This week’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 23, one of the most familiar and best-loved psalms of the entire psalter. It paints vivid pictures of a carefree existence, peaceful rest, and abundant fruitfulness.
God’s loving care, portrayed as that of a shepherd and a host, is drawn from traditions of the Exodus (Isaiah 40:11, 49:10; Jeremiah 31:10).
This psalm takes on its full meaning after Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11,14, cf. Hebrews 13:20). With Jesus, who has already prepared the table of the Eucharist for us, and under his guidance, we hope to reach the green pastures of his Kingdom, that is, happiness to the full (cf. 1 Peter 5:4, Revelation 7:17).
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
The psalm opens with a metaphor that sets the tone for the entire song. It is the responsibility of the shepherd to find pastures that will provide enough grazing and abundant water for the entire flock, to lead them there without allowing any of the sheep to stray and be lost, to guard them against predators or dangers of any kind, and to attend to their every need.
To characterize the LORD as a shepherd is to trust that God will discharge all of these responsibilities. This metaphor is common in both the Old Testament (Ezekiel 34:11-16) and the New Testament (John 10:11-18).
beside restful waters he leads me;
What makes this psalm special is its personal dimension. The psalm shifts the care given to the entire flock to concern for one individual, making God’s providence a very intimate matter.
he refreshes my soul.
Not only are the physical needs of the psalmist satisfied, but the soul, the very life force (nepesh) of the person is renewed.
He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.
The guidance of the shepherd is more than provident, it is moral as well. The psalmist is led in the paths of righteousness (i.e., the “right way”), and this is done for the sake of the LORD’s name. Since one’s name is a part of the very essence of the person, this indicates that the way of the LORD is the way of righteousness.
Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil;
The valley of “deep darkness” can be a reference to the darkest part of the terrain or to the gloom that can overwhelm an individual. It also has a mythological connotation and is frequently interpreted as death. Whichever meaning is intended, the psalmist claims to be unafraid, for the presence of the LORD is reassuring.
for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.
The psalmist is confident of the LORD’s protection, as demonstrated in his mention of the shepherd’s rod and staff, which were used to ward off wild animals and poachers.
Notice how the sense of security that the LORD gives, even in the midst of affliction, allows the speaker to address him directly.
You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes;
Another metaphor is introduced: God is a generous host, one who prepares a lavish banquet and within whose house the psalmist ultimately dwells.
Many societies have a very strict code of hospitality. They are obliged to provide the very best provisions they have, even for their enemies. The LORD does just that here, which not only affords nourishment but also is a public witness to God’s high regard for the psalmist.
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
A perfumed ointment made from olive oil was used especially at banquets (Psalm 104:15; Matthew 26:7; Luke 7:37; John 12:2).
The LORD has made the psalmist his guest, anointing him and filling him with good things.
Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life;
The magnanimous care and generosity shown by God flow from enduring covenant kindness (hesed) rather than from some mere passing sentiment of heart. The psalmist expresses confidence that he will go on enjoying the benefits of the Covenant for the rest of his life.
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.
Whether this refers to the Temple or simply indicates the place where God dwells, the fundamental meaning is clear: The psalmist has been under the loving guidance of the LORD and will remain there forever.
In the light of Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd, all who believe in him and in his work of redemption can adopt the psalm’s words and feelings:
“Just as when a shepherd, who sees his flock scattered, takes up one of his sheep and brings it to where he wants to go, and draws the others along the path behind him, the Word of God assumed our human nature that had long gone astray. He took the form of a slave, uniting himself to all mankind, and thus led all to turn to him; in so doing, he led into the divine pastures those who had walked by dangerous ways at the mercy of rapacious wolves.
This was why the Lord took on our human nature; for this, Christ, the Lord, endured his saving passion, gave himself up to death, and was laid in a tomb — to bring us out from the ancient tyranny of sin and to give the hope of perfection to a people who had always been subject to decay. By the restoration of the ruined temple of his body through his resurrection, he revealed the truth and resolve of his promises to the dead and to all who hoped for their resurrection” (Theodoret of Cyrrhus, De Incarnatione Domini, 28).