Study Guide

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

  • Humility

    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.

    Questions About Humility

    1. Is "humility" the same thing as "submission" and "passivity" in this poem? If not, how does it differ?
    2. How do the language and imagery of shepherding relate to the theme of humility?
    3. What would you guess about the social status of the speaker just from reading the text? Does the poem provide any clues, or is the speaker's "real" life completely hidden from us?
    4. Why does the address of the speaker shift from "he" (referring to the Lord) to "thou," and how does this shift change the speaker's position relative to the Lord?
    5. How can the speaker be humble and yet so confident of his continued good fortune?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Where are some places in the poem where an interpretation might depend on your religious background?
    2. From the Christian perspective, would you necessarily connect the idea of the "Lord" as shepherd to the description of Jesus as a shepherd from the Gospel of John?
    3. From the Jewish perspective, how does the depiction of God as a comforting guide compare to other depictions of Yahweh in the scriptures?
    4. What religious function does Psalm 23 (and the psalms more broadly) serve?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Happiness

    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.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Does the speaker's happiness depend on his good fortune? In other words, would he be giving thanks to God even if there weren't "green pastures" and "still waters" all around him?
    2. Do you think the poem has more to do with spiritual well-being or with physical well-being? Why does the speaker focus so much on food and comfort?
    3. Is the speaker being naïve to assume that his continued happiness is assured "forever"?
    4. Does the psalm give any suggestion of heaven or an afterlife?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Good vs. Evil

    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.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Does the speaker receive God's favor as a reward or consequence of being good?
    2. If God leads the speaker along the "paths of righteousness," then what role is left for his free will to play? Is the speaker responsible for his own goodness?
    3. It seems that the speaker's decision to make the Lord his shepherd has a lot to do with why "goodness and mercy" are on his side. But if that's the case, then why do some bad people (people who don't follow the Lord) seem to have such good fortune?
    4. What is the relationship between evil and the "valley of the shadow of death" in the psalm?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Morality

    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.

    Questions About Morality

    1. What does "I will fear no evil" mean? Does the speaker think that the Lord will protect him from evils, or merely that he can take comfort in the Lord when evils do occur?
    2. Why is death like a "shadow"?
    3. Does the speaker view all of life as a valley in the shadow of death, or is he referring to a more particular fear?
    4. Does the word "house of the Lord" in the last line refer to the idea of Heaven?

    Chew on This

    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.