For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 23. Here are three points:
1. Even conservative Christian pastor John MacArthur acknowledges that Psalm 23 uses common ancient Near Eastern images. The LORD is called a shepherd in Psalm 23, and, according to Peter Craigie, the Babylonian sun-god Shamash is called a shepherd in an ancient Near Eastern text. The theme of Psalm 23:5a—that the LORD prepares a table for the Psalmist in the presence of his enemies—is also found elsewhere in the ancient Near East, for a fourteenth century B.C.E. El Amarna letter asks that the Pharaoh give gifts to his servants while their enemies are watching. Philip Stern in the January 1, 1994 Vetus Testamentum actually does something interesting in his consideration of Psalm 23 in light of its ancient Near Eastern context. He sees similarities between Psalm 23 and a Ugaritic text about the goddess Anat—in which Anat is said to help and reward warriors. But the text about Anat also talks about Anat’s slaughter of enemy soldiers in a valley—and, according to Stern, there is a view that this is why the Psalmist says in Psalm 23 that he will fear no evil when he walks through the valley of the shadow of death.
2. Is all of Psalm 23 about the LORD being a shepherd, or are only vv 1-4 about that, whereas v 5 portrays God as a host? V 5 talks about the LORD preparing a table for the Psalmist in the presence of his enemies and anointing his head with oil, and many scholars have interpreted this as the LORD hosting a banquet for the Psalmist in his enemies’ presence, and anointing his head—and anointing with oil occurred at banquets because people wanted to look healthy and to smell nice. But there are some scholars, and even a popular author, who argue that v 5 continues the shepherd imagery. Shepherd Phillip Keller, in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, sums up Psalm 23 as follows (on page 141):
“It is the sheep owner’s presence that guarantees there will be no lack of any sort; that there will be abundant green pastures; that there will be still, clean waters; that there will be new paths into fresh fields; that there will be safe summers on the high tablelands; that there will be freedom from fear; that there will be antidotes for flies and disease and parasites; that there will be quietness and contentment.”
For Keller, v 5 is about the shepherd preparing a field so that his sheep can eat, and anointing them with “antidotes for flies and disease and parasites”. I do not know what Keller does with the “in the presence of my enemies” part of v 5, but he does say on page 107 that, even though the shepherd may have worked hard to prepare a safe and healthy field for his sheep, there can still be dangers, such as predators, or poisonous plants, or storms.
3. Keller treats Psalm 23 as a metaphor for the Christian spiritual life, which, in my opinion, is appropriate, for the author of Psalm 23 himself was being metaphorical when he described the LORD as his shepherd. The application of this Psalm varied among the interpreters whom I read: many viewed the Psalm as individualistic (God shepherding the individual), whereas others believed that it was about God’s promise to restore the Jews in exile from their captivity—as God shepherds his people to safety and nourishes them (Second Isaiah-style). Then it was interesting to listen to a conservative Christian pastor who boldly proclaimed that God was only the shepherd of born-again Christians.
Personally, I assume that God is my shepherd, even though there are long seasons in my life in which I have issues with conservative Christianity. But how is God my shepherd? I liked several points that I encountered in my study. One point was that a shepherd leads his sheep to still waters because he realizes that sheep are timid and could be scared if the waters were too turbulent—and I appreciate that point, since I am a timid person. Another point was that the shepherd used a rod to fend off wild beasts and a staff to guide his sheep. Has God guided me to paths of righteousness? I believe that he has, but it’s been a painful road. And yet, Psalm 23, overall, is about tranquility. I may be contradicting myself here, as I present God as someone who doesn’t want to scare the timid, and yet allows them to experience pain as he leads them to paths of righteousness. But Psalm 23 is a comfort to me, nevertheless.