The beloved 23rd Psalm is rich in meaning. Take a closer look at both of David’s metaphors in this psalm and how they fit beautifully together.
It would be difficult to find someone, even among the nonreligious, who has not read or heard the 23rd Psalm, one of the most beloved passages in the Bible. From the first line, declaring that “The Lord is my shepherd,” the psalmist paints a word picture that has resonated with readers through the ages. And it still touches our hearts today.
What many people fail to notice, however, is the shift in metaphors at verse 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.”
The psalmist no longer describes his Lord as a shepherd, but as a host. Unfortunately, some commentators have been so intent on making the last two verses fit the initial metaphor that they miss the beauty of the second word picture.
A different world
The pictures actually work well together because both stem from the same cultural setting. The people of ancient Israel, who first received the psalm, had once been a nomadic society, much like the Bedouins of the Near East today.
At the time this psalm was composed, shepherds like David still lived borderline nomadic lives. Shepherding was an important occupation, and for a people continually on the move, hospitality was viewed as an important civic duty.
Why was hospitality so important?
There were no inns until the time of the Persian Empire. (This empire flourished hundreds of years later, after the captivities of both Israel and Judah.) Even then, inns were not for the faint of heart, often populated by thieves and prostitutes.
To make matters worse, many roads were little more than paths from which rocks had been cleared. Bandits lurked in hideouts along these trails, as we read about in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
To travel meant to face uncertainty and danger. And that’s why these ancient people developed an unwritten code of hospitality. Understanding how the original audience viewed the role of a host helps us understand the last two verses of the 23rd Psalm.
The duty to protect the stranger
Psalm 23:5 opens with the picture of a table being prepared “in the presence of my enemies.” To the modern ear, this might sound unusual. Why would sheep need a table? Why in the presence of enemies?
This statement alludes to the obligation of hosts to protect those who enter their homes as guests. We see this clearly in Lot’s decision to protect the visiting angels from an unruly mob of Sodomites (Genesis 19:1-11), and again in the story of a Levite staying overnight in Gibeah (Judges 19:17-23). Notice especially the wording of the last sentence of Judges 19:23: “Seeing this man has come into my house, do not commit this outrage.”
The article titled “Hospitality” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible explains, “Traditionally, hospitality included asylum for the guest. Customarily, one could remain under his host’s roof for three days in safety, and receive protection for a given time after leaving.”
In the 23rd Psalm, this duty of protection follows seamlessly from the Shepherd’s protection of His sheep, as pictured by His rod and staff.In the 23rd Psalm, this duty of protection follows seamlessly from the Shepherd’s protection of His sheep, as pictured by His rod and staff. The rod and staff were tools shepherds used to guide their sheep and to defend them from predators. (They were not instruments for beating sheep into submission!)
So even though the picture changes from the Lord as Shepherd to the Lord as Host, the theme at the end of verse 4 and at the beginning of verse 5 is the same.
The duty to offer comfort and honor
In those days, understanding how tiring travel could be, good hosts set about providing comfort to their guests right away. After providing water for the guests to wash their feet, an action not mentioned in the psalm, the hosts would anoint the individual’s head with oil, generally scented with spices. This anointing is not connected to the ritual anointing of a king or a priest, but instead symbolizes the bestowal of favor and even honor.
This customary duty was still in effect during the New Testament era. When a Pharisee who had invited Jesus into his home for dinner failed to anoint His head, Jesus pointed out the neglect (Luke 7:46). The Pharisee had performed none of the customary acts of a good host. He didn’t welcome Jesus with a kiss of greeting, provide Him water to wash His feet or anoint His head (verses 44-46).
The last phrase in Psalm 23:5 mentions the cup that runs over. This line is used even today to refer to an abundance of blessings, and that is how most commentators view the image.
There are others who see more in the picture, but the bottom line is that this passage is about the warm relationship between the Host and His guest.
Dwelling in God’s house
The last verse of Psalm 23 is an exultant statement of faith in the God who is leading and caring for us. The first word, surely, declares the certainty of the psalmist that what he expects will come to pass. To grasp the full significance, though, we must take a closer look at a couple of the specific words.
The first half of the verse mentions goodness and mercy. There is no single English word that conveys the full meaning of the Hebrew hesed, translated as mercy in the New King James Version. In other passages, and in other translations, the word has also been translated as kindness and lovingkindness. This word refers to God’s love toward His people, and it carries with it the connotation of a covenant relationship.
A second word worth deeper examination is follow. The Hebrew word actually carries with it a sense of being pursued, not merely followed. The word, then, highlights the difference between what the traveler’s enemies may have intended, and what God provides.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary notes that rather than “being pursued by enemies who seek his destruction, God’s ‘goodness and love’ follow the psalmist” (Abridged Edition).
Finally, the psalmist concludes with the statement that he will always dwell in God’s house or in God’s presence.
This simple, but profound statement sums up the theme of the entire Bible. Because of sin, Adam and Eve were removed from God’s presence (Genesis 3:23-24), but through God’s plan of salvation, God—our Shepherd and our Host—will once again dwell with us when His Kingdom is established on earth (Revelation 21:3).
Sidebar: Two Metaphors Throughout the Bible
Although the 23rd Psalm is a mere six verses, it fuses two important metaphors that each occur throughout the Bible. The first is the portrayal of God as a Shepherd, and the second is the picture of God as the Host of a banquet.
Here are some other passages that use one or the other of these significant images:
Shepherd of His people
- Genesis 49:24: As the patriarch Jacob readies himself for his own death, he assembles his sons around his bedside so he can tell them what will happen to their descendants. In the midst of his prophecy regarding Joseph’s descendants, Jacob refers to God as “the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel.”
- Psalm 80:1: In this psalm Asaph, an official musician for the temple, asks the “Shepherd of Israel” to listen to his prayer.
- Isaiah 40:11: In one of the most comforting scriptural passages, Isaiah tells of a time when God, as a Shepherd, “will gather the lambs [His people] with His arm, and carry them in His bosom.”
- Ezekiel 34:11-16: In another inspiring prophecy of redemption, God is the Shepherd who will search for His sheep and bring them back to the land of Israel.
- John 10:11-18: Jesus declares to His disciples that He is “the good shepherd” (verse 11), then somberly alludes to His crucifixion when stating that as a good shepherd, He will lay down His life for His sheep.
- Hebrews 13:20: The writer of Hebrews refers to the Father as “that great Shepherd of the sheep.”
- Revelation 7:17: John’s account of the end times pictures Christ as both the Lamb who had died for His disciples and the Shepherd who will “lead them to living fountains of waters.”
Host of a special banquet
- Isaiah 25:6-8: Isaiah describes “a feast of choice pieces” at the end of this age, when God “will swallow up death forever” and “wipe away tears from all faces.” Although there is no mention of a banquet, Revelation 7:17 (cited above) picks up the imagery of God’s wiping away tears from the eyes of His faithful people.
- Matthew 25:1-13: Just a short time before His betrayal and arrest, Jesus told His disciples the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The key concept in this parable is the need for vigilance. Even so, the story is told in terms of a great wedding celebration in which Christ is the Bridegroom and the Father is the Host.
- Revelation 19:6-9: In this passage the Church is described as the Bride of the Lamb, or Christ. Those who are invited to attend the marriage supper are blessed.