An Exegetical Commentary on the 23rd Psalm

Discover the depth and richness of Psalm 23 through this comprehensive exegetical commentary. Explore the profound implications of God as our Shepherd, and find comfort, guidance, and hope in His unwavering care.


Justin Hoke

4/5/20247 min read

a man holding a lamb in a field
a man holding a lamb in a field

Ps. 23:1

יְהוָה רֹעִי, לֹא אֶחְסָר

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

The opening verse of Psalm 23 establishes the central metaphor of the psalm: the LORD as the shepherd and the psalmist as a sheep under His care. By describing Yahweh as "my shepherd," the psalmist expresses a personal, intimate relationship with God and emphasizes his complete trust and dependence upon the Shepherd's provision, protection, and guidance.

The declaration "I shall not want" flows naturally from the first statement. Because the LORD is the psalmist's shepherd, he is confident that all his needs will be met. This does not necessarily imply a life of material abundance but rather a sufficiency in God's provision and a contentment in His care.

Christologically, this verse anticipates Jesus' declaration, "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11, 14). As the Good Shepherd, Jesus provides for the needs of His flock, both materially and spiritually, and ultimately lays down His life for the sheep.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 26, echoes the theme of God's shepherding care: "How doth Christ execute the office of a king? Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies."

In summary, Psalm 23:1 introduces the central theme of the psalm: the LORD as the faithful Shepherd who provides for and cares for His sheep. This verse sets the tone of trust, contentment, and reliance upon God's goodness and anticipates Christ's role as the Good Shepherd who meets the deepest needs of His people.

Ps. 23:2

בִּנְאוֹת דֶּשֶׁא יַרְבִּיצֵנִי עַל־מֵי מְנֻחוֹת יְנַהֲלֵנִי׃

He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.

The Shepherd provides rest and nourishment for His sheep. The "green pastures" (literally "pastures of new grass") symbolize rich, lush feeding grounds that satisfy the sheep's hunger. The Shepherd's care ensures the sheep can "lie down" in peace, without fear or anxiety.

The "quiet waters" (literally "waters of rest") depict a place of refreshment, tranquility, and restoration. The Shepherd leads His sheep to these peaceful waters, providing for their thirst and cleansing.

In the broader context of Psalm 23, this verse contributes to the portrait of Yahweh as the perfect Shepherd who attends to all the needs of His sheep. The Christological implications are clear, as Jesus declared Himself to be "the good shepherd" who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11, 14).

The Westminster Confession of Faith echoes this understanding of God's providential care in Chapter 5, Section 1: "God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things... to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy."

In summary, Psalm 23:2 portrays the LORD as the Shepherd who provides abundantly for the physical and spiritual needs of His flock, granting them rest, nourishment, and refreshment. This points forward to the perfect care Christ gives to His followers.

Ps. 23:3

נַפְשִׁי יְשׁוֹבֵב יַנְחֵנִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶדֶק לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ׃

He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake.

The Shepherd not only provides for the physical needs of His sheep but also attends to their spiritual well-being. "He restores my soul" suggests that the Shepherd revives, refreshes, and brings back the vitality of the sheep's inner being. This restoration may involve forgiveness, healing, and renewal.

Furthermore, the Shepherd guides His sheep "in the paths of righteousness." These paths represent the right way of living according to God's moral standards. The Shepherd leads His flock in the way of integrity, justice, and obedience to God's commands.

The motivation behind the Shepherd's restorative work and righteous guidance is "for His name's sake." In other words, God's own character, reputation, and glory are the basis for His shepherding care. By leading His sheep in righteousness, God demonstrates His holiness, faithfulness, and covenant love.

In the New Testament, Jesus affirms His role as the restorer of souls, stating, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). He also declares, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), emphasizing His guidance in the paths of righteousness.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 18, Section 1, speaks of the assurance of grace and salvation, which aligns with the restorative work of the Shepherd: "Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God, and estate of salvation... yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus... may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace."

In summary, Psalm 23:3 highlights the Shepherd's role in restoring the soul and guiding in righteousness, all for the sake of His own name and glory. This verse anticipates the work of Christ in bringing spiritual restoration and leading His followers in the way of truth and life.

Ps. 23:4

גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת לֹא־אִירָא רָע כִּי־אַתָּה עִמָּדִי שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי׃

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

The psalmist acknowledges that even in the darkest and most threatening circumstances, symbolized by "the valley of the shadow of death," he does not fear because of the Shepherd's presence. The phrase "shadow of death" suggests the perils, fears, and unknowns associated with death and deep darkness.

Despite these dangers, the psalmist declares, "I fear no evil." This confidence stems from the assurance of the Shepherd's presence, as emphasized by the phrase "for You are with me." The personal and intimate presence of the Shepherd dispels fear and brings comfort.

The Shepherd's "rod" and "staff" are mentioned as instruments of protection, guidance, and discipline. The rod was used to defend the sheep against predators, while the staff was used to guide and direct the flock. These tools symbolize the Shepherd's watchful care, authority, and ability to provide both protection and correction.

Christologically, this verse foreshadows Jesus' words in Matthew 28:20, "I am with you always, to the end of the age." It also echoes His promise in John 16:33, "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." Christ's presence and victory give believers the courage to face trials and even death without fear.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 17, Section 1, speaks of the perseverance of the saints, which is grounded in the presence and power of the Good Shepherd: "They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved."

In summary, Psalm 23:4 affirms that even in the darkest valleys of life, the sheep need not fear because of the comforting presence, protection, and guidance of the Shepherd. This anticipates the work of Christ, who is always present with His people, giving them victory over fear and death.

Ps. 23:5

תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה׃

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.

The Shepherd's care extends beyond providing for basic needs and protection; He also prepares a lavish feast for His sheep, even in the presence of their enemies. The prepared table symbolizes abundance, hospitality, and a celebration of God's goodness.

The phrase "in the presence of my enemies" highlights the Shepherd's ability to provide and protect His sheep despite the threats and opposition they face. It emphasizes the Shepherd's power and the security the sheep find in His care.

The anointing of the head with oil was a sign of honor, blessing, and refreshment in ancient Near Eastern culture. Here, it symbolizes the Shepherd's abundant provision and the honor He bestows upon His sheep. The overflowing cup further emphasizes the extravagant nature of the Shepherd's blessings, which exceed the sheep's needs and expectations.

In the New Testament, this imagery is echoed in Jesus' parables of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), which illustrate God's lavish grace and the celebration of His redemptive work. Additionally, the anointing of the head points to the Holy Spirit's anointing of believers (1 John 2:20, 27).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 16, Section 6, speaks of the believer's assurance of God's love and the joy that flows from it: "...infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit... to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure."

In summary, Psalm 23:5 portrays the Shepherd's generous provision and the honor He bestows upon His sheep, even amid adversity. This foreshadows the abundant spiritual blessings believers receive through Christ and the joy of fellowship with Him, both now and in the ultimate messianic banquet.

Ps. 23:6

אַךְ טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְּפוּנִי כָּל־יְמֵי חַיָּי וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית־יְהוָה לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים׃

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The final verse of Psalm 23 expresses the psalmist's confidence in the Shepherd's ongoing care and the hope of dwelling in His presence forever. The psalmist is assured that "goodness and lovingkindness" (or "mercy") will continually pursue him throughout his life. This speaks of God's relentless, covenant love and His unfailing commitment to bless and care for His sheep.

The phrase "all the days of my life" emphasizes the lifelong nature of the Shepherd's care. It is not temporary or conditional but extends throughout the psalmist's entire earthly existence.

The verse concludes with the powerful statement, "And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." This expresses the psalmist's deep longing and confident hope to abide in God's presence continually, both in this life and for all eternity. The "house of the LORD" represents not only the tabernacle or temple but also the very presence of God Himself.

Christologically, this verse anticipates the believer's eternal fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. Jesus declared, "In my Father's house are many rooms... I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). The apostle Paul affirms that believers will "always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 33, Section 1, speaks of the eternal state of the righteous: "The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies."

In summary, Psalm 23:6 expresses the assurance of God's eternal goodness and love and the hope of dwelling in His presence forever. This anticipates the believer's eternal fellowship with God through Christ, which is the ultimate fulfillment of the Good Shepherd's care for His sheep.

For Further Study
A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller

Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar by Page Kelley

Handbook to Biblical Hebrew by Page Kelley