The 23rd Psalm – Commentaries – Part 3


“With his ‘rod’ or stout club the shepherd beats off the foes of the sheep, and with his ‘staff’ he helps it through the dark and perilous defile. So in the midst of dangers these symbols of the shepherd’s might and affection banish fear: ‘they are my consolation.'” (IB, p. 127)

“Sometimes ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ are used interchangeably; the context determines which is intended. The simple shepherd’s rod was a stout club c. 3 ft. long, made sometimes of an oak sapling with a bulging joint forming a knob. The rod or club was sometimes tipped with flint or metal to beat wolves away from the flock. With his rod the shepherd guided timid animals over dangerous rocks or difficult wadis (stream beds). At night he ‘rodded’ the sheep, making each pass under his rod to count it.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 619)

“The details of the imagery are somewhat alien to us. Our shepherds do not carry rods and staffs.
A shepherd’s crook, laid lightly on the back of a sheep showing tendencies to wander, is familiar enough. But a weapon of offense against marauding enemies is not a modern shepherd’s equipment. Yet something may be made of both the ‘rod’ and the ‘staff’ as we spiritualize the psalm. The staff is plain: it symbolizes all the gentle disciplines that keep us going. But the ‘rod’ also is recognizable. All that ejects evil from our minds is a weapon of offense — such as sudden disgust, particularly at ourselves when we realize that God’s alleged servant is behaving like a dog, perhaps disfiguring the divine image in someone else. The up-rush of wrathful feeling that makes a man cry ‘have at you’ to habits which are weakening him and spoiling his work — this too is the shepherd’s rod in action. All that the shepherd’s presence means in creating honest anger against evil in ourselves or in our world, from the tigers of lust to the little foxes of laziness, is hinted at in the rod.”

(IB, p. 127)

“The rod, in fact, was an extension of the owner’s own right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. . . . If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away from its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch. . . . In caring for his sheep, the good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see if all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.” (Keller)

“In a sense, the staff, more than any other item of his personal equipment, identifies the shepherd as a shepherd. No one in any other profession carries a shepherd’s staff. It is uniquely an instrument used for the care and management of sheep — and only sheep. It will not do for cattle, horses or hogs. It is designed, shaped and adapted especially to the needs of sheep. . . . The staff is essentially a symbol of the concern, the compassion that a shepherd has for his charges. No other single word can better describe its function on behalf of the flock that that it is for their ‘comfort.’ . . . Whereas the rod conveys the concept of authority, of power, of discipline, of defense against danger, the word ‘staff’ speaks of all that is long-suffering and kind. . . .The shepherd’s staff is normally a long, slender stick, often with a crook or hook on one end. It is selected with care by the owner; it is shaped, smoothed, and cut to best suit his own personal use.. . .The shepherd will use his staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they become parted. . . . The staff is used by the shepherd to reach out and catch individual sheep, young or old, and draw them close to himself for an intimate examination. . . . The staff is also used for guiding sheep. . . . The tip of the long slender stick is laid gently against the animal’s side and the pressure applied guides the sheep in the way the owner wants it to go. Thus the sheep is reassured of its proper path.” (Keller)

“Sweet, indeed, are these uses of His rod! Well is it that the Shepherd of Israel passes all His flock under His rod into His fold; thereby numbering them, and giving them refuge at last from the elements of earth.” (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 8)

“The kindly shepherd of the East carries his lambs in his arms to the sheepcot, but the older sheep pass into the fold under his compelling rod. He who sees the door and turns away from it, is guilty, while innocence strayeth yearningly.” (Retrospection and Introspection, by Mary Baker Eddy,
p. 80)

“[Love’s] rod and [Love’s] staff they comfort me.” (S&H, p. 578)


“In thinking about this statement, it is well to bear in mind that the sheep are approaching the high mountain country of the summer ranges. These are known as alplands or tablelands, so much sought after by sheepmen. . . . In some of the finest sheep country of the world, the high plateaux of the sheep ranges were always referred to as mesas — the Spanish word for ‘tables.’ Oddly enough, the African word for a table is also mesa, . . . the use of this word is not uncommon in referring to the high, flat-topped plateaux of the continent. . . .So it may be seen that what David referred to as a table was actually the entire high summer range. Though these mesas may have been remote and hard to reach, the energetic and aggressive sheep owner takes the time and trouble to ready them for the arrival of his flocks. . . .Early in the season, even before all the snow has melted . . . he will go ahead and make preliminary survey trips into this rough, wild country. He will look it over with great care, keeping ever in mind its best use for his flock during the coming season. Then just before the sheep arrive, he will make another expedition or two to prepare the tableland for them. He takes along a supply of salt and minerals to be distributed over the range at strategic spots for the benefit of the sheep during the summer. . . . He clears out water holes, springs and drinking places for his stock. . . . Another task the attentive shepherd takes on in the summer is to keep an eye out for predators. He will look for signs of wolves, coyotes, cougars and bears. If these raid or molest the sheep he will have to hunt them down or go to great pains to trap them so that his flock can rest in peace. . . . Often what actually happens is that these crafty ones are up on the rimrock watching every movement the sheep make, hoping for a chance to make a swift, sneaking attack that will stampede the sheep. . . . Only the alertness of the sheepman who tends his flock on the tableland in full view of possible enemies can prevent them from falling prey to attack. It is only his preparation for such an eventuality that can possibly save the sheep from being slaughtered and panicked by their predators.” (Keller)

“Again, Christian experience has deepened the conception. ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’ becomes a table spread in the midst of the pilgrimage, even when foes are massing to the attack. The verse has been declared to have been a favorite text in London at Communion services during World War II, when the bombing was at its peak; even in one instance when a part of the church was hit, while the service continued. In normal times it conveys the living thought of the table of strengthening set for our partaking at times when our private spiritual war is at its most bitter, suggesting that when we are finding the going hardest, we should at that very
time repair to the Lord’s table and receive at his hands. Our enemies slink away and become poor things when we resolutely sit down with our host.”
(IB, p. 128)

“The shepherd was able to ‘prepare tables’ in safe grassy spots, in the presence of the sheep’s hereditary enemies — venomous snakes, which bit the faces of unsuspecting ones. Hence the necessity of having their injured heads ‘anointed with oil’ or butter.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 674)

“May our Father-Mother God, who in times past hath spread for us a table in the wilderness and ‘in the midst of our enemies,’ establish us in the most holy faith, plant our feet firmly on Truth, the rock of Christ, the ‘substance of things hoped for’ — and fill us with the life and understanding of God, and good will towards men.” (Christian Science versus Pantheism, by Mary Baker Eddy,
p. 14)

“[Love] prepareth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” (S&H, p. 578)


“‘Thou anointest my head with oil’ is not an image which means much to us; but in the ancient Near East it was a means of refreshment to weary travelers, and healing oils were sometimes rubbed into the fleece of sheep. An old version translates, ‘Thou hast my head with balm refreshed,’ and this gives the idea intended. The point to emphasize is that the shepherd of the soul goes the ‘second mile’ in giving all that is required for renewing power and providing comfort.” (IB, p. 128)

“In the terminology of the sheepman, ‘summer time is fly time.’ By this, reference is made to the hordes of insects that emerge with the advent of warm weather. . . . Sheep are especially troubled by the nose fly. . . . For relief from this agonizing annoyance, sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush. . . In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself. . . . At the very first sign of flies among the flock, he will apply an antidote to their heads. . . What an incredible transformation this would make. Once the oil had been applied to the sheep’s head, there was an immediate change in behavior. The sheep would start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment. . . . But summertime for the sheep is . . . also ‘scab-time.’ Scab is an irritating and highly contagious disease common among sheep the world over. . . .The only effective antidote is to apply linseed oil, sulphur and other chemicals that can control this disease. . . . In Palestine the old remedy for this disease was olive oil mixed with sulphur and spices.” (Keller)

“OIL. Consecration; charity; gentleness; prayer; heavenly inspiration.” (S&H, p. 592)

“[Love] anointeth my head with oil;” (S&H, p. 578)


“Summer moves into autumn. . . . Soon the flocks will be driven from the alplands and tablelands. They will turn again toward the home ranch for the long, quiet winter season. . . . The sheep have respite now from flies, insects, and scab. No other season finds them so fit and well and strong. No wonder David wrote, ‘My cup runneth over.'” (Keller)

“The divine host has exceeded the bare requirements of hospitality. The meal assumes the proportions of a feast at which sweet-smelling unguents are poured on the head of the guest, and there is no lack of good things. ‘My cup overflows: Lit. ‘my cup is saturation.’ The psalmist has had enemies, but their plans against him have been frustrated because the Lord, in effect, has said, ‘this man is my friend.'” (IB, p. 130)

“An example of the ‘cup’ which ran over is the Well of the Star on the north outskirts of Bethlehem. It is a stone trough — a round section of Pilate’s stone conduit, in this instance–placed inside the well from which the shepherd dipped water to fill the ‘cup.’ (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 674)

“Millions of unprejudiced minds — simple seekers for Truth, weary wanderers, athirst in the desert — are waiting and watching for rest and drink. Give them a cup of cold water in Christ’s name, and never fear the consequences.” (S&H, p. 570)


[Note:  According to Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary, the Hebrew word which is here translated as “goodness and mercy” is usually translated elsewhere as “steadfast love.” The
Interpreter’s Bible, a Commentary in Twelve Volumes
, states that this verse “suggests continued pilgrimage and shepherding.”]

“The past is a prophecy of the future: ‘Only goodness and kindness will pursue me.’ If he looks behind him, fearing lest enemies be upon him, he will see only these twin angels of God tracking him down.” (IB, p. 130)

“‘Surely’ in vs. 6 is a high religious word. Connect it with the Pauline phrase, ‘I am persuaded’
(Rom. 8:38). . . The writer has found that the guide leads wisely and leads well; wherefore he has confidence in the future. He is persuaded to stake his life on the goodness and mercy of the shepherd.”
(IB, p. 130)

“All the benefits enjoyed by a flock under skilled and loving management have been drawn in bold lines. Now all of this is summed up here by the Psalmist in one brave but simple statement: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.’! . . . It is worth reiterating at this point that sheep can, under mismanagement, be the most destructive livestock . . . they can ruin and ravage land almost beyond remedy. But in bold contrast they can, on the other hand, be the most beneficial of all livestock. . . . Their manure is the best balanced of any produced by domestic stock. When scattered efficiently over the pastures it proves of enormous benefit to the soil. The sheep’s habit of seeking the highest rise of ground on which to rest insures that the fertility from the rich low land is re-deposited on the less productive higher ground. No other livestock will consume as wide a variety of herbage. Sheep eat all sorts of weeds and other undesirable plants which might otherwise invade a field. In a few years a flock of well-managed sheep will clean up and restore a piece of ravaged land as no other creature can do. . . . In ancient literature sheep were referred to as ‘those of the golden hooves’– simply because they were regarded and esteemed so highly for their beneficial effect on the land. In my own experience as a sheep rancher I have, in just a few years, seen two derelict ranches restored to high productivity and usefulness. More than this, what appeared as depressing eyesores became beautiful, park-like properties of immense worth. . . . In other words, goodness and mercy had followed my flocks. They left behind them something worthwhile, productive, beautiful and beneficial to both themselves, others, and me.” (Keller)

“Should we comment too that there is nowhere any mention of the shepherd’s dogs? In our day they do a great deal of the shepherding of wandering sheep. Their skill is uncanny and has become proverbial; but only a countryman knows how high is their sense of honor. A sheep dog will finish a day exhausted almost to collapse, his feet wounded and sometimes bleeding, but not a single sheep will have been lost; all are enfolded. On that fact a poetic preacher of an older time fastened. He spoke in the vernacular, which added both force and tenderness to his words. ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ he cried, ‘aye, and more than that, he has twa fine collie dogs, Goodness and Mercy. With him before and them behind, even poor sinners like you and me can hope to win home at last.”
(IB, p. 130)

“Let unselfishness, goodness, mercy, justice, health, holiness, love — the kingdom of heaven — reign within us, and sin, disease, and death will diminish until they finally disappear.” (S&H, p. 248)


“The ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord’ reflects the return to the village after the summer grazing period, when families prepare to go up to the House of God, in mended gar-ments and new-made shoes to thank Him for His ‘goodness and loving kindness’ and to entreat Him to let these blessings follow the family forever.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 674)

“His highest delight will be to continue as a guest in the house of his divine host. The picture of the tent melts into that of the temple. ‘For ever: Lit., ‘for length of days,’ i.e. ‘as long as I live.'” (IB 130)

“The reference to ‘the house of the Lord’ in v.6 may be a continuation of the figure of the host, and need not indicate a date after the building of the Temple.”  (Dummelow’s One Volume Bible Commentary, pg. 338)

“The word ‘house’ used here in the poem has a wider meaning that most people attach to it. Normally we speak of the house of the Lord as the sanctuary, church or meeting place of God’s people. In one sense David may have had this mind. And, of course, it is pleasant to think that one would always delight to be found in the Lord’s house. But actually, what is referred to by ‘house’ is the family or household or flock of the good shepherd. The sheep is so deeply satisfied with the flock to which it belongs, with the ownership of this particular shepherd, that it has no wish whatsoever to change. . . There is one other beautiful and final sense in which the psalmist was speaking as a sheep. It is found in the Amplified Old Testament, where the meaning of this last phrase is, ‘I will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever.’ . . . In our Christian lives and experience, the same idea and principle applies. For when all is said and done on the subject of a successful Christian walk, it can be summed up in one sentence: ‘Live ever aware of God’s presence.'” (Keller)

“The understanding, even in a degree, of the divine All-power destroys fear, and plants the feet in the true path, — the path which leads to the house built without hands ‘eternal in the heavens.'” (S&H, p. 454)

“The real house in which ‘we live, and move, and have our being’ is Spirit, God, the eternal harmony of infinite Soul. The enemy we confront would overthrow this sublime fortress, and it behooves us to defend our heritage.” (Pulpit and Press, p. 2)

“The letter of your work dies, as do all things material, but the spirit of it is immortal. Remember that a temple but foreshadows the idea of God, the ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,’ while a silent, grand man or woman, healing sickness and destroying sin, builds that which reaches heaven. Only those men and women gain greatness who gain themselves in a complete subordination of self.” (First Church of Christ, Scientist and Miscellany, p. 194)

“And I will dwell in the house [the consciousness] of [Love] for ever.” (S&H, p. 578)

* * *

One of the most beloved hymns from the Christian Science Hymnal is based upon a poem by Mary Baker Eddy, entitled “Feed My Sheep.” This poem explores the concept from the 23rd Psalm that God is our Shepherd. Little children love to sing it, and many have found healing or guidance through its comforting message:


Shepherd, show me how to go
O’er the hillside steep,
How to gather, how to sow, —
How to feed Thy sheep;
I will listen for Thy voice,
Lest my footsteps stray;
I will follow and rejoice
All the rugged way.

Thou wilt bind the stubborn will,
Wound the callous breast,
Make self-righteousness be still,
Break earth’s stupid rest.
Strangers on a barren shore,
Lab’ring long and lone,
We would enter by the door,
And Thou know’st Thine own;

So, when day grows dark and cold,
Tear or triumph harms,
Lead Thy lambkins to the fold,
Take them in Thine arms;
Feed the hungry, heal the heart,
Till the morning’s beam;
White as wool, ere they depart,
Shepherd, wash them clean.



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