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Psalm 23 Poem Analysis Essays

This work of poetry found in the Christian Old Testament and in the Jewish sacred book has been a source of comfort to millions through the generations. This poem was written by King David, one of the most famous kings that ever reigned in Israel. He guided his people through hard times, was victorious in time of war, and was known as being “a man after God’s own heart”. His sentiments in this poem have resounded with people around the world since the words were first spoken in ancient Israel.


Psalm 23 Analysis

Line 1

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want

Throughout the Jewish sacred book, the people of Israel are compared to sheep, and God is there Shepherd. Later, in the Christian New Testament, Jesus Christ refers to his followers as sheep, and he is the shepherds. This metaphor is referred to throughout the Bible to allow readers to understand the relationship of God to people. The Shepherd takes care of his sheep, protects them from wolves and other wild animals, and guides them. This paints a picture of people and God. God cares for them and guides them. For this reason, the speaker in this Psalm is certain that he “shall not want”.


Line 2

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

A Shepherd would often guide his sheep to new pastures, where the grass was green and soft and cool. The grass was the source of food and comfort for the sheep, and the sheep depending entirely on the shepherd to guide them to green pastures.


Line 3

He leadeth me beside still waters

This line is again another comparison between God and a Shepherd. A Shepherd was responsible for guiding his sheep to water so they could drink. Again, without the shepherd, the sheep would die of thirst. In the same way, King David believes that if not for his God, he would not have food or drink.


Lines 4-5

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths
of righteousness for his name’s sake

In these lines, the speaker reveals that his Shepherd and his God not only provides for his basic needs, but is also his source of comfort and peace in his soul. King David claims that he walks in righteousness only because his God leads him in those paths and restores his soul.


Lines 6-8

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

In these lines, the speaker reveals that he trusts his shepherd. He trusts him not because he has always been provided for and always had comfort. Rather, he reveals that even though he has been through very difficult times, he was not afraid. In fact, he claims that what he has been through has been “the valley of the shadow of death”. King David knew what it was like to be face to face with death. Many times, he had been near death especially prior to his becoming king, when he was running from King Saul who intended to kill him. Indeed, King David knew what it was like to face incredibly hard times. He knew what it felt like to face death, and still he claims that he would “fear no evil”. He then gives the reason for this confidence in the face of trials. He says, “for thou art with me”. He doesn’t need to be afraid of the dangers and perils of this earth, because he has an almighty eternal being by his side, and he knows that once his life on earth was over, he would go to be with the God that he spent his life serving. He has no reason to fear because he knows that his God is in control of his life.


Lines 9-11

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

In these lines, the speaker again alludes to his belief that his God is the provider of his food and all of his needs. In line 9, King David suggest that God has provided for him in front of all his enemies, so that his enemies could see that King David was taken care of by his God. The speaker then claims that God is the one who “anointest [his] head with oil” thereby giving him the position of King. In the Israeli tradition, the one who was to succeed the king would have oil poured over his head to seal his kingship. King David says that God himself anointed him with oil and made him king of Israel.


Lines 12-14

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the
Days of my life: and I will dwell in the house
Of the Lord forever

These last lines have spoken comfort into the lives of many. Although King David has already established that he was been through hard times and that he has even faced death, he has no doubt that “goodness and mercy” will follow him wherever he goes. This is because he knows that even when he experiences loss, suffering, and even times of war, God would always show him mercy, and goodness would always follow these times of difficulty.


Author Background

King David authored many Psalms that are found in the Old Testament of the Bible and the Jewish sacred book. His poems are known for being wildly emotional. At times, he questions God and calls out to him, asking why his prayers are not being heard. In other poems, he seems assured of God’s presence and answers to his prayers. Although his poems can at times seem contradictory, they reveal the inconsistencies of the human heart. David has been recognized as one who was real with God. He never tried to hide his true feelings or thoughts from his God. Rather, he poured out his heart to his God and sought Him earnestly. For this reason, King David of Israel has been named “A man after God’s own heart”. Followers of Christianity and Judaism have long turned to his poems as sources of comfort. Readers can easily identify with King David’s feelings toward God. King David was not without his share of suffering. Knowledge of David’s life gives this particular poem an even greater depth of meaning. David suffered the loss of a child, the guilt of having committed adultery, and the tragedies of war. Even so, he continued to turn back to God even when he sinned. David’s story is one that suggests that God is a God of forgiveness, and thus many people can identify with David’s poems.

Works Cited:

  • The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999; Bartleby.com, 2000.

One of papers that I attended at the SBL International Conference in Auckland last week, was David Clines’ analysis of Psalm 23. Entitled, “Psalm 23 and Method”, his analysis aimed to “approach the interpretation of the psalm using the resources of seven different literary hermeneutical methodologies available today”. Those methodologies were rhetorical criticism, deconstruction, gender criticism, materialist criticism, postcolonial criticism, pyschoanalytic criticism and intertextual criticism. Each methodology brought to bear on the psalm produced interesting results; while the overall combination produced a slightly comical effect, a number of valid points were raised.

Below, I include the Hebrew text of Psalm 23, along with the translation of the NRSV. Clines made a few points regarding translation and I have appended some of those, as well as a review of his approach(es).

A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff –
they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

A few points on translation: David Clines stresses that it is only a sadistic shepherd who leads his flock beside still waters, and argues that the preposition denotes “down to”; he also indicates that למען שמו (in NRSV, “for his name’s sake”) would best be “for the sake of his reputation”, as this fits with both God’s concerns throughout the Hebrew Bible, as well as with the material concerns of pragmatic shepherds. More importantly, the final verb appears to be a widely circulated mistranslation. ושבתי, vocalised as it is here, is from the root √שוב and not the root √ישב. In other words, the psalmist is not saying that “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord” but that “I shall return to the house of the Lord”. We shall see shortly the importance of translating this verse correctly.

Clines began his presentation with rhetorical criticism: a method of analysis that treats the language as a vehicle for literary communication. Concerned with poetic structure and literary devices, this form of criticism is intensely interested in the final form of the text, as it is presented before us here. And yet, if we are to read the NRSV on this psalm (as, indeed, many standard translations) then we do it a particular injustice.

The perspective in the first half of the poem is undeniably that of a sheep. We are told that Yahweh is “my” shepherd and we are given a number of ovine allusions. The author is concerned with grass, water, and with lying down, and sees comfort in a crook and a staff. Nonetheless, a reading of the NRSV would lead us to believe that this perspective then changes to that of a person. We are told of a table being laid, “my” head being anointed with oil, “my” cup running over, and dwelling in (or returning to) the house of the Lord. Has the perspective shifted?

According to Clines, no. If we were to argue for a shift in perspective then we would need that to happen between verses 4 and 5: verse 4 concludes with a reference to a crook and a staff, and verse 5 begins with a reference to a laid table. Furthermore, it would also be occurring in the middle of the only second-person section of the psalm (“… you are with me, your crook and your staff comfort me; you spread a table before me …”), which makes for a rather odd transition. Again, not only must the perspective of the poem change (the narrator, if we like) but so must God. We are told in the first verse that God is “my shepherd”: are we to presume that his identity has suddenly changed, without warning, to that of a host? Would a host serve his guests when they are surrounded by their enemies? Would he serve them while they are still, if we translate the last verse correctly, en route to his house?

All of these issues would seem to indicate that the perspective has not changed and that, just as the narrator is writing from the perspective of a sheep in the first four verses, so too is he writing from the perspective of a sheep in the latter two. Our new problem becomes one of comprehension. Can we speak of a sheep eating from a table? Having his head anointed with oil, or with his cup running over? And do sheep journey on pilgrimage? The following is how Clines translates verses 5 and 6:

5 You spread a banquet before me even if enemies surround me;
you make my head slick with oil;
abundance is my lot.
6 Such goodness and constancy shall surely be my companions as long as I live,
and I shall journey again to Yahweh’s house for many days to come.

The word שלחן (“table”) is defined by BDB as a “skin or leather mat spread on [the] ground”. According to some anthropologists, “table” is an anachronism. Furthermore, as Clines suggests, the verb √ערכ (“roll, set out”) is better suited to a banquet than it is in the preparation of a table (that is, that one sets out the food, not the table itself). From that perspective, a sheep may refer to its fare as a שלחן (a metaphorical banquet), without running the risk of overt personification.

Clines continues with “even if my enemies surround me” and suggests that this is preferable to the NRSV reading, which seems to imply that it is only in the presence of my enemies that I am allowed to eat. A sheep, by contrast, is often surrounded by enemies and it is only with the presence of the shepherd that the sheep may ever comfortably eat at all.

Continuing with the verse, Clines notes that the root √דשנ (NRSV, “anoint”) is related to the noun “fat” and literally means “make slick”. Does one make the wool of a sheep thick with oil? According to Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura 96 (c. 234-149 BCE), this is precisely what shepherds do:

Oues ne scabrae fiant. Amurcam condito, puram bene facito, aquam in qua lupinus deferuerit et faecem de uino bono, inter se omnia conmisceto pariter. Postea cum detonderis, unguito totas, sinito biduum aut triduum consudent. Deinde lauito in mari; si aquam marinam non habebis, facito aquam salsam, ea lauito. Si haec sic feceris, neque scabrae fient et lanae plus et meliorem habebunt, et ricini non erunt molesti. Eodem in omnes quadripedes utito, si scabrae erunt.

To keep scab from sheep; Take equal parts of old strained amurca, water in which lupines have been boiled, and dregs of good wine, and mix all together. After shearing, smear the whole body with this, and let them sweat two or three days. Then wash them in the sea, or, if you have no sea-water, make a brine and wash them in it. If you do this as directed, they will not have the scab, will bear more wool and of better quality, and ticks will not bother them. Use the same remedy for all quadrupeds if they have the scab.

– De Agricultura, 96.

This, then, only leaves us with the problem of an overflowing cup. According to Clines, this is no problem at all: cup is a metaphor. A quick search on Accordance yields a number of instances in the Hebrew Bible where “cup” is a metaphor for “fate” or “situation”. Isaiah 51:17 speaks of drinking from the cup of God’s anger and Ezekiel 23:33 speaks of filling the cup of desolation. There are New Testament parallels as well (cf: Matt 26:39, “let this cup pass from me”) and so the figurative use of the term can be assumed to have been widely in use. Furthermore, the word that is appended to this noun is רויה: another noun (“saturation”, acc. to BDB, or “satiety”) and not a verb (NRSV, “overflows”). Clines’ translation, “abundance is my lot”, seems more faithful to the Hebrew.

After having used rhetorical criticism to indicate that the perspective in the latter two verses is still that of the sheep, Clines then turned to deconstruction. Jonathan Culler stated that “to deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophies it asserts, or the hierarchical positions on which it relies” (On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, Yale, 1982). There are key oppositional points within this psalm, relating chiefly to life vs death and satiety vs starvation, and a deconstructive approach would look at the extent to which the psalm undermines its own focus on the positives.

The most obvious means by which this is done is through the equivocal role of the shepherd. We are told explicitly within the poem that the shepherd behaves “for the sake of his reputation” (למען שמו) and not for the welfare of the sheep. Indeed, no shepherd behaves truly for the welfare of the sheep, although that might be of little consideration to the sheep who is nonetheless granted a pleasant existence. Why, then, does the shepherd do what he does? The answer is quite simple: sheep provide wool, milk and, ultimately, meat. The sheep might praise his shepherd for the latter’s kindness, but that kindness is not altruistic, and the sheep will ultimately be slaughtered when all is said and done.

Taken from that perspective, the reference to journeying to the Temple in the final verse, which enables us to recontextualise the entire psalm in light of the fact that this is where the shepherd is going, casts a pall over the shepherd’s kindness. After all, what is the Temple of God to a sheep, but a great slaughterhouse? The assertion that “surely” such goodness and kindness must be my lot “for many days to come” (or, as the NRSV, “my whole life long”) rings hollow in the light of the sheep’s impending doom.

Clines only touched upon the other forms of criticism briefly, and we may treat them all together as one. A gender critical analysis, being an approach that looks at stereotypical gender roles, leads us to the conclusion that the sheep is feminine. Aside from the usage of masculine verbs in relation to the shepherd, we know that the shepherd is a male because he is strong (the reference to ‘weaponry’ in verse 4b), brave (in laying a banquet before enemies, v5) and motivated by a concern for his honour (or reputation, v3). Furthermore, we are told explicitly that the shepherd is God, a masculine entity (exegesis on certain obscure passages notwithstanding).

The narrator of the psalm, despite the fact that we are led to believe that it is David by the psalm’s superscription, is “othering” themselves and, hence, taking the role of female. The sheep needs the shepherd, as a woman “needs” a man. The sheep, as a woman, is utterly helpless without her guide, and lacks any degree of autonomy. It is interesting that the sheep speaks in the first person, given that a lack of autonomy generally also implies a lack of subjectivity, which may indicate that the feminisation is deliberate.

Why would such subservience be advocated? A materialist critical view, being a form of ideological criticism, would seek out the reality in which the text was composed in questioning the motivations of the text’s author. Every text, according to materialist criticism, is a political product designed to serve a social purpose. Despite sounding cynical, this form of criticism is merely interested in the motivation behind the composition, and the expectations that authors have of their readers.

Read literally, the psalm appears to be advocating a certain sheeplike subservience to God and to the Temple. In recommending a passive acceptance of divine dictatorship, and a pilgrimage to the Temple despite imminent dangers, one might posit authorship by a Jerusalemite priesthood. Not himself a traveller, the priest has a strong personal motivation for recommending the journeying of others to the Temple. As Clines quipped, “there, if not exactly slaughtered, they will most certainly get fleeced”.

Can such a motivation be read into the text itself? A postcolonial criticism, nourished on the experiences of people at the fringes of our own society, may enable us to notice things that a priveleged reader would miss. We might notice, for example, that shepherds never actually own their sheep and that the sheep is merely a product to be looked after for another. From a theological perspective, this might not suit our representation of the divine, but it does cast an interesting light over our understanding of the dark valley – with no pun intended.

According to Australian Wool Innovation: Sheep Behaviour and Shed Design, shearers and drovers should paint the inside of the raceway black and leave a light at the end of it. The reason behind this is that it encourages the sheep to feel safe when in the presence of their shepherd, given the imminent danger that they feel otherwise. A shepherd, watching over his sheep for another, and concerned for his own reputation, would have a good reason for deliberately leading his sheep through dark valleys; the reference to such in verse 4 might might be a reference to this phenomenon in practise.

Moving on to psychoanalytic criticism, Clines noted the self-infantilisation (contrasted with the self-feminisation) of the sheep, its overriding deathwish (as exemplified in its morbid fascination with the Temple) and its extreme solipsism (as is evinced by the absence of any other sheep in its relationship with the shepherd, despite our awareness of sheep as herd animals). Such a method relies on an overly literal reading, but is born of the belief that texts represent the neuroses of their authors. A less literal approach is found in intertextual criticism, which seems to suggest (à la Saussure) that texts can and must be understood in the context of those other texts around them. An intertextual approach might compare other references to shepherds in the Bible, as well as other references to sheep, in order to derive information regarding this text. References to the sheep’s fascination with death – its desire to ascend to the Temple despite the consequences – can also be likened to the Passion narrative in the gospels.

As suggested, the combination of all of these approaches borders on the comic. We have a self-feminised, self-infantilised, solipsistic sheep with a death wish, looked after by a self-serving shepherd in a text composed by the Jerusalem elite for the purposes of the cult. Were it not that Clines was quite serious in his presentation, one might have suspected that he was delivering a parody. On the contrary, it is worth noting that critical methods of analysis do not constitute a smorgasbord, from which one may pick and choose. As Clines said, in relation to the application of a critical method, “if at first you don’t succeed: give up”. They do not all simply fit.

Whether or not every individual analysis within his presentation fits, I leave to you. The respondent, David Gunn, expressed incredulity with some, and was impressed with others. In wondering whether, on his death bed, he will view this psalm as a hymn of comfort or a critical reflection of the pious life, he hoped to have the courage to see both.

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