More than a Poem
Psalm 23 is most likely the most popular Psalm. It is hard to get true statistics on this, but I would think it would even be one of the most popular verses in the bible. Although I do not know the popularity of the Psalm, this Psalm is beautifully rich, theologically deep, and comforting to the sheep of the Lord. Matthew Henry explains, “Many of David’s psalms are full of complaints, but this is full of comforts, and the expressions of delight in God’s great goodness and dependence upon him.” Spurgeon compares the Psalm, as a nightingale is to birds, “this divine ode among the Psalms, for it has sung sweetly in the ear of many a mourner in his night of weeping, and has bidden him hope for a morning of joy.” Martin Luther said, “Practice reading one psalm even one little verse of the psalm. You will progress enough if you learn to make only one verse a day, or even one a week, live and breathe in your heart. After this beginning is made, everything else will follow, and you will have a rich treasury of understanding and affection.” We seek to be able to slowly walk through this Psalm may be slower than a verse a week that we may indeed as Martin Luther says “live and breathe in your heart.”
We have a great challenge ahead of us, for two reasons; the first is that this like all of scripture is a deep mine of theological insights, To think we can fully grasp the comfort to be found in this Psalm in such a short time is near impossible, but we will seek at least to mine, even the surface, of this Psalm. Even as I have prepared for this series, I am reminded of the great men The second challenge is that it is familiar to us. Many of us could quote this Psalm word for word, and often when we do this we believe we know it. Like the Lord’s prayer we might be able to recite the whole of the prayer but to have that become the foundation of our prayer life is a challenge. As we go through this Psalm my prayer is we do not seek only to be familiar with the Psalm that we can quote it, but familiar with this Psalm that we might have it live and breathe in our hearts.
We have preserved in the Psalms something that is tremendously helpful that we often overlook. Our Bibles are normally divided into chapters and verses, and almost every translation place heading and division in the Bible. They are extremely helpful; however, they are not divinely inspired, nor would we call them the word of God. However, in the Psalms, we are given titles of Psalms and authors and other information which is divinely inspired. We should be cautious to merely glance over these words. We have Psalms that give us historical information to help us understand the context of the Psalm (Eg. Psalm 51). We have authors mentioned to help us understand the origins (Psalm 90). We have Psalms that explain the type of Psalm, such as a prayer (Psalm 142). We even have Psalms that explain the day of the week it was written for (Ie. The Sabbath, Psalm 92). Even the titles of the Psalms are given to the people of God, therefore we should be cautious to just read them as we would headings or chapter markings.
Psalm 23 begins with “A Psalm of David.” The word Psalm comes from the Greek word ‘psallo.’ Now in our minds we often think of Psalms as nice poems, now to some extent we are correct to think of them as poems. But we need not only think of them as poems, the New Testament uses the word ‘psalm’ in three different categories.
The first is as Scripture, Luke gives the introductory comment “for it is written,” in Acts 1:20. This is an introductory comment used throughout the Bible as how the author introduces scripture. The Psalms are to be seen as God’s word given to his people. Psalm 23 is therefore not David’s words to God but God’s word to his people. Psalms are not just to be seen as words that have a nice ring to them or are they to be used as inspirational quotes? The Psalms are God’s words to his people.
Secondly, all scripture points us to Christ, although Psalm 23 is not quoted in the New Testament. We are told in Luke chapter 24 as Jesus taught the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). We have no record of what passages Jesus turned to that day, however I cannot but imagine he turned to Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 speaking of the suffering servant. And Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34 speak of the great shepherd of the sheep. If we merely see this as a poem or a man-written document we fail to see Christ in this Psalm and miss an important part.
Thirdly, the New Testament explains the Psalms as something to be sung by the people of God for a specific purpose. Paul writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” We are instructed that the Word of Christ dwells in you richly. The example Paul gives is that of the Psalms. The Psalms give us the spectrum of emotions that believers will face in this life. Psalm 23 is a perfect example of this, the peaceful waters, the darkest valleys, a lavish feast, the hope of eternity, and the attack of enemies, just to name a few. But also Paul says because this word dwells in us richly we are then able to teach and admonish each other. The Psalms help us learn about ourselves and our glorious God. That they can bring us comfort in times of tribulation, but also that we might be admonished by the Psalms. The Psalms do not only make us feel good but should also bring us to repentance. We should feel the loving rod discipline us as we open the Psalms.
Fourthly, The Psalms are quite different than most of Scripture, this is God’s hymnbook to his people, and not just to his Old Testament people. The Psalms are given to use for singing today Paul finishes and explains, “… singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Paul explains that the word dwelling within comes from the people of God singing the Psalms with thankfulness in our hearts to God. Psalms are more than poems but music. One of the main reasons we are given the Psalms is because music speaks to the heart. Music is something that helps us remember. One of my professors in seminary mentioned that we should sing good hymns and music in church. We should have a robust and sustainable diet in what we sing. He mentioned this because, throughout his years as a pastor when people were on their deathbed, they might not be able to quote much scripture word for word, and would never remember many of your sermons. They will, however, know hymns. Now depending on what diet of music they had in church would depend on how good their theology would be in their last days. Sadly the church has moved away from soiled robust rich theological hymns. And within the last century, I would say we have also moved away from the singing of Psalms. The Psalms are given to God’s people to be sung. They help us in our lament, sorrow, joy, praise, thanksgiving, giving glory to God, prayers when we are under persecution, and many other times in our life. Psalm 23 is a great example of this, although many churches might not sing Psalms now, they still might know Psalm 23 to the old Scottish tune Crimond. This Psalm appears in over 500 hymnals and might be the most popular Psalm to sing.
Psalms and this Psalm included is more than a helpful poem to be uttered. Psalm 23 is God’s word to his people, this points us to Christ, is to teach and admonish us, and finally is to be sung. Psalm is a great passage to use as an example for all of these categories. Before even, we can see how these four categories could be used in the twenty-third Psalm. It is far greater than a man-written poem.
The second portion of the title explains that it is a Psalm of David. Now liberal scholars have reasons to doubt and question almost anything. They almost have a reason to doubt the author of something even when it is clear. Some have tried to explain that the Psalm is not written by David but about David. However, this does not particularly fit the use found in the Bible, Jesus understands this to mean that the Psalm is written by David (Luke 20:42, cf. Psalm 110:title). We are told of the historical context there were written (Ps 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142). The title of Psalm 23 does not tell us when the Psalm was written. Maybe this could be one of the earliest Psalms written by David as he was a shepherd boy watching his father’s flock. Throughout the years he would sing this Psalm. Or this could have been a Psalm written towards the end of his life as he reflected on the highs and lows of his life. We are not told for certain.
The first piece of information is that David had the occupation of a Shepherd. The fact is that we are told it is written by David, although we might know the timing of when it was written we can know particulars that are helpful to understand the Psalm. The first is that David saw himself as a sheep. David was a shepherd by occupation (1 Sam 16:11). He found the example of a shepherd and sheep as an image of God and himself. He writes this Psalm humbly seeking no title for himself, nor to think of himself more highly than he ought. But he sees the sheep which are under his care, and he says, I am a sheep. The Lord is my shepherd. Later in his life, we were told that he was to be a shepherd to God’s people (2 Sam 5:2). However, he does not see himself as the shepherd, but as a humble sheep.
The second is that David has the occupation as an under-shepherd of God’s people. David is known by many as the shepherd King. That he was called from the pastures of caring for his father’s flock to care for the heavenly father’s flock. David writes this Psalm and does not think that his role as King gives him some special position, but he is still a sheep called to look after other sheep. Again we do not know when he wrote this Psalm but that is the beauty of this Psalm, it is not only written for the man who sits on a throne, but also for one who has no place to lay his head. David always was a shepherd, it is only who he was tending to; whether sheep or the people of God. However, David was himself a humble king under the chief shepherd.
We, however, again need to be cautious just thinking of this as a memoir of a shepherd boy, but as a believer inspired by the Holy Spirit to record the very word of God breathed out. If we think of this Psalm only from the pen of David we will be left to study only the middle eastern practices of shepherding. This, however, is the double-edged sword that we pray might dwell within us richly.
Lastly, David is a believer. This is a Psalm written in a very personal manner, throughout the Psalm you see the words, ‘my’, ‘I’, or ‘me’. David writes this Psalm as a believer, and this is one of the great aspects of this Psalm. Although it was written about 3000 years ago the truth rings true today. Although we might have never tended a flock of sheep the comfort in this Psalm is comfort for any believer or pilgrim. Joel Beeke wrote,
“For some, the Lord has caused Psalm 23 to serve as their pilgrim song on their journey through the valley of this Mesech here below; it has been a song of courage to many of God’s inwardly oppressed pilgrims. In the hands of the Holy Spirit, it has been a balm to some spiritually sick of love, a consolation to others sitting spiritually captive in the dungeon of misery, and a tonic for soldiers dying on the battlefield of free grace. It has broken the chains of numerous spiritual prisoners, and God-fearing Jonathans have been privileged throughout the ages to dip honey from this psalm with the staff of faith to the reawakening of love, reenlivening of hope, and the restrengthening of faith.”
We pray that this Psalm would be the balm for us today. No matter where we are in our pilgrim journey we might be able to sing this pilgrim song. That if we find ourselves on the green pastures of this life, or in the dark valley of death. Let us pray that we not only love to quote this Psalm but we live the rich theological truths of this Psalm. Let us see Christ the great shepherd, let us lack a no good thing.
 Luther’s Works, vol. 10, pp. 157–58, quoted in Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston, and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 426.
 Joel R. Beeke, Jehovah Shepherding His Sheep: Sermons on the Twenty-Third Psalm (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997), 2–3.