Introduction to the Psalms. Psalm 23. Lesson 1.

Key Notes: A method for analyzing Hebrew poetry. David is a sheep.

Poetry is a stylized, compact, imaginative and emotional literature. It has many different forms: the epic, ode, elegy, the sonnet, the limerick, blank verse, and Haiku. Each is a different mode of expression. Hebrew poetry is widely used for prophecy, proverbs, love-songs and praise to God. It is inspired of God and has blessed the world for more than 3000 years. Many of the Psalms (seventy or more) were written by David, Israel's great king, an instrument-maker and poet. Others are ascribed to Temple musicians.

Hebrew poetry, in contrast to English, has a rhythm of ideas, instead of a beat (meter) or matching vowel sounds at the end of the line. The rhythm is usually in pairs of phrases or sentences, but occasionally in triplets. The second member of the pair of phrases may be a duplication of the first, but may complement, amplify, or occasionally contrast with it. We will try to learn the method by the use of symbols to show the progression of thought. The method will be used on five consecutive lessons and will illustrate concepts and themes.

A code for a rhythm of ideas:
        =  synonymous ideas
     (=) synonymous ideas with verbal repetition
        >> focusing, intensification of thought
       → ⇒ a consequential idea, an outcome
       {  } complementing ideas
This method comes from "The Art of Biblical Poetry"  by Robert Alter, (Basic Books,’85; p.30–32) and the code is spelled out there in more detail.

Psa. 23:1  " The LORD is my shepherd, → I shall not want".
Not wanting is a consequence of the Lord's shepherding. Note that David calls God "Shepherd" rather than "Father". A father denotes your identity and heritage, but his care may be temporary. A shepherd is with sheep all their life. David emphasizes God's life-long care.

Psa. 23:2–3   "He makes me lie down in green pastures; = He leads me beside still waters; >> He restores my soul."
This is our first triplet. Green pastures and still waters imply feeding and drinking; they are equivalent or complementary activities. But a restored soul implies much more. It suggests a soul that has gone astray or has been damaged and has been brought back to strength and into the fold. Ancient commentators thought it meant salvation. It surely means more than a nap after a hearty meal or the good feeling we have from being outdoors.

Psa.23:3 "He leads me in righteous paths ⇒ for His name’s sake."
The second phrase introduces a new idea. It is God's intent that we be righteous, not for our sake, although we know it is the only way to spiritual wholeness, but that He may be glorified in us.
"...that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven." Matt.5:16

Psa. 23:4   "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,  I fear no evil; >> for You are with me;"
We note that when the topic turns to danger, David turns from the third person and addresses God directly;  "He" becomes "You". The valley of the shadow of death may mean dying, or depression (feeling like dying) or sickness (the threat of dying), or even the accidents of everyday life that put us at risk of dying. David experienced depression, sickness, conspiracies and death-threats. He speaks of them in the Psalms. All threats are to be faced without fear because the Lord is always there. Jesus said "He who believes in me will ever die" (Jn.11:26)  because He will never be separated from the believer.

Pra.23:4 "Your rod and your staff  ⇒ they comfort me."
The staff is to move the sheep around; the rod is to punish the wolf, not the sheep. Both are comforts.

Psa. 23:5   "You prepare a table before me → ⇒ in the presence of  my enemies;"
It is hard to know what David meant here. He was able to sit at table with Saul, knowing that God was his protector. Saul had a bad aim and his spear missed David at least three times. He could even sing to Saul and sooth his tormented spirit. Surely his confidence would be a sign to Saul of David's eventual victory.
 "...stand firm in one spirit with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God." Phil.1:27–28

The idea that God would prepare a table for us is surprising, but it is supported in Lk.12:37.

Psa.23:5 "You anoint my head with oil;  =  my cup overflows."
The table, the oil and cup plus the presence of enemies all suggest a victory celebration in God's presence.

Psa. 23:6   "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, >>  and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever."
All three phases of existence are covered by God's presence: the present life; death; and eternity with God. The poem begins with "The Lord" and ends with "forever".

The writer of this poem was a "man after God's own heart" (Acts13:22). He wrote 73 psalms that have been recorded, beloved and sung for 3000 years. He designed the structure (IChron.28:11-) of the first Temple under God's direction. He made abundant preparations for the Temple to be built by his son Solomon (IIChron.22), including a stock-pile of the materials. He was a king who unified his country. (IISam.5:12), a military leader who subjugated Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Syrians, Edomites, and was victorious wherever he went. (IISam.8:14). He was a musician who played the harp, and made musical instruments. (IChron.23:5). He brought religious musical expression to a high level. (IIChron.25). Whatever he did pleased the people (IISam.3:36). Yet this polymath, a genius in warfare, poetry and music, construction and politics, says he is a sheep.

In this Psalm he is completely passive:
            •a sheep led to pasture and water.
            •a soul that needs to be restored.
            •a wanderer who will be given moral guidance.
            •a fearful one who could approach death with confidence in God.
            •a guest at a table prepared for him.
            •a believer awarded lifelong goodness and mercy.
            •a resident with God in Heaven forever.

All this was given purely on the basis of grace. He owed all his success to God. No qualifications for the job of sheep are needed and no questions are asked. Jesus said " ...apart from me you can do nothing." Jn.15:5

"The Lord is my shepherd" is our  primary requirement for spiritual success.

A detailed description of shepherding combined with spiritual insights from a professional herdsman is in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. W.P Keller. Zondervan, 2007.