The Shepherd-Lord

Psalm 23

James T. Dennison, Jr.

In the 14th century, Nicholas of Lyra compiled the most famous Biblical commentary of the Middle Ages—the Biblia sacra cum glossa ordinaria. In the preface to his work, Nicholas summarized the famous four-fold sense of Scripture identified with the hermeneutics of the medieval church: literal, moral, allegorical, anagogical. In commenting on Psalm 23:1, which Nicholas translates "the Lord rules me" (following the Vulgate), he adds the following allegorical comment: this verse shows how the mendicant friars (by which Nicholas means his own Franciscan order)—this verse shows how Franciscan monks receive all the necessities of life.

Unlike the medieval allegorist, the Reformed exegete begins his study of the Psalter with the magisterial essay "The Eschatology of the Psalter" by the radical anti-allegorist, Geerhardus Vos.1 Vos directs our attention to the theocentric aspect of the Psalms, both devotionally and eschatologically. It is patent that the subjective voice of the Psalmist is responding to God's objective acts—what we may call the magnalia Dei. It is this subjective or devotional reflection on God's mighty acts in history which draws the Psalmist into the unfolding drama of God's program of redemption. Vos remarkably perceives the interface between the subjective and the objective—between the religiously devotional and the historically eschatological. In other words, the Psalter's devotional attachment to God carries with it a participation in the history of God's saving acts—a participation which must, in the nature of the case, issue in eschatological fruition. Possessing the God of the Psalms, devotionally speaking, carries the poet along into the drama of redemption, historically speaking—and that devotional, yea historical participation, is eschatologically oriented. Indeed, Vos reminds us, "a redemptive religion without eschatological interest would be a contradiction in terms." The Psalter breathes the air of the eschatological in breathing the air of religious devotion: "whom have I in heaven save thee" (Ps. 73:25); "one thing have I asked from the Lord . . . that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life (Ps. 27:4)"; "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Ps. 23:6).

Now we may credit Vos for his programmatic approach to the Psalter, yet ask, "How does Psalm 23 fit the program?" The entire Jewish-Christian tradition would reply: a devotional treasure, a religious favorite, a solace well nigh universal and comprehensive. Indeed so! Vos's subjective/devotional element clearly perceived, if not actually experienced. But where is the historical vector? Precisely what historical context gives rise to this pastoral poetry? The medievalists, as the Rabbis before them, groped for a historical setting to Psalm 23 without success. No more successful are Reformation and modern critical proposals for the Sitz im Leben. What then? Does the absence of an explicit historical circumstance remove the Psalm from the realm of history? No more than the absence of a specific historical context for the book of Job renders that book mythological.

You see, Hebrew poetry remains historical though no specific historical setting may be identified. How can I assert that? Because revelation is by definition communicated in history even though we may be unaware of the specific historical setting. To deny this is to open oneself to medieval allegorism; or worse, to reduce the biblical text to myth; or even to reduce the text to the deadly, though all too common, moralism.

Thus, Psalm 23 is eminently historical though the precise historical event eliciting the Shepherd metaphor eludes us. I have described the opening line of the Psalm as a metaphor. Literarily, Psalm 23 is a tightly wrapped bundle of images—vivid images, yet images balanced in binary fashion: lie down—green pastures; leadeth me—still waters; restoreth—my soul; leadeth me—paths of righteousness; walk through—valley of the shadow of death; fear—no evil; art—with me; rod and staff—comfort me; preparest a table—presence of mine enemies; anointest my head—oil; cup—overflows; goodness and mercy—all the days; dwell—house of the Lord. The binary sequence of the images intensifies from verdant pastures to the vale of death; from gently flowing water-streams to tense confrontation with enemies; from the Shepherd-Lord's Immanuel presence to the Lord's eternal dwelling house.

This binary literary pattern directs our attention to the poetic structure of the Psalm. And the keen eye of the Hebrew student (with his Hebrew Bible open before him) detects an envelop inclusion enfolding the whole poem: Yahweh roî/bebet Yahweh ("The Lord my shepherd"/"the house of Lord"). The Lord Yahweh at the beginning and the end of the Psalm; the binary imagery enclosed by God himself; the Psalmist enveloped by his Lord. And you will notice the inclusio of the Lord is followed at the beginning and end of the Psalm by a lamedh word: lo (negative particle, v. 1); leorek (phrase of duration, v. 6)—Yahweh lo/Yahweh leorek.

There is further structural alignment in the positional phrases: "in green pastures," v. 2 (preposition, beth); "in the house of the Lord," v. 6 (preposition, beth). The beth preposition re-echoes in binary fashion in vv. 3 and 4: "in the paths of righteousness"/"in the valley of the shadow of death."

Next we note the alliterative yoshôbeb and the beth preposition (v. 3, "restores . . . in") matched by yashabtî and the beth preposition (v. 6, "dwell in"). In passing, I note briefly the binaryclauses (vv. 3 and 4): "for his name's sake"/ "for thou art with me" (personalized imminence theology). But then, the fascinating binary antithesis: salmawet ("shadow of death," v. 4) juxtaposed with hayyay ("life," v. 6). The Divine Pastor is life, not death; in the shadow of death, this Shepherd is life kol-yemê ("all my days") leorek yamîn ("to unending days").

Yet one more binary pattern: conjunction plus plural verb plus pronominal suffix: v. 4—we followed by yenahhamunî ("and . . . they comfort me"); v. 6— we followed by yirdepunî ("and . . . shall follow me").

Structurally, literarily, the Hebrew of the 23rd Psalm is a carefully constructed binary patterned poem moving back and forth from the Psalmist to God, from God to the Psalmist (I/Thou; Thou/I); a carefully constructed binary pronoun enveloping close patterns of sufficiency and rest, of refreshment and guidance, of fearlessness and overflowing abundance, of goodness and mercy, of length of days in the house of the Lord. And amazingly, at the center—26 Hebrew words on one side, 26 Hebrew words on the other side—at the center of the Psalm kî atta immadî ("for thou art with me"). At the antipodes of the Psalm—Yahweh; at the very center of the Psalm—Yahweh immadî. From beginning, to middle, to end, the Psalmist in union with his Shepherd-Lord. The I/Thou pronouns are expressing the mystical union experienced between the Shepherd and his lamb. Yes, the divine Shepherd and his lamb—for this Psalm is David's confession that he is a lamb—a lamb whom God maketh to lie down in green pastures; a lamb whom God leadeth beside still waters; a lamb whose soul God restoreth; a lamb whom God leadeth in righteous paths; a lamb protected by the rod and staff of the Lord; a lamb whose permanent dwelling place is the house of the Lord.

You will notice that the apparently static imagery of the Psalm (lie down in green pastures; leadeth beside still waters; preparest a table) reflects an absolute state—an absolute state of possession—an absolute state of the possession of God himself: my Shepherd, thou art with me, I will dwell forever with thee. Permanent possession of the Lord is the Psalmist's sure confidence. The Lord will never be to him other than a shepherd—he will never be a destroyer-tyrant; the Lord will never be to the Psalmist other than immadî ("with me")—he will never leave or forsake him; the Lord will never cast the Psalmist away from his dwelling place—the Lord will never dispossess him of his house—no never, not ever.

This present and future prospect is historical and eschatological. It arises from the history of David's experience of God's salvation (like a shepherd saving a lamb); and it participates in the permanent dimension of that relationship eschatologically (like an eternal resident in an eternal dwelling place). In fact, the historical becomes anticipatory of the eschatological, while the eschatological intrudes itself into the historical. David's shepherd experience anticipates the eschatological Shepherd, while the eschatological Shepherd intrudes himself into David's experience.

And it is here that we return to Vos's profound essay on the eschatology of the Psalter. If the devotional or subjective aspect of the Psalm is union and communion with God (the sweet mystical union with the Lord: "thou art with me"); and the historical or objective aspect of the Psalm is the permanence of that union and communion (the eschatological union with the Lord: "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever"); then the Psalm itself displays an embodiment of the divine-human relationship. The divine Shepherd condescends to draw this lamb into intimate, permanent union with himself. The vertical penetrates the horizontal to possess, yea to unite, the soul of the beloved lamb with the heavenly Shepherd, so that between the two there will be present and future never-ending union and communion—in the house of the Lord for ever and ever and ever.

But may I suggest something more profound. Consider the paradigmatic embodiment of the divine Shepherd-human lamb in reverse. Consider the paradigm: the Shepherd becomes the lamb; the Shepherd trades places with the lamb. And then consider the paradigm in which the antithesis—shadow of death and life—are reversed: the one who possesses eternal life submits to the shadow of death. Consider the paradigm in which the tables are turned—the enemies anoint the head with agony and shame, the cup is drained to the dregs. Consider the paradigm in which the subjective and the objective are inverted: the devotional attachment to God is ruptured—racked with pathetic separation—the very opposite of union and communion with God; the objective relationship of permanent fellowship recoils in anti-eschatological dereliction—the very wrath of God is poured out in abandonment—desertion.

Do you see? Now the Sitz im Leben of the Psalm becomes trans-historical because now the Psalm becomes incarnational. Oh, you may identify David as a type of Christ, but you have only flattened David to the level of your horizon. David in Psalm 23 is a display of the life of Christ—the life of Christ intruding, uniting, identifying David's own shepherd-life with the Eschatological Shepherd's life. And the antithesis of that life?—where the eschatological and the historical intersect—the Shepherd becomes the lamb so that he may die in their place. "I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). "Behold, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). "For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes" (Rev. 7:17).

David's sweet binary poem draws David into the mystery of heaven itself. Heaven's mystery that in the fullness of time, what David, shepherd, confessed about the Lord, divine Shepherd; what David, lamb, confessed about a lamb's devotion and possession—that, that could only be true—that could only be valid—that could only come to pass, if the Divine Shepherd—the eschatological Shepherd—changed places with the sheep. A union and communion of Shepherd and sheep which would incarnate the very fullness of Psalm 23.

The Lord Jesus is my Shepherd;
I lack nothing en Christo.
By him, I go in and out and am saved and find pasture.
The Lord Jesus makes me lie down beside streams of living water;
He restores my soul.
He goes before me leading me in straight paths,
And I follow.
Though I walk in death's dark shadow,
The Lord Jesus is the light and life of the world.
No evil do I fear, for the evil of my fears, he has borne;
Immanuel has borne them in my place.
He gathers me about his table—his overflowing, superabundant table.
And all the days of my life, this God Shepherd draws me
Into his house—his everlasting house—his heavenly places house;
So that where my shepherd dwells, I do dwell,
And I shall dwell forever and ever and ever.

Escondido, California


1 First published in 1920 (Princeton Theological Review 18:1-43), it is now an appendix to The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1991) 323-65.