Some (More) Thoughts on Psalm 23

I. The Identity of the Speaker

We are accustomed to finding comfort in this psalm, as it describes the leading of our Great Shepherd through times of pain and suffering and opposition, and we are right to do so, for that is a major theme of this psalm. Yet, we are greatly missing out if we only see ourselves in this psalm, for we know that while Christ is our Shepherd, as indeed the whole Godhead united is, Christ Himself, while on earth, was the Lamb of God who was led not by the opinions of men, nor of His own devices but by the Father’s leading, who was His Shepherd while He resided among us in His earthly tent. Jesus our Lord is the Lamb without blemish whose every step was guided by the Spirit, who led Him in the paths set out for Him by the Father.[1] Note that while Isaiah uses the figure of the sheep to indicate human inconsistency, ignorance, and failure, as symbolized in the metaphor of the sheep going astray,[2] Psalm 23 uses the metaphor of the sheep in a somewhat different way, giving emphasis not to the frequent wanderings of the sheep but to the sheep’s obedience to his shepherd. The Sheep of Psalm 23 does not want to wander away, for He finds in His Shepherd all that He needs. His life is directed entirely by His Shepherd, from beginning to end.

This Sheep, therefore, is more likened unto Christ than He is to us, for His obedience to the Shepherd is all that we read about here. Moreover, the Sheep’s life is very similar to that of our Lord Jesus, in that He is the beloved Lamb of the Shepherd, He is led only by the Shepherd, He is led into the valley of the shadow of death by the Shepherd, He is comforted by the Shepherd while He walks through the valley, He has a table prepared for Him in the presence of His enemies, and His head is anointed with oil in the presence of His enemies. Similarly, Christ is the beloved Lamb of God[3] who only does what He sees His Father doing,[4] who is led into the wilderness by the Father via the direction of the Spirit,[5] who is led to the cross by the will of the Father,[6] and who, while seated and eating supper with His disciples and Judas, has His head anointed with oil in the presence of His enemy (i.e. Judas).[7]

Christ is the Sheep upon whom the Shepherd’s goodness and mercy have been poured out in abundance,[8] and who dwells in the house of the Lord forevermore as our High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.[9] We see, therefore, that Christ is the Speaker of Psalm 23, although David is, nonetheless, speaking of his own experience as a child of God, and although we can find application for ourselves in David’s words. The Lamb/Sheep is our Beloved Lord Jesus who Was led by the Father from the serene ethereal pastures of the presence of God, through the valley of the shadow of death, and who overcame death by the will of the Shepherd, His Father, who raised Him up from death unto life everlasting, back to the glory which He had with the Father prior to His Incarnation! And it is in this light, i.e. His Light, that we see light!

II. The Sheep of Psalm 23 and the Blessed Man of Psalm 1

How is this Sheep led on by His Shepherd? By His staff and His rod (v.4), God leads His Lamb through the persecution of the wicked, even the valley of the shadow of death, and on to life everlasting. More specifically, the Lord leads His Sheep to (a.)rest in green pastures, (b.)walk by still waters, (d.)and walk in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. What is beautiful here is that the Blessed Man of Psalm 1 has similar behaviors attributed to Himself, while Psalm 23 attributes these behaviors to the Shepherding guidance of the Father. Psalm 1 tells us that the Blessed Man walks not in the counsel of the ungodly; Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord leads His Lamb in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Psalm 1 tells us that the Blessed Man does not stand in the way of sinners; Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord leads His Lamb by still waters. Psalm 1 tells us that the Blessed Man does not sit in the seat of scoffers; Psalm 23 tells us that the Lord makes His Lamb to lie down in green pastures.

We should find comfort in this revealing comparison of Psalms 1 and 23, knowing that what God deems to be a blessing, although we cannot accomplish this in ourselves, He tells us He provides for us. We are the sheep of His pasture, being led by Him through every circumstance of life which He has, in His divine wisdom, determined to be best for us, His sheep, as he determined the course which His Son, the true Lamb of Psalm 23, took. Here “luck” and “chance” and “happenstance” have no solid footing, for all that occurs has been predetermined by our Shepherd who “knows the way of the righteous,” for He leads us in “paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

III. The Trinity in Psalm 23

Some might think that my analysis of Psalm 23 here might be off, and that a more conservative view regarding the doctrine of the Trinity and its appearance in Scripture should be taken (i.e. that it should be limited to the content of the New Testament). I object to this on the grounds that Scripture seems to give us warrant to believe that the Old Testament speaks with a little more clarity than men would have us assume. This clarity seems to reside, in many places, in typology or symbolism that has now, after the advent of our Lord Jesus, become even clearer to us, and seems to be frequently attested to when we compare Scripture with Scripture. Augustine touches on this, I believe, to a greater or lesser degree in his discussion of the appearances of the Trinity in his excellent work, De Trinitate. By underscoring certain textual peculiarities, he makes it plain, I think, that a reading that cannot adequately reckon with certain Trinitarian appearances should be placed in a secondary position to his own. This, I think, is the case in Psalm 23.

Regarding the Psalm’s speaker, we have already noted that it is, and, I believe, must firstly signify Christ who is the Lamb of God without blemish, who was taken from the plush blessings of glory with His Father, through the pangs of death, and back to life eternal to serve before the Father in His eternal House. Thus, we have Two Persons of the Godhead: (i.)the Father who leads (ii.)the Son. This being the case, we must inquire where the text presents the Holy Spirit to us, and how it does so. This is where, I believe, a symbolic intimation may be drawn from the text, particularly in the figure of the still waters, for water is often a symbol for the Spirit of God.[10] The Hebrew word, mayim (lit. waters), is first used in Genesis 1:2, where the Holy Spirit hovers over the face of the mayim. He is the active, energetic power of God acting through Christ, the Word, and bringing order out of what is, presumably, chaotic. The word for still, menûchâh (lit. repose, rest, consolation), brings to mind the comfort that comes by the work of the Holy Spirit, through whom Christ offered Himself for our sins. Hence, it is no surprise that we see in Hebrews 9:13-14 that Christ’s Substitutionary work upon the cross was performed through the Holy Spirit, where we read: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ [our Paschal Lamb], who through the Eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God [as our Substitutionary Lamb], purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” The Father ministered unto His Lamb, led His Lamb, and refreshed Him as well, by means of the work of the Holy Spirit.

This may not be a convincing case for some, I know many who find such a proposed Trinitarian interpretation of Psalm 23 to be absolutely absurd and forced. No matter, I think that the case can be made that the Shepherd in Psalm 23 is the Father, the Lamb is the Son, and the Still Waters are typical of the Holy Spirit. The Godhead operates in unity in all of His activities, although these activities are parceled out among the Holy Three with respect to their unique relational differences.[11]

IV. Christ the Shepherd

This passage of Scripture also presents to us Christ as He is YHWH and our Shepherd, and we are His sheep whom He delights in leading from this world into the next, to the end that we might dwell with Him, serving Him in His House eternally. What is ascertainable from Psalm 23 is that Christ, as our Shepherd, gives us what the New Covenant promises us, viz. (a.)provision for all of our spiritual needs,[12] (b.)rest under His loving Lordship,[13] (c.)rest for our souls,[14] (d.)the absence of fear in the face of trials and tribulations,[15] (f.)everlasting goodness[16], (g.)everlasting mercy,[17] and (h.)eternal residence in the presence of God.[18] Correlating to these blessings poured out upon by our Beloved Shepherd are very many passages in the New Testament, perhaps too many to be mentioned in the main body of this paragraph, which I have, therefore, mentioned in the footnotes.

-h.

[1] Cf. Matt 4:1, Mark 1:12, Luke 4:1, and John 3:34, all testify to this Trinitarian interrelatedness. The Father has sent the Son who is assisted, empowered, and comforted by the Holy Spirit. That the Three Persons of the Godhead are inseparably united in all that they will and all that they do is here set  forth very clearly.

[2] Cf. Isa 53:6, where the metaphor is used negatively to emphasize human rebellion. Interestingly, we see in v.7, however, that the metaphor is used differently as it applies to Christ. Isaiah uses sheep to symbolize our wandering away from the Lord, but uses the sheep metaphor to symbolize Christ’s obedience. Can we draw out this dual sense, then, of the metaphor in every case? I’m not sure, although it would fit with the consistent Biblical presentation of the Lord’s redeemed as being simul iustus et peccator (i.e. simultaneously saint and sinner, à la Romans 7).

[3] Cf. John 1:29, 36

[4] Cf. John 5:19

[5] Cf. Footnote above

[6] Cf. John 3:16, 12:27-28

[7] Cf. Mark 14:3-9

[8] Cf. 2 Sam 7:12-15; Isa 42:1-4; Matt 3:16-17; Mark 1:90-11; Luke 3:21-22; 2 Pet 1:16-18

[9] Cf. Heb 5:5-10; 6:19-20; 7:15-17, 26-27; 8:1-2

[10] Cf. John 7:37-39

[11] I.e. Salvation is of the Lord, the Triune God of Scripture; however, the Father alone sends the Son, the Son alone is led like a Lamb to slaughter (cf. Isa 53:7), and the Holy Spirit alone is the Comforter (in the unique sense of His provision of Comfort to all of God’s people while Christ does not reside physically on earth, cf. John 16:1-15).

[12] Cf. Ro 8:32; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 1:3-6; 2 Pet 1:3-4

[13] Cf. John 10:27-30

[14] Cf. Matt 11:28-30

[15] Cf. Ro 8:35-39; 2 Cor 4:7-18

[16] Cf. Jer 32:40-41

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18; Rev 21:1-7, 22-25; 22:1-5

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4 thoughts on “Some (More) Thoughts on Psalm 23

  1. Jeanie Rose says:

    I love your treatment of Psalm 23 and Psalm ! together. And, your work with the Trinity here is graphic and inspiring. Thank you for the obvious effort needed to put this together. Bookmarking you for more visits!

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  2. KG says:

    Thought provoking post.

    I am curious though if you have a clearly defined rule of interpretation that you employ that allows you to evaluate if there is a true typological function in the text that would allow the student to identify them without falling into the slippery slope of an allegorical approach to the scriptures?

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  3. Hiram says:

    @ KG:

    Because our Lord says that all of the Scriptures speak of Him (cf. Luke 24:27 & 44-47), I try to see how a text would apply to Him. There is, of course, the basic historical-grammatical interpretation of the Word that shows us very clearly that all history contained in the Old Testament was pointing us to Christ. But the problem arises when we encounter texts like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. How can we see Christ in Song of Solomon using the historical-grammatical hermeneutic?

    I try to be as careful as possible with typological interpretation, since there are many ways to go wrong in doing it. These are the things I keep in mind:

    1. If the Lord Jesus said the Old Testament is about Him and the New Testament declares to us very clearly what our Lord did and what His work means, then no typological interpretation can stray from what is clearly taught to us in the New Testament. This means that the Old Testament types must only point to Christ and His work, and the implications of His work – and these must correspond to the clear teaching of the New Testament.

    In other words, (i.)since the Scriptures teach us a closed system of doctrine where the Old Testament is clearly fulfilled and explained by the New Testament, a type cannot contain any “new” revelation (as Roman Catholic “typology” does), and (ii.)a type, therefore, cannot in any way contradict what is clearly taught in the Word of God.

    2. Scripture interprets Scripture (as in #1.), therefore, we cannot give any meaning we want to a particular image (as, again, the Roman Catholic Church does). Instead, one needs to take the time to understand the text historically-grammatically and understand how the Holy Spirit uses certain imagery all throughout Scripture. So, for instance, “water” is used as a symbol in Scripture all throughout, so we gather its meaning not from what we think it would signify but from what Scripture clearly teaches us.

    3. Since a particular image can mean more than one thing, and often does, we need to be careful to understand it in its context. For example, “leaven” is used to signify sin/false teaching in Matt 16:5-12, but it is used in Matt 13:33 to signify the kingdom of heaven. What is the meaning of leaven in our Lord’s parable concerning the Kingdom of God in Matt 13:33? Is it that the kingdom of God is like the false teaching of the Pharisees? Obviously not, since that would contradict the clear teaching of the Scriptures. The context determines how the Lord is using a particular image, and His use within a particular context is what we follow.

    Another example is the one I gave above in my understanding of the Holy Spirit being pointed to by the “still waters.” Water signifies many things in the Word of God (e.g. baptism, the washing of the Word, cleansing, the judgment of God (cf. Gen 6-8), the Holy Spirit, “peoples” (cf. Rev 17:1 & 15), and trials), so the context must determine how the image could be being used. Would David’s psalm make any sense if we understood the “still waters” to mean the judgment of God, or many peoples, or trials? No. lol. But it does make sense to say that the water could very well point us to the Holy Spirit, since the waters refresh the Lamb of God, and are given to the Lamb by the Shepherd, just as John the Baptist says that the Father gave the Spirit without measure to our Lord Jesus (cf. John 3:34).

    4. Remembering that the New Testament is the fulfillment and explication of the Old Testament, we need to know that the New Testament cannot be interpreted typologically or allegorically, but must be understood solely according to its historical-grammatical contextual reading, and in light of its genre (just as the Old Testament is to be read primarily), but never as typological or allegorical.

    The book of Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that we can understand symbolically, but even these symbols are defined within the Word of God itself in (i.)the context of the book of Revelation and (ii.)the context of the whole testimony of Scripture.

    5. Remember that you and I may never fully understand how an Old Testament Scripture applies to our Lord Jesus, so we need to be humble in approaching the Old Testament types of Christ. I might be right, but I might also be wrong. The same precision that we use in the historical-grammatical interpretation of the Old Testament needs to be used when interpreting an Old Testament text typologically.

    Allegory is an interpretive hermeneutic that I think can only apply to one book: The Song of Solomon. From what I understand, most commentators have agreed that it does lend itself to an allegorical interpretation.

    I hope that helps some.

    -h.

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