Psalm 23: Entering the Psalm

Fear No Evil

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 they will escape death and pass directly into heaven.

Andrew R. Davis, PhD

Although it is only six verses long, Psalm 23 has had a profound impact on the spiritual lives of Jews and Christians, especially in the last two centuries.There is probably no psalm with a greater discrepancy between its size and its influence. Psalm 23 is a song of trust in the divine shepherd, who protects the flock and leads them to a life of abundance in God’s presence.

Psalm 23 Text

​​מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד יְהֹוָה רֹעִי לֹא אֶחְסָר׃
בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵנִי עַל־מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי׃
נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶדֶק לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ׃
גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת לֹא־אִירָא רָע כִּי־אַתָּה עִמָּדִי שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי׃
תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי  שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה׃
אַךְ  טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְּפוּנִי כׇּל־יְמֵי חַיָּי וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית־יְהֹוָה לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים׃

A psalm of David

The LORD is my shepherd;

I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me to Others “still waters.”water in places of repose;

He renews my life;

He guides me in right paths

as befits His name.

Though I walk through bOthers “the valley of the shadow of death.”a valley of deepest darkness,-b

I fear no harm, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;

my drink is abundant.

Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

for many long years.


Entering the Psalm: In the Care of the Shepherd

By Andrew Davis, PhD

meadow

Although it is only six verses long, Psalm 23 has had a profound impact on the spiritual lives of Jews and Christians, especially in the last two centuries. There is probably no psalm with a greater discrepancy between its size and its influence. Psalm 23 is a song of trust in the divine shepherd, who protects the flock and leads them to a life of abundance in God’s presence. The psalm alternates between third-person descriptions of God (verses 1-4a, 6) and a brief direct address to God (verses 4b-5).

The psalm unfolds as a pilgrimage. We begin with the shepherd (verse 1), who guides us through the ups and downs of a journey (verses 2-4). Ultimately, we arrive at a banquet (verse 5) prepared at the house of the LORD (verses 6). It is easy to imagine ancient Israelites singing these verses as they make their way to a festival at the Jerusalem temple. In their recital perhaps these pilgrims recalled the journey of their ancestors, whom God led out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Indeed, the psalm contains several allusions to the Exodus story (see, for example, Exodus 15:13, 17; 20:6; Psalm 78:52-53).
Thus, Psalm 23 functions on several levels – as a reminder of Israel’s national story of liberation, as a soundtrack for ancient pilgrims to the Temple, and as an assurance of God’s pastoral care for those who pray with the psalm today.

Additional Commentary

Brian McLaren Reflection

Brian D. McLaren is an American pastor, author, speaker, and leading figure in the emerging church movement. McLaren is also associated with postmodern Christianity. This resource is a personal reflection on McLaren’s relationship with the Psalm throughout his spiritual journey.

Read more

Marilyn Nelson Poem

Marilyn Nelson is an American poet, translator, and children’s book author. This resource is Nelson’s reflection and interpretation of Psalm 23. 

 

Read more

Activities & Reflection

  1. Reflect on the image of the Divine as a shepherd. Is that image resonant with your understanding of God?
  2. Where does fear play a role in your spiritual life?
  3. As you read the text now, are there particular words, phrases, or images that call to you?
  4. What is your understanding of “dwelling in the house of the Lord for all of the days of my life”?
  5. One of the conflicts of this psalm is the oscillation between safety and danger. Where are you feeling between safe and at risk in your spiritual life right now?
  6. Who or what is the protagonist of the Psalm?

illustration mother and child

The brilliant jazz, classical, and pop performer, composer, and conductor Bobby McFerrin wrote this moving setting of Psalm 23. As opposed to the Biblical Psalm, this rendition is in the feminine.r

The 23rd Psalm

By Bobby McFerrin
23rd Psalm (Bobby McFerrin)

The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows,
Beside the still waters, She will lead.

She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in a path of good things,
And fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk, through a dark & dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.

She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
And my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness & kindness will follow me,
All the days of my life,
And I will live in her house,
Forever, forever & ever.

Glory be to our Mother, & Daughter,
And to the Holy of Holies,
As it was in the beginning, is now & ever shall be,
World, without end. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

  1. McFerrin’s lyrics use feminine pronouns for referring to the Divine. Does this resonate with your understanding of the protector in this psalm? Are there times when you’re in a relation with a masculine Divine and others when you’re in relationship with a feminine Divine?
  2. McFerrin dedicated this song to his mother, Sara. How does that impact your experience of the words?
  3. This is a Psalm that is often said after someone dies. Would you choose these words to be associated with death and grief? Why are or aren’t these sentiments connected for you?

PsalmSongs

PsalmSongs conveys the Book of Psalms not literally, but existentially, truthfully. Bernstein’s retellings make each of the psalms vibrant, fresh, and immediately accessible.

psalmsongs-book-cover PsalmSongs: A Gathering of Psalms

By Gaya Aranoff Bernstein

You lead I’ll follow
and lack nothing
cushion my falls
softly I’ll land in
verdant fields
in calm water
soothe my soul
immerse me in justice
and truth and
in You

leaning on You
I have no fear
I tread lightly
through valleys
and shadows
and nightmares and terror
of doomsday and
death

Your bounty sustains me
I drink my fill
my thirst is quenched
And I empowered
by your master plan
can face whatever
comes my way
and live my days
in peace


Questions for Reflection

  1. Reflect on the metaphors utilized in this poem. What is the imagery evoking for you? Does the imagery reflect your relationship with the Divine?
  2. What is a Master Plan? What role does it play in your life?
  3. How does the poem depict your theology? Where is Bernstein’s description not in line with your conception of The Divine?
  4. What do you currently feel sustained by?

Why I Wrote PsalmSongs

Gaya Aranoff Bernstein

I wrote Psalmsongs during a time in my life when the Book of Psalms (Sefer Tehillim) was all I could read. I sat in waiting rooms while procedures and imaging and surgeries were taking place, and I read psalms. I felt for those around me, also waiting, with nothing but magazines to occupy their thoughts. King David’s psalms expressed my own deepest emotions during that difficult time. On a given day this could include terror, joy, hope, and despair. These feelings were all held together by a belief in a Creator I cannot fathom. I tried to make each psalm relevant to my torment. The psalmist’s faith in the power of prayer was mine; his enemies, metaphors for evil, were impotent against the Almighty. I found comfort in the psalms, with their raw and unflinching depictions of the human condition, and their intimate, first-person conversations with an inconceivable God.

Psalm 23 is widely known for its soothing, almost hypnotic reassurance. But psalm 91 was one I kept going back to that year; it’s beautiful concluding Hebrew verses had a surreal, calming effect on me. One day, while in a waiting room, I took out a pen, found a piece of paper, and tried to express it as a poem in English. Slowly, over the next few years, each of the 150 psalms of Tehillim became the poems of Psalmsongs—psalms expressed through the prism of my soul, interpretations rather than translations. In retrospect, I think I was trying to share the gift of psalms, trying to make Tehillim accessible to those who could not read them in Hebrew, or could not relate to the sometimes cumbersome, word-for-word English translations.

Today, in the era of COVID-19, social unrest, and economic insecurity, the psalms remain current, though they were composed millennia ago. We are going through an unprecedented time, with challenges of epic proportions. But we are not the first to experience epic challenges. We are not the first to be tested, to question faith, to err, to fall, to rise, to be relieved, or to thank God. Enemies—internal and external—still plague us, hope still sustains us. One does not have to be religious to try to make some sense of it all. There is comfort to be found in knowing that our modern questions are ancient questions, and that our common humanity can lead us to seek answers from the Creator.

person alone

David Powlison writes, “The antipsalm tells what life feels like and looks like whenever God vanishes from sight. As we hear about Garrett and the others, each story lives too much inside the antipsalm. The “I’m-all-alone-in-the-universe” experience maps onto each one of them. The antipsalm captures the driven-ness and pointlessness of life-purposes that are petty and self-defeating. It expresses the fears and silent despair that cannot find a voice because there’s no one to really talk to.” This resource is the Anti-Psalm of Psalm 23.

David Powlison writes an Antipsalm 23

I’m on my own.
No one looks out for me or protects me.
I experience a continual sense of need. Nothing’s quite right.
I’m always restless. I’m easily frustrated and often disappointed.
It’s a jungle — I feel overwhelmed. It’s a desert — I’m thirsty.
My soul feels broken, twisted, and stuck. I can’t fix myself.
I stumble down some dark paths.
Still, I insist: I want to do what I want, when I want, how I want.
But life’s confusing. Why don’t things ever really work out?
I’m haunted by emptiness and futility — shadows of death.
I fear the big hurt and final loss.
Death is waiting for me at the end of every road,
but I’d rather not think about that.
I spend my life protecting myself. Bad things can happen.
I find no lasting comfort.
I’m alone … facing everything that could hurt me.
Are my friends really friends?
Other people use me for their own ends.
I can’t really trust anyone. No one has my back.
No one is really for me — except me.
And I’m so much all about ME, sometimes it’s sickening.
I belong to no one except myself.
My cup is never quite full enough. I’m left empty.
Disappointment follows me all the days of my life.
Will I just be obliterated into nothingness?
Will I be alone forever, homeless, free-falling into void?
Sartre said, “Hell is other people.”
I have to add, “Hell is also myself.”
It’s a living death,
and then I die.

Questions for Reflection

  1. David Powlinson wrote, “The antipsalm tells what life feels like and looks like whenever God vanishes from sight.” How present is God in your life? Are there times when God vanishes from your sight? What do those moments feel like?
  2. Compare the second line of the poem to the second line of the psalm. Bring the two lines into conversation with each other. Are they saying the same thing?
    The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
    No one looks out for me or protects me.
  3. How is Powlison’s depiction in line with your relationship with The Divine? When do you feel like God is present? When do you feel like you’re taking care of yourself?
  4. Is there a space in between Psalm and Anti-Psalm? How do you describe that experience?

Psalm 23: Video Compilation with Rabbi Arielle Lekach Rosenberg and Enzi Tanner


Copyright 2022 by Rabbi Or Rose, Hebrew College and Dr. Andrew Davis, Boston College. Lesson Plan by Morgan Figa, Hebrew College Rabbinical School student.