The Basic Pictures of God in Psalm 23

What makes this psalm one of the most beloved passages of scripture?

Radisa Antic, PhD, is director of the Ellen G. White Research Center and principal lecturer in systematic theology and philosophy at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, United Kingdom

Psalm 231has gained immor­tality by virtue of the trust and confidence expressed by its author in God—the Lord of history and consequently of human life, who, through His provi­dence, leads the flow of history to a future climax.2 The sweet charm and religious feelings expressed in Psalm 23 speak about a heart that has passed through many bitter experiences and battles as well as the perfect peace of mind that comes from a childlike trust in God.3 As is the case in many other instances in the Old Testament, the personal experiences of the author of Psalm 23 may be seen as collective: the local becomes universal.

What makes this psalm one of the most successful texts in human history is not only its pres­ent importance for the spiritual life of a believer, but the possibility of understanding its meaning escha­tologically. The author uses Exodus terminology4—the redemption from Egypt—in order to point to the final, eschatological exodus of those “ ‘living in the land of the shadow of death’ ” (Matt. 4:16).5 Psalm 23 also talks about the spiritual transformation of the believer who is ready to walk on a daily basis with God, and who eagerly looks forward toward the day when the Lord of history will come and will dwell with His people.

Several suggestions have been made concerning the structure of Psalm 23.6 Some have suggested that the two basic pictures feature God as the Shepherd and God as the Host, while others have suggested a tripartite division: the Shepherd, the Wanderer, and the Host.7 However, a structure utilizing four basic images seems closest to the reality of the text: the Shepherd, the Comforter, the Host, and the Father of the house.8 This structure expresses a movement: from the advancement of the intimate relationship between believers and their God to the final culmination when “ ‘God himself will be with them and be their God’ ” (Rev. 21:3).

God the Shepherd

The metaphor of God the Shepherd (Ps. 23:1–4) is pregnant with mean­ing illustrating the character of the relationship between the psalmist and his God: God provides and protects. This metaphor is often used in the Old Testament to describe Yahweh as the “Shepherd of Israel” (Ps. 80:1). To understand the concept of God the Shepherd, we must remember that some of the main characters in the Bible were shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others. Jesus Himself said, “ ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me’ ” (John 10:14). However, for the right comprehen­sion of “Shepherd” in Psalm 23, we need to recognize the importance of understanding what kind of shepherd David, the psalmist, was. See how he described to King Saul his attachment to his flock: “ ‘Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it’ ” (1 Sam. 17:34, 35).

The incidents described here happened in the Judean desert, where no one witnessed David’s bravery and courage. However, David loved his flock with such a passionate love that he was ready to risk his own life in order to save his sheep. And David knew to whom to give the credit; hence, “The LORD is my Shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). Jacques Doukhan writes, “Here the love is authentic or it does not exist.”9

David’s “Shepherd” is the most caring and wonderful Being in the universe. God, for him, exists not as a Platonic “timeless” God who, by the virtue of His nature, is not able to interfere in the events of human history; nor is He the deistic God of Voltaire, uninterested in the affairs of human beings. David’s God loves His children fervently and almost fanatically. His love is the very foundation of the moral structure of the universe. His love remains beyond human understanding and is the true source of all the virtues that give meaning and beauty to human existence. He shapes the general process of history and is involved in particular events as well as in the lives of human beings.

David also uses the metaphor of the Shepherd to remind Israel of God’s act of liberation from Egyptian bondage and His care for them dur­ing the long journey in the wilderness when God protected them as the Shepherd.10 God’s acts of salvation in the past, in turn, form the foundation for the eschatological salvation in the future when God—one more time, the last time—will liberate His children from the wilderness of suffering and death.

David continues that if such a magnificent and amazing Being is our Shepherd, we “shall not be in want.” Koehler, in his translation, empha­sizes this consequential relationship between verse 1a and 1b in the following way: “ ‘So long as the Lord is my shepherd, I suffer no lack.’ ”11

Verses 2 and 3 put the emphasis on the Exodus theme again, on God’s nurture and support for His people during their journey in the desert. Because of God’s goodness, the wilderness experience is seen as an account where there were no shortages:12 “You have not lacked anything” (Deut. 2:7). The pastures are green, the waters are still (or “waters of rest”), and the paths are without dangers.13 It seems, in the metaphorical sense, that some special diet—the Creator’s diet­ is suggested here, implying that human beings have been created with some specific sets of laws in mind. The emphasis is not primarily on the physical food we eat but on those realities in life that have a strong influence on our mind and spirit. God’s diet and the restoration of our souls are put in direct connection. As God’s creations, we are not allowed to feed our minds with the food that is not on God’s menu, such as hatred, selfishness, pride, or self-sufficiency. Moreover, we are created to walk in the “paths of righ­teousness” (tsedeq) or “just paths”14 or “paths that lead to happiness.”15 Our feet are comfortable only on the path that God has designed for human beings, and that path is the Jesus way. Every other boulevard of human existence means not only estrangement from God but also from our God-intended nature.

The wisdom of meaningful human existence is clearly and unmistakably expressed here in a cause-and-effect manner. If we are going to the green pastures, drink from the still waters,16 and walk in the paths of righteousness (or “paths which lead to deliverance, welfare and blessedness”),17 then and only then will He restore our soul (or “he will bring our vitality,” “he will calm our soul”).18

Thus, verses 1–3 portray the first picture of God, that is, God the Shepherd who leads His people and walks beside them; a Being who lives there all the time for them; One who risks everything in order to save them because He loves them pas­sionately and fervently. Since He has already demonstrated His love for His people in the event of the Exodus from Egypt, His people can have confidence and trust in Him that He will deliver them in the future.

God the Comforter

However, the pastures are not always green, the waters are not always still, and the paths are not always peaceful. Sometimes human beings have to go through “the valley of the shadow of death” (tsalmuth) as they experience the touch of suffering, loss, and death; life appears meaning­less (v. 4). This kind of experience has led many to dismiss God from their existences and reject His involvement in the events of history. But the psalm­ist dares to claim, on the basis of his own experiences with God, that when humans are passing through the valley of darkness, God the Comforter comes even closer to them.

Verses 1–3 are written in the third person singular: “He makes me lie down . . . , he leads me . . . , he restores my soul. He guides me.” Suddenly, in verse 4 He becomes You: “You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” A profound theological proclamation is found in this change of He to You, saying that while the pastures were green, the waters still, and the paths peaceful, God was in front, behind, and above His people.19 But now, when a human being passes through the valley of tsalmuth, God the Comforter comes so close that He almost touches the human, He consoles (nacham). This proximity of God, the touch of His rod at the moment of total despair, means everything to a mortal person.

Nacham is probably the key word in Psalm 23, carrying within itself the message of hope, meaning, and the future. Nacham speaks about the special, deep relationship and friend­ship between God and humans that continues to emerge out of darkness and hopelessness. It may also be an allusion to God’s protection during the Exodus wanderings in the desert, described in the book of Jeremiah as “ ‘ “a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives” ’ ” (Jer. 2:6).

In some forms of idealistic Hegelian philosophy, evil is seen as an illusion or as necessary to the perfection of the whole.20 When one stands and looks at a painting, according to this view, one realizes that the dark colors are necessary to the perfection of the whole. Contrary to this view of evil, Psalm 23 acknowledges the tragic reality in which humans find themselves but also shouts about the present remedy and future solution. The believers can already now count on the presence of the Almighty God when they are passing through the valley of tsalmuth, and they also know that evil comes as an intruder into the reality of the universe. The day is coming when, as the next verse tells us, only happiness and joy will fill the vast cosmic space.

God the Host

Verse 5 introduces one of the most delightful and enjoyable scenes in the entire Bible. God the Shepherd and God the Comforter become God the Host. Beyond the present reality of God’s care and provision, is it not safe to conclude that this verse, in keeping with the teaching of the rest of the Scripture, looks forward to the eschatological “ ‘ “wedding supper of the Lamb” ’ ” (Rev. 19:9)?

After the green-pasture experi­ence and after having been touched by God in the valley of death, God has yet another surprise for those who have made the decision to walk in the paths of righteousness. He organizes a big banquet, invites all His friends, and He Himself serves them. The description of this ban­quet is so imaginative and brilliant that one has the impression of being present and smelling the heavenly flavors and tasting the cosmic drinks. The oil represents a perfume, the symbol of rejoicing;21 and when God serves, there is abundance of everything: the “cup overflows.”

All of this happens “in the pres­ence of . . . enemies.” This sentence belongs to the diplomatic language of that time, as has been found in the library of Tell el-Amarna. “A petty ruler of the fourteenth century B.C. addressed the following request to the Pharaoh: ‘May he give gifts to his servants while our enemies look on.’ ”22 In the context of Psalm 23, it means that at last, at the end of time after having been led by God to the still waters and after having been touched by Him in the valley of death, God and His people are sitting together at the same table, looking in each other’s eyes and enjoying each other’s company. All their enemies, such as suffering, pain, hatred, concentration camps, gas chambers, tortures, death, and, most of all, sin and Satan, are crushed and trampled. So, the presence of defeated enemies points to the hap­piness that will be so great that the human heart will at last be in perfect peace and joy.

As noted above, the language of the Exodus and wilderness per­meates the whole of Psalm 23, and here, in verses 5 and 6, the liberation comes to its climax.23 God the Shepherd liberated His people from Egyptian slavery, God the Comforter cared for them in the “ ‘ “land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives” ’ ” (Jer. 2:6), and now, at the end of time, He engages in the act of eschatological exodus. This climaxes as the final, universal act of liberation of His people. In New Testament terminology, the Exodus points to the second coming of Jesus, the time of immeasurable and infinite bliss.

The signs of the times show that history is rapidly heading for its end. The moral chaos, nuclear dilemma, change of climate, political mistrust of nations everywhere, and disasters of every kind point to an end of life and history as we know. Time itself is on its brink. But at such a time as this, the Bible assures us of the proximity of the eschatological exodus, when God the Host will change fundamen­tally, once and forever, the character and nature of human history (Matt. 24). He will restore our soul when we walk in the paths of righteousness, He will comfort us in the valley of death, and, finally, He will defeat all our enemies and organize a big feast in our honor. But is this the end of our friendship with God?

God the Father of the house

If taken literally, verse 6 could express the psalmist’s trust and happiness that He found in the temple or it could be understood as a metaphor of continual communion with God.24 However, if the whole psalm is permeated with Exodus themes, then it has to be understood as an eschatological reality.

After the banquet prepared by God Himself, in order to celebrate the successful arrival at the so­long-desired goal, a fourth picture unfolds before us. God the Host becomes God the Father of the house. “Goodness” and “love” per­sonify here the God who will always be with His children. Revelation pictures this: “ ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ ” (Rev. 21:3, 4).

God and humankind dwell for­ever under the same roof. God, at last, is established as the Father of the house of the universe. Time becomes eternity.

 

Note:

1 This article is adapted from an article previously published in Exploring the Frontiers of Faith: Festschrift in Honour of Dr. Jan Paulsen (Loneburg, Germany: Advent-Verlag, 2010). 

2 Artur Weiser, The Psalms, trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), 227; Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, Word Bible Commentary, vol. 19 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 204.

3 Weiser, The Psalms, 227.

4 Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 205.

5 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the New International Version of the Bible.

6 A. L. Merrill, “Psalm Xxiii and the Jerusalem Tradition,” Vetus Testamentum 15 (July 1965): 355.

7 Ibid. See also Jacques Doukhan, Aux Portes de L’Espérance: Essai Biblique sur les Prophéties de la Fin (Dammarie-lès-Lys, France: Vie et Santé, 1986), 244.

8 Merrill, “Psalm Xxiii,” 355.

9 Doukhan, Aux Portes de L’Espérance, 246.

10 Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 206.

11 L. Koehler, “Psalm 23,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentlich Wissenschaft 68 (1956): 228, 229, quoted in Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 206.

12 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 155.

13 Doukhan, Aux Portes de L’Espérance, 247.

14 Ibid.

15 A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 197.

16 Anderson, The Book of Psalms, 197.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Doukhan, Aux Portes de L’Espérance, 246, 247.

20 Alan Richardson, “The Problem of Evil,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 193.

21 Anderson, The Book of Psalms, 198.

22 El Amarna, 100: 33–35, quoted in Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 1–50, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 147, 148.

23 Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 208.

24 Anderson, The Book of Psalms, 199.

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Radisa Antic, PhD, is director of the Ellen G. White Research Center and principal lecturer in systematic theology and philosophy at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, United Kingdom

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