Scribal Kingdom

Living in the light of the Kingdom of God

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Some Observations on Psalm 23

As I was thinking over Psalm 23 today, I noticed two things which I never had before pertaining to its form, flow, and characteristics that I think are worth sharing. Before commenting, I will share the ESV’s translation here for reference:

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 paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

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

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

Psalm 23 (ESV)

First observation: While there is not necessarily a chiasmus of content, there is one of indirect address and direct address:

A – Verses 1–3 — Indirect address / confession
   B – Verse 4 — Direct address / confession
   B’ – Verse 5 — Direct address / confession
A’ – Verse 6 — Indirect address / confession

The reason I separated verses 4 and 5 instead of lumping them together as a single segment of direct address is explained by and leads into my second observation.

Second observation: During the brief two verse span in which David turns to address Yahweh directly (“you”, “your”) he switches from images of dwelling outdoors (using animal imagery for himself) to images of dwelling indoors (using human imagery for himself).

I will briefly expand on the significance of these observations with a few notes here.

Even though David turns from indirect confession in verse 3 (“he leads me”) to the first instance of direct confession in verse 4 (“you are with me”), the theme and imagery has not changed. Verse 4 continues the thought of verse 3 of walking in paths (cf. “paths of righteousness”) by describing more path-walking (yet through a very dark valley) in God’s presence.

When we come to verse 5 we see the theme of God’s presence and provision persist, but the imagery noticeably switches to that of tables, cups, and anointing (more human and often indoor imagery). I think that these images proleptically look forward (in verse 6) to a new setting for dwelling: inside Yahweh’s house. What do you do inside a house? Eat, drink, and cleanse/anoint the body. The direct address then drops off again after verse 5, and in verse 6 reverts to the kind of indirect confession that the Psalm began with.

While in verse 2 the sheep dwells outdoors in green pastures, the psalmist in verse 6 now dwells inside a house. The mention of dwelling in verse 6 I believe mirrors a similar picture of “dwelling” (lying down and being beside) used earlier, where it is the psalmist in pastures (with still waters) that was in view there. Even if the terminology in verse 2 is more descriptive (as poetry is wont to do) of “dwelling” rather than actually using the word, I believe it still describes the same essential reality of abiding in God’s presence wherever it may be (in pastures or in a sacred house) and the blessings that attend that abiding.

There is possibly another kind of parallelism between the ideas of being beside still waters (if this signifies a source of quenching thirst) and the indoor imagery of the cup overflowing, although that association is less certain and structurally linked.

One of the most interesting parts of the above observations though is the function of the “bridge” verses of 4–5 in that they turn directly to Yahweh and also serve as the transition point of the metaphors employed. I think if we notice that convergence point through direct confession it helps us conceptually and thematically tie the whole Psalm together, even though the imagery changes.

Bonus observation:

If you remove the English word “will” (signifying future action) from most common translations of Psalm 23 in two places then you can see the more immediate effect of the indirect confessions:

  • I lack nothing (currently) — Hebrew Professor Dr. Bill Barrick of The Master’s Seminary drew my attention to translating it this way.
  • Goodness and lovingkindness follow me all the days of my life (currently)
    (Note: Indeed “all the days of my life” gives the sense a forward look into the future as well, but we must not override the present sense which is there.)
  • For the third statement though the verb’s aspect is different and signifies the future: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

So much to meditate on in Psalm 23!

If God’s will had been kept in the Old Testament, would we need Jesus?

One of the biggest things I appreciate about seminary is not just the opportunity to gain knowledge from books and instructors who are are specialized in their areas of expertise but especially the ability to also interact with fellow students and learn from them.

As one of our graduate level Old Testament classes embarked on the study of Genesis, someone in class posed an interesting question to my classmate Drew Zook. They asked about the hypothetical outcome if the patriarchs and (later) people of God had kept the stipulations of the covenants given to them perfectly, and whether in that case that would obviate a need for a Messiah. I liked Drew’s response so much that I asked him permission to share the exchange here.

I hope this spurs you to think further on what the covenants established in the Old Testament, and their expression of God’s will to his people at that time, did and did not accomplish prior to the time of Christ. The Abrahamic covenant still looked forward for its ultimate fulfillment and the Mosaic/Siniatic Covenant could (and was designed) to only accomplish so much. Perhaps we can learn just as much from what the covenants did not address as what they do.

Question: “Would there be a need for Jesus if the Patriarch’s and the people in OT fulfilled God’s will?”

Drew’s Response: “My answer is yes. Jesus is unique from the people in that he is not just a man. His place as the Son of Man is significant in that He can stand as a second Adam and a new Israel bringing the promise of God to all nations. The calling in Genesis 2 is to spread the image by cultivating and multiplying. While that alone would be sufficient for the will of God to be fulfilled on a human level in terms of the spread of His glory and name, it would be unable to combat the full problem. In Genesis 3, the promise is of a snake crusher.

Jesus’ position as the Son of God operates on a different level. He is solely capable of confronting and abolishing the hold that the powers and principalities of this world have on mankind. There is a spiritual aspect to the fulfillment of God’s will that is aided by the giving of the Holy Spirit and will be fully realized in the renewed Heaven and Earth and in our renewed bodies. Freedom from sin and death only can be achieved through sharing in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

– His perfect life fulfilled the requirements of the law.
– His actions of healing the sick and lifting the poor enabled Him to speak into the lives of broken and hurting people.
– sufficiently making Satan powerless in their lives.
– His sacrifice on the cross absorbed the natural consequence for sin
– and lifted Him to His rightful throne in Heaven.
– His resurrection broke the power of death over His people.
– the giving of the Spirit definitively sealed a life in the world to come.”