey to all these things.
The speaker sounds absolutely confident that goodness will always be on his side, but how does he know he has this guarantee? One possible resolution to this problem is to say that all the "goods" in the poem are spiritual goods, not worldly goods. So, even if he were to starve and fall terribly ill, he would still have the comforts of faith, which are infinitely more valuable than the comforts of the flesh. But, we'll leave that to you to decide.
Psalm 23 suggests that human nature is ultimately good because it originates in God's nature, but it needs to be cultivated in order to express this goodness.
The speaker of Psalm 23 believes that his faith in the Lord is enough to protect him from both external evil and from a bad will.
The speaker of Psalm 23 walks through the valley of the shadow of death with the guidance of the Lord as his shepherd. The valley likely represents his fear of death. Also, you could interpret walking through the valley to represent one particularly dangerous episode in the speaker's life, or you could say that all of life consists of walking through a valley where death looms as a possibility at any time. Maybe life is the valley of the shadow of death.
Despite its overwhelmingly positive tone, Psalm 23 argues that life itself is a "valley of the shadow death," full of potential dangers and evils.
The speaker of Psalm 23 believes he will escape death and pass directly into heaven.