Psalm 23 is classified as an Individual Psalm of Thanksgiving.
In this type of psalm, singers praise God for God's goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations -- illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc. In Psalm 23, the psalm singer praises God as the good shepherd who guides the psalmist -- as shepherds might guide the flocks of sheep or goats in their charge -- through a myriad of life situations.
The familiarity of the words of the psalm can hinder the reader from truly entering into the meaning and intent of its words. Thus the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson might be a helpful beginning point for its exegesis. He interprets Psalm 23 in the following way:
God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I'm not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd's crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I'm back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." "God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing." Which words are correct, which are true? Both are. The words of Psalm 23 are those of an ancestor in our faith who was delivered, in some way, from danger and who praised God for help in the midst of that danger.
The psalm singer takes on the role of a sheep or goat, animals herded and cared for by shepherds. These are animals that, without the care of a shepherd, would be easy prey for other animals in the open grazing land.
In the psalm, the shepherd provides green pastures for grazing, still waters for drinking, and right paths for travel from one grazing place to another (verses 2-3). In troubled areas, the protection of the shepherd provides safe passage for the flock (verse 4). And even when trouble is nearby, the shepherd makes sure that the flock can feed and water in safety and can lie down for a night's rest (verse 5). Therefore, the flock can count on continued existence because of the faithfulness of the shepherd (verse 6).
Descriptions of God such as those found in Psalm 23 abound in the book of Psalms. God cares for, provides for, and protects those who are faithful (see, for instance, Psalms 30, 66, 91, and 121). This message of Psalm 23 is clear.
But when we examine Psalm 23 in its canonical location within the book of Psalms, new insights into its meaning may emerge. Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22, a heartfelt lament, one connected with the passion of Jesus in the New Testament. The opening words of Psalm 22 are the words spoken by Jesus on the crucifixion cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Laments in the book of Psalms are structured in a movement of five elements:
1. Invocation: The psalmist calls on God to listen.
2. Lament: Next the psalm singer tells God the reason for crying out God.
3. Petition: Then the psalmist tells God what he/she wants God to do.
4. Words of Trust: The psalmist recounts why God should be trusted at all by remembering God's faithfulness in the past.
5. Words of Praise: And finally, the psalmist offers words of praise to the Lord.
The structure of Psalm 22 exhibits an escalation, a piling up, of elements of the lament. In the first strophe words of lament (verse 1-2) are followed by words of trust (verses 3-5). The second strophe contains words of lament (verses 6-8), words of trust (verses 9-10), and words of petition (verse 11). The third strophe, however, moves directly from words of lament (verses 12-18) to words of petition (verses 19-21), with no words of trust intervening.
Might we be permitted to read Psalm 23, an individual hymn of thanksgiving, as the words of trust that are missing from the last strophe of Psalm 22?
The two psalms share vocabulary and concepts, thus strengthening an argument for connecting them. Psalm 23 expresses confidence in God as shepherd to the psalmist. In Psalm 22, however, the psalmist accuses God of being far away and not answering the psalmist's cry for help; of being silent when those around mock and shake their heads; of paying no heed when bulls and lions and dogs and evildoers surround; and of ignoring the fact that the psalmist's body is shriveled and emaciated.
Indeed, in Psalm 22, God lays the psalmist in "the dust of death" (verse 15), "because" (verse 16), "a band of evildoers surround" (verse 16). The singer cries out, "but you, O LORD, do not be far from me" (verses 11, 19), for "trouble is nearby" (verse 11).
In contrast, in Psalm 23, even while walking through "the valley of the shadow of death" (verse 4), the psalmist will fear no "evil" (verse 4), "because" (verse 4), "you are with me" (verse 4). In fact, God prepares a table for the psalmist "in front of my troublers" (verse 5).
Reading Psalm 23 as a word of trust in answer to the heartfelt lament of Psalm 22 may add a new dimension of understanding to both psalms. Connecting them does not diminish the individual poetic and theological character of either, but rather creates a powerful statement of trust in the Lord.