A Metaphor from Start to End — Psalm 23 and Hebrew Exegesis

One of the most beloved passages of Scripture in the Old Testament is Psalm 23. This is the psalm where David writes a parable-song equating his walk with God to that of a shepherd taking care of his sheep. In the song, David, the shepherd-king, is the sheep who is shepherded by Yahweh.

In biblical study circles, there are many levels of “criticism.”

  • Source (literary) = “The goal . . . is to break a text into its original components . . . and identify the intentions of each component.”
  • Form = “Involves identifying the genre or subgenre of texts.”
  • Rhetorical = “How a literary unit is put together to achieve its purpose.”
  • Redaction = “Interested in the overall assemblage of a text and what it communicates about the editor’s (redactor’s) perspective or meaning.”
  • Textual = “The examination of known sources of [a biblical] passage in order to reconstruct the original wording.”
    (see Paul D. Wegner, Using Old Testament Hebrew in Preaching [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2009], 74-77.)

One of the most helpful (many of them are anything but helpful) is textual criticism. This seeks to determine–especially in places where different manuscripts have different readings–what the original document most likely said.

In the Old Testament, where–until somewhat recently–we didn’t have an overabundance of manuscripts, this discipline sought to figure out which translation of identically-spelled words was the correct one. For instance:

כְּתֹב (“write!” [as a command])
כְּתֹב (“to write”)

These words are spelled identically. As such, how are we to know when we come across one of them whether it is a command or an infinitive phrase? We can know because of context. One understanding will likely make more sense in a given context than the other possibility.

With all that said, let’s dive into Psalm 23 and see if we can determine how to best understand it. There are two primary questions about this psalm: Did David really write it? and how does it end? The answer to both can be discerned using textual criticism.

Did David really write it?

You may wonder why i’m even asking this question.

It’s obviously David. The psalm starts by saying, “A Davidic psalm” or “a psalm of David.” Right?

Not necessarily. The Hebrew reads:

לְדָוִ֑ד

לְדָוִ֑ד (ledāwid) is a compound word consisting of the name “David” and a preposition with a multitude of possible meanings (לְ). There are seven primary groups of usages for this preposition–depending on context–and “a great many uses of [it] remain to be elucidated, and their diversity is considerable.”

All of the uses of this preposition fall under the following group of uses:

The quasi-locational group includes possession, authorship, specification, manner, class and type , and comparison.

Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 209.

Therefore, our possibilities are:

  • David owns this psalm (possession).
  • David authored this psalm (authorship).
  • It is written in regards to David (specification).
  • It is written like David’s psalms (class and type).

One wonders just how different the first two options are in this context. Usually when someone authors something, they own it. So we’ll drop the first in favor of the second. David might be the author of this psalm. However, our third option could let us understand that someone else wrote it regarding David. But this won’t work because Psalm 23 was clearly written about Yahweh. The final option could mean that this psalm was written in a style similar to David’s. Someone else might have written this psalm like David wrote his psalms.

However, when it comes to choosing between these two options, something becomes instantly clear. The context will determine the translational decision. The psalm that follows this title is all about a shepherd and his sheep and Yahweh’s similar care of the psalmist. Who is the best known shepherd in the Bible?

David. The psalm-writer and King of Israel.

He chose David His servant
and took him from the sheepfolds;
He brought him from tending ewes
to be shepherd over His people Jacob—
over Israel, His inheritance.

Psalm 78:70-71

Samuel asked him, “Are these all the sons you have?”
“There is still the youngest,” he answered, “but right now he’s tending the sheep.”
Samuel told Jesse, “Send for him. We won’t sit down to eat until he gets here.”
So Jesse sent for him. He had beautiful eyes and a healthy, handsome appearance.
Then the LORD said, “Anoint him, for he is the one.”

1 Samuel 16:11-12

For this reason, we must translate the heading (לְדָוִ֑ד) in Psalm 23 as “A psalm by David.” This does not mean all psalms with לְדָוִ֑ד will be translated this way. We need the context to make a decision. But when it comes to Psalm 23 it is relatively certain that it was actually written by the shepherd-king of Israel.

This leads us to our next question.

How does it end?

Before answering the question of how it ends, let’s translate all but the final line of the psalm.

A Psalm by David

Yahweh shepherds me;
I will never lack anything.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He gives me rest beside waters at a resting place.
He will completely restore my soul.
He leads me Himself in paths of righteousness on account of His name.
Also, even if I go into the valley of death’s shadow,
I will never fear adversity, because You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff comfort me.
You will prepare a table before me despite the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head by means of oil, my cup is full.
Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days I’m living,

my translation.

And we all know how it ends, right?

“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Right?

Not quite.

The Hebrew reads as follows:

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְּבֵית־יְ֝הוָ֗ה לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים׃

The phrase “in Yahweh’s house” is an accurate translation (though the בְּ before בֵית is another preposition with multiple translational options). The translation questions regard the words וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י (wešabtî) and לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים (le’ōrek yāmîm). Let’s start with the latter phrase first.

לְאֹ֣רֶךְ יָמִֽים (le’ōrek yāmîm) is the phrase traditionally translated “forever.” Upon first glance, this is feasible. The words literally translate to “for length of days.” However, this is Hebrew poetry and in lieu of rhymes they used parallelism. What is said in one line is repeated in the next line in a different way. The previous line explained:

Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days I’m living

For this reason, the easiest way to understand this final line is not as a statement of eternal life (don’t stop reading yet!), but rather as a statement about the rest of the psalmist’s physical life.

“Why?” you ask.

Well, this leads us to the first word: וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י (wešabtî). This is traditionally translated, “And I will dwell” from the verb יָשַׁב (yāšab) meaning, “to sit or dwell.” There’s only one problem with this understanding of the word in our passage today. וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י (wešabtî) is a compound word made up the verbal portion “šabtî” with the conjunction “we” attached to the front. This means that “we” has to be translated “and,” and “tî” is the first-person singular ending, which leaves us with “šab.” This cannot be the verb “to sit or dwell.” It’s missing the first letter.

So far we know that the psalm ends with this translation: “And I _______ Yahweh’s house for length of days.” But what goes in the blank?

Well, interestingly, there is another verb that contains almost the same letters as יָשַׁב (yāšab). This is the verb שׁוּב (šûb), which is translated “return or repent” depending on the context. Interestingly enough, the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew explains that the first person singular of this verb becomes שַׁ֫בְתִּי (šabtî), which is identical to the verb under consideration, especially when you add the conjunction וְ (we) on the front.

Additionally, David was a shepherd. He herded sheep day in and day out in his youth. Sheep know nothing about eternal life. What they do know is that in the shepherd’s house is rest and safety. The psalm discusses a day in the life of one of Yahweh’s sheep–closely paralleling a day in the life of a literal sheep. They graze during the day, they go to water during the day, they might even face danger during the day. However, at the end of the day, they return to the shepherd’s house.

Therefore, i propose that Psalm 23:6b be better understood this way:

And I will return to Yahweh’s house for length of days.

This makes sense in several different ways. First, it fits the extended metaphor of the psalm. Second, it describes the absolute necessity of desiring intimacy with Yahweh as one of God’s people. Third, it gives this line–and the whole psalm–a present-day application. No more is it a “I’m eternally secure as a Christian because God is my shepherd” (though that is still true), but instead it emphasizes the reality that God is with us all day, every day–not merely in heaven in eternity. This should encourage us to draw near to God daily! Even multiple times daily!

“But wait!” you exclaim. “How dare you throw away eternal life!”

I’m not.

In fact, if we look at the entirety of Psalm 23:6, we see this statement:

Surely goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days I’m living,
And I will return to Yahweh’s house for length of days.

If we think that eternal life is merely something we have to look forward to some time in the future–after we die–we are mistaken. Eternal life is available now! David is describing it in Psalm 23.

God’s tender, loving care. Regularity in God’s presence. Goodness and faithful love pursuing us.

These are present-day blessings available to those who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. These are not things we have to earn by our good deeds. They are ours, now, regardless of what our pasts looked like.

Jesus said:

This is eternal life:
that they may know You, the only true God,
and the One You have sent —Jesus Christ.

John 17:3

This explains why Jesus said:

The one who believes in the Son has eternal life.

John 3:36a

Eternal life is a present possession of the one who believes in Jesus. It’s not something you get after you die. It’s a present reality for the Christian.

David evidenced his belief by his longing to let God lead him. He trusted God, even “in the valley of death’s shadow” (23:4). Nothing could destroy David’s trust in God. And as his psalm evidences, David knew God like a sheep knows its shepherd (cf. John 10:14-16, 27-29).

David had eternal life, and so do all true Christians who treasure Psalm 23. But the simple fact of the matter is that you don’t have to wait until you die to enjoy all the perks of eternal life. Eternal life is experienced now! It’s experienced every day when you draw near to God through prayer and Scripture reading. It is experienced every week when you gather with God’s people at church. Those who know the Lord experience it in sickness and in health, in riches and in poverty, in persecution or in peace.

Let this comfort you in your pain. Let this encourage you in your depression. Let this guide you in your confusion. Eternal life is yours now by faith in Jesus Christ.

He is the Good Shepherd. He gave His life for His sheep so that they could have eternal life. Our response should be twofold:

  1. “I will never lack anything.”
  2. “I will return to Yahweh’s house for length of days.”

Will you respond similarly?

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura
Sola Gratia
Sola Fide

Thanks for reading.

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