‘The Lord is My Shepherd‘ is the name commonly used to refer to ‘Psalm 23‘ in the Book of Psalms and contains some of the most iconic descriptions of the Judeo-Christian God. It appears in both the Tanakh and the Old Testament and is regularly used in Jewish and Christian liturgies, often set to music.
The text presents God as a protective, guiding figure by describing him as a shepherd, with mankind as his flock. The lines are imbued with rich imagery, engaging with the themes of evil, faith, and the promise of eternal life.
Psalm 23: The Lord is my Shepherd Book of PsalmsThe 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.
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‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ depicts God as a shepherd, leading his flock through dangerous lands and rewarding his followers with divine sustenance and the gift of everlasting life.
The text outlines a literal and spiritual journey undertaken by the narrator who is a member of the Lord’s flock. This journey takes them through idyllic fields and along still waters but also through threatening locations, including the ominous “valley of the shadow of death.” This acts as a reminder that God supports and guides those who believe in him through bad times as well as good. Having successfully accompanied God on this journey, the narrator is rewarded with food and blessings, as well as the promise that they will live a good life and reach Heaven after they die.
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.
The poem opens with a metaphor that establishes the relationship between God and the narrator as one of guidance and protection. By presenting the Lord as a shepherd, the narrator suggests that God possesses the same qualities associated with one. These qualities include patience, bravery, and tirelessness that is emblematic of God’s omnipresence in religious doctrine; God is always watching his followers, just as a good shepherd is constantly watching his flock.
The narrator clearly accepts this relationship without challenge and does not resent his place as God’s follower. He is happy to be guided by his God, as demonstrated by the verb “leadeth” which emphasizes his trust in God’s judgment. Finally, the symbolism of the setting is crucial and the idyllic “green pastures” and “still waters” provide a backdrop against which the poem’s setting will change. This is perhaps a challenge to the reader, forcing them to question whether they are following the Lord because they have faith in him or simply because life is easy.
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.
The subsequent lines continue to use the regenerative symbolism evoked by the “green pastures” in line two, principally through the use of the verb “restoreth.” These lines deviate from the relative realism of the poem’s opening, particularly the setting which grows increasingly abstract and metaphorical. Line four features one of scripture’s most identifiable extracts whereby God appears to guide the narrator along the periphery of Hell itself. This is noteworthy as the reader learns that, in spite of the terrifying nature of the journey, the narrator is still not afraid because they know God will protect them. By juxtaposing the diabolical setting with the idyllic opening, the writer suggests that faith must remain unwavering regardless of one’s external reality. This is a very similar message to that offered by the biblical story of Job, the tested man.
Finally, it is interesting that the narrator specifies that they are in the “shadow” of death, given the fact shadows are without solid form and are impermanent. This could imply the fear of death is comparable to the fear of the dark, which is ultimately powerless when one faces up to it. When one follows the Lord, death needs no longer frighten them as he will grant them access to Heaven.
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.
The final lines appear initially to simply suggest that the journey has ended and that the narrator is rewarded for his faith. Whilst this is accurate, there are several underlying details of note; the preparation of the table could initially have suggested that the lamb was to be sacrificed, which strongly recalls the story of Abraham, who is called upon by God to sacrifice his son, only to be stopped at the last moment. That story was intended to showcase God’s mercy as well as Abraham’s unwavering faith. This poem takes on additional significance when one considers that the narrator followed God all that way when he might have been heading for death.
Likewise, it is significant that the journey ends amidst the enemies of the Lord, implying perhaps that they are still near the hellish valley mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the reference to “the house of the Lord” clearly suggests that the narrator will reach Heaven or may already be there. By conflating Heaven and Hell in this way, the writer emphasizes the fact that God’s powers are limitless and not even Hell is beyond his reach, foreshadowing Christ’s harrowing of Hell in the New Testament.
There is little consensus regarding the exact origin of the psalm but it is usually attributed to King David of Israel and Judah, who is said to have lived around 1000 BCE. David grew up as a shepherd and is most famous for slaying the giant Goliath, as depicted in the Book of Samuel. Upon becoming king, David tussled with his faith, notably when he failed a test from God after committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers.
The psalms reflect his tumultuous relationship with God insofar as they offer challenges to the divine and, at times, question God for not answering his prayers. Others, like ‘Psalm 23‘, highlight God’s love by drawing upon examples of suffering to showcase how God’s guidance is unwavering. In spite of David’s unsettled relationship with God, he is revered in the Bible as a descendant of Jesus Christ, who is often referred to as being of the House of David.
Authorship is commonly attributed to King David who, according to some sources, may have been a shepherd himself as a young man. It is the same David who defeated Goliath in the Bible before he became king. Ultimately, it cannot be said for sure who wrote the text originally, let alone identify all those who played a part in its translation and evolution through the centuries.
The text is crucial as it is commonly used in liturgies for both Christian and Jewish services. However, its importance transcends religious practice itself, as it provides some of the most common means of defining the relationship between humans and the divine, even in secular societies.
The text is commonly used at funerals as it evokes both the pleasurable and challenging aspects of life and affirms the fact that both were necessary as they helped prepare the person for Heaven. It is also comforting for loved ones to think that, while their friend or relative is gone, their spirit is being celebrated by God.
There is no right or wrong way to read the text, especially given its many variations. However, in religious practice, the text is often put to music and sung. If, as purported, it was written by David then the musical connection is even stronger due to David’s love of music in scripture. Music fans might know that the ‘secret chord’ in Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a reference to David and his love of music.
The rod refers to a tool used by shepherds to guide their flocks and correct them if they stray from their course. It represents the authority of God in the passage.
The overflowing cup at the culmination of the text represents the plentiful world that awaits those who are faithful to God. It also harks back to the poem’s opening line, which stipulates that the narrator “shall not want” as he knows that, any deficiencies on Earth will be rectified once he reaches Heaven.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Psalm 23‘ might be interested in reading similar poetry, for example:
- ‘Psalm 84‘ – Another psalm in which the location is significant, as the speaker attempts to define the place where God resides, whether literally or figuratively.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Thou Whose Spell Can Raise the Dead‘ by Lord Byron – The poem describes the fate of King Saul, David’s predecessor, and his sons.
- ‘Ecclesiastes Chapter 1‘ – This extract is taken from the Christian Old Testament and tells the story of David’s son, King Solomon, and his journey to attaining wisdom.