1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff --
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
my whole life long. (NRSV)
The good shepherd is one who takes care of his sheep. He protects them and makes sure they are fed. But anyone who has been around sheep knows that sheep have a tendency to wander off. The shepherd has to keep a close watch. If sheep should wander off, it is incumbent upon the shepherd to restore the lost sheep to the fold.
Verse three uses the phrase naphshi yeshobeb and is usually translated “restores my soul.” It is often thought of as God “uplifts me” or “makes me happy.” The TNIV says “refreshes” my soul. I feel depressed or troubled and the Lord lifts my spirits. As it turns out, this is a poor understanding of the phrase.
Naphshi comes from the word nepesh, meaning “breath of life.” It can mean soul but it also connotes “myself” or “person” or “life.” Yeshobeb is the intensive form of shub, the Hebrew word for “repentance.” It literally means “to turn back.” Kenneth Bailey points out that in Arabic versions, verse three begins with “he brings me back.” More accurately, I have wandered off and God “brings me back.” God “causes me to repent” or “turn around.” (Finding the Lost Keys, 68-69. Bailey writes that this use of the intransitive Yeshobeb is fairly rare in Hebrew and it always refers to bringing back into proper place or relationship. See Isaiah 49:5, Ezekiel 39:27 and Jeremiah 50:19)
What have the sheep wondered away from? That is answered by the rest of verse three. The NRSV say “right paths” but the old King James Version refers to “paths of righteousness.” God brings the sheep back into righteousness. (Jacob and the Prodigal, 66)
The last phrase of verse three also tells us something we often overlook. Why does the Psalm 23 shepherd restore the sheep? For the benefit of the sheep? Clearly that is implied as part of the story but the explicit reason is “for his name’s sake.” The shepherd (God) is doing it because of what it says about him and not what it says about us!
Verse 4 further exalts the good shepherd. The “rod and staff” symbolizes both the tools of the shepherd in protecting the sheep from enemies and in keeping them from wandering away from the flock. Verse 4 also hints that the shepherd will do these things in spite of potential great suffering and loss to himself.
The Hebrew word for “table” in verse five (shulchan) is synonymous with “feast.” God is throwing a banquet or celebration. Verse five ends with the “anointing the head with oil,” which was done at festive occasions and great celebrations. It indicated divine favor. (It should also be known that food preparation was the duty of a woman and David is ascribing feminine duties to God.) (Finding the Lost, 94.)
The meal is also offered in the presence of enemies. The shepherd does this while protecting from predatory threats. Think about this in terms of the end of the Luke 15 parable. The shepherd restores the sheep who has wandered into perilous circumstances (Like going into a far country and living recklessly?) and he protects the sheep from predators (Like an angry older brother?). Also, remember what prompted the Luke 15 parable:
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." Luke 15:2
Who is it that sits with “lost sheep” sinners and eats with them while protecting them from their enemies?
The story ends in verse six with the psalmist/sheep in the house enjoying the presence of God.
We see at least the following themes in the story:
- Lost sheep
- The problem: A sheep is lost
- Good Shepherd: God
- Incarnation Implied
- Price Paid: Bring back
- Repentance (shub): Return to God
- The story ends in the house of God
With these themes in mind, let us turn to Jeremiah 23:1-8.