Twenty-third Psalm – A Collection of Commentaries – Part One
[An aid for Sunday Schools or parents in teaching the 23rd Psalm)
By Vicki Cole
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
What a wonderful gift to mankind! From the opening line to its very last word, the Twenty-third Psalm, David’s song of praise and prayer of affirmation, brings reassurance and confidence to all who reach out for it in times of need.
The 23rd Psalm is said to be the most popular and famous of all the Bible verses. Even without knowing the entire psalm by memory, people can tune in to its message by just reminding themselves that “the Lord is my shepherd.” The imagery of a shepherd watching over his flock, tenderly caring for the needs of those innocent and trusting creatures, is one which people can easily grasp and hang onto in moments of outreach to God.
For those of you teaching your children or Sunday School pupils, I have gathered up information from a number of Bible commentaries and dictionaries that I thought would have some useful facts or ideas to share with pupils of all ages. Also included in the lessons below are citations from the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the Founder of Christian Science, which offer spiritual insight to the Bible message.
I highly recommend a book that I recently discovered: “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,” by
W. Phillip Keller, which was first published in 1969. Mr. Keller was able to bring a unique perspective to the 23rd Psalm, based upon his life experience. As he explains it: “I grew up in East Africa, surrounded by simple native herders whose customs closely resembled those of their counterparts in the Middle East . . . I actually made my livelihood for about eight years as a sheep owner and sheep rancher . . . later, as the lay pastor of a community church, I shared the truths of this psalm, as a shepherd, with my “flock” every Sunday for several months.”
In the following lessons on each line of the 23rd Psalm, I will be including some citations from Mr. Keller’s book. I have culled citations from two different versions, so I am not including the page numbers. These quotations are just a few of the insights and information that Mr. Keller offers in his book, which is truly inspiring.
WHO WROTE THE 23RD PSALM?
There seems to a disagreement among the Bible commentaries over who might have written this. Was it King David, the former shepherd boy? Was it an anonymous person who lived at a later time? The later time choice seems to be based on the use of the term “house of the Lord.” Some scholars think that is definitely referring to the Temple, which was built after David. But others feel that the imagery and spirit of the Psalm can easily be attributed to David, and that the “house of the Lord” can mean a spiritual abode.
TEACHING THE 23rd PSALM:
Most children today in modern or urban societies do not have a clear idea of what shepherds do, and so they may not be able to fully grasp the deep meaning that can be found in the imagery of the 23rd Psalm. Learning about sheep and the shepherds of Bible times can make up an entire Sunday School class session. You might want to find some pictures to share with them. As you read the following excerpts from Bible commentaries, think about how the ideas and facts can be springboards to further discussion with regard to God and how He cares for his own children. Also, you can discuss how we might take on more “sheep-like” qualities in our relationship to God.
Mr. Keller tells us in his book “to keep in mind that the poet is recounting the salient events of the full year in a sheep’s life. He takes us with him from the home ranch where every need is so carefully supplied by the owner, out into the green pastures, along the still waters, up through the mountain valleys to the high tablelands of summer.” Other commentators, however, see the poem as detailing the events of a typical day. Others see the shepherd metaphor only in the first half of the Psalm, and then switching to the metaphor of God as a “host” providing a banquet. After reading Mr. Keller’s book, I can now see how the poem can be considered as totally about a shepherd, but I am including various interpretations for you to ponder.
Now, we will go over the Twenty-Third Psalm line by line using a variety of Commentaries:
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD; I SHALL NOT WANT:
“In order to describe vividly his sense of the fullness of God’s care for him, the psalmist uses first the metaphor of the shepherd. The loyalty and devotion of the good shepherd to his sheep was a matter of common knowledge in the ancient Near East.” (Interpreter’s Bible, a Commentary in 12 Volumes, p. 124 — will be abbreviated “IB”)
“The routine of the shepherd’s duties appears to have been as follows: In the morning he led forth his flock from the fold, which he did by going before them and calling to them, as is still usual in the East; arrived at the pasturage, he watched the flock with the assistance of dogs, and should any sheep stray, he had to search for it until he found it; he supplied them with water, either at a running stream or at troughs attached to wells; at evening he brought them back to the fold, and reckoned them to see that none were missing, by passing them ‘under the rod’ as they entered the door of the enclosure, checking each sheep, as it passed, by a motion of the hand; and, finally he watched the entrance of the fold throughout the night, acting as porter. The shepherd’s office thus required great watchfulness, particularly by night. It also required tenderness toward the young and feeble, particularly in driving them to and from the pasturage.” (Smith and Peloubet’s: A Dictionary of the Bible, p. 618)
“The practice of Eastern shepherds should be described. Travelers have told us how various flocks may be sheltering in a common fold, and when a particular shepherd comes to the gate and calls, a shivering movement can be seen here and there among the sheep; in little groups of two or three they turn toward the gate and edge their way through the other herds. No sheep of another flock will move; but these know the voice and straight make answer. Later one may see them journeying, with the shepherd in the van; they following in his train. First they lift their heads in the fold and listen. Is it his voice or not? Then they hear; they have verified his tones. Then they move obediently behind him, and ‘follow whithersoever he goeth.’ Only so can one say, ‘The Lord is my shepherd;’ only so can one be confident, ‘I shall not want.’ Now observe more closely the word ‘shepherd,’ i.e., the guardian of the flock. It is true that he watches over each separate sheep. Shepherds declare that they can recognize their sheep individually, as we recognize each other’s faces, and thus ‘know’ their sheep. Certainly the Good Shepherd knows his. Nevertheless he is guarding his flock as a whole, and each sheep is safer if it stays with its comrades and if together they move homeward.” (IB 124-125)
“Shepherds in Palestine and the East generally go before their flocks, which they induce to follow by calling to them . . . though they also drive them. The following quotation from Hartley’s ‘Researches in Greece and the Levant,’ pg. 321 is strikingly illustrative of the allusions in John 10: 1-16: ‘Having had my attention directed last night to the words in John 10:3, I asked . . . if it was usual in Greece to give names to the sheep. He informed me that it was and that the sheep obeyed the shepherd when he called them by their names. This morning I had an opportunity of verifying the truth of this remark. Passing by a flock of sheep, I asked the shepherd the same question which I had put to the servant, and he gave me the same answer. I then bade him call one of his sheep. He did so, and it instantly left its pasturage and its companions and ran up to the hands of the shepherd with signs of pleasure and with a prompt obedience which I had never before observed in any other animal. It is also true in this country that ‘a stranger will they not follow but will flee from him.’ The shepherd told me that many of his sheep were still wild, that they had not yet learned their names, but that by teaching them they would all learn them.'” (Smith & Peloubet, p. 614)
“Obviously, David, in this psalm, is speaking not as the shepherd, though he was one, but as a sheep, one of the flock. He spoke with a strong sense of pride, devotion, and admiration. It was as though he literally boasted aloud, ‘Look at who my shepherd is — my owner — my manager! The Lord is! . . .After all, he knew from firsthand experience that the lot in life of any particular sheep depended on the type of man who owned it. Some men were gentle, kind, intelligent, brave, and selfless in their devotion to their stock. Others were not. Under one man sheep would struggle, starve, and suffer endless hardship. In another’s care they would flourish and thrive contentedly. . . It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways. Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance. . . . Yet despite these adverse characteristics Christ chooses us, buys us, calls us by name, makes us His own, and delights in caring for us.” (“A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,” by W. Phillip Keller – will be abbreviated “Keller.”)
“Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:7-16)
“[Divine Love] is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, p. 578; will be abbreviated ‘S&H’ from here on)
“SHEEP. Innocence; inoffensiveness; those who follow their leader.” (S&H, p. 594)
“Again, this infinite Principle, with its universal manifestation, is all that really is or can be; hence God is our Shepherd. He guards, guides, feeds, and folds the sheep of His pasture; and their ears are attuned to His call. In the words of the loving disciple, ‘My sheep hear my voice,. . . and they follow me; . . . neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.'” (Miscellaneous Writings, by Mary Baker Eddy)
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One point to discuss with any children you may be teaching: usually we are the “sheep,” but sometimes we are the shepherd! How might that be? In Christian Science, we learn that we have innocent thoughts that must be “shepherded” and properly taken care of. We want to keep our consciousness pure and clean and fed with nourishing ideas; we want to protect our mind from the temptations of evil, and so on. Ask your pupils for ideas as they learn more about what shepherds do.
HE MAKETH ME TO LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES:
“Green is the most restful of all colors, and at the same time the most hopeful, implying showers as well as sunshine.” (IB, p. 125)
“This line will do us no harm if it only reminds us of our need to seek quiet in this noise-rocked world. But rest is not an end in itself. ‘He restoreth my soul.’ Rest is a means to an end.” (IB, p. 125)
“The Psalmist, whatever his identity, certainly knew ‘the green pastures,’ such as exist below the terraced farms of Bethlehem. He knew how to walk at the head of the flock, leading them — not following them, as Western shepherds do.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 674)
“The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met . . . freedom from fear, tension, aggravations and hunger. The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the sheepman himself who can provide release from these anxieties. It all depends upon the diligence of the owner, whether or not his flock is free of disturbing influences . . . . As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger from dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears or other enemies, the sheep stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no means of self-defence. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures whose only recourse is to run.” (Keller)
“Green pastures did not just happen by chance. Green pastures were the product of tremendous
labor, time and skill in land use. Green pastures were the result of clearing rough, rocky land; of tearing out brush and roots and stumps; of deep plowing and careful soil preparation; of seeding and planting special grains and legumes; or irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks.” (Keller)
“Moral courage is the ‘lion of the tribe of Juda,’ the king of the mental realm. Free and fearless it roams in the forest. Undisturbed it lies in the open field, or rests in ‘green pastures . . . beside the still waters.'” (S&H p. 514)
“The spiritual sense of truth must be gained before Truth can be understood. This sense is assimilated only as we are honest, unselfish, loving, and meek. In the soil of an “honest and good heart” the seed must be sown; else it beareth not much fruit, for the swinish element in human nature uproots it.” (S&H, p. 272)
“[Love] maketh me to lie down in green pastures:” (S&H, p. 578)
END OF PART ONE