The responsorial psalm this week comes from Psalm 23, one of the most widely recognized and beloved psalms. It depicts an idyllic life of tranquility, serenity, and abundance.
The portrayal of God’s affectionate care as a shepherd and host is rooted in the traditions of the Exodus (Isaiah 40:11, 49:10, and Jeremiah 31:10).
The full significance of this psalm is revealed only in light of Jesus’s teachings on being the good shepherd (John 10:11,14; Hebrews 13:20). Through Jesus, who has already set the table for the Eucharist, and under his care, we aspire to reach the verdant fields of his Kingdom, which represent complete happiness (see 1 Peter 5:4 and Revelation 7:17).
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
The psalm opens with its famous metaphor. A shepherd’s responsibility is to lead them to water and pastures to graze that will sustain the entire flock while protecting them and attending to their every need.
Characterizing the LORD as a shepherd means that God will discharge all of these responsibilities for his people.
beside restful waters he leads me;
Part of what makes this psalm unique is how deeply personal it is. Here it pivots away from the shepherd’s care of the entire flock to attending to one individual, portraying the intimacy of God’s love.
he refreshes my soul.
God’s care goes beyond the psalmist’s physical needs. Their very life force (nepesh), their soul, is renewed.
He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.
The LORD provides moral guidance as well, for the glorification of God’s name.
Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil;
The “dark valley” has been interpreted in various ways: as a literal reference to the landscape, as emotional despair, or by a mythological connotation that suggests death. Regardless of the specific meaning intended, the psalmist is unafraid, because God is with him.
for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.
Mention of the shepherd’s rod and staff, used to ward off predators and poachers, demonstrate the LORD’s protection.
Notice how the psalmist addresses God directly. One gets the sense that the author feels a sense of security and empowerment, which stems from God’s protection.
You spread the table before me in the sight of my foes;
Another metaphor: God is a generous host who prepares a lavish feast. Later we will see that the psalmist has even been invited to “dwell in the house of the LORD.”
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
An aromatic ointment made from olive oil was used on special occasions for celebratory purposes (Psalm 104:15; Matthew 26:7; Luke 7:37; John 12:2).
God has made the psalmist an honored guest, anointing him and filling him with good things.
Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life;
The word used here for kindness is actually covenant kindness (hesed), indicating that the magnanimous care and generosity being shown si more than a mere passing sentiment.
The psalmist knows the benefits of this covenant kindness will endure for the rest of his life.
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.
Whether this alludes to the Temple or merely signifies the abode of God, the essential message is clear: The psalmist has been under the direct care of God and will remain there permanently.
In light of Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd, all who believe in him and in his work of redemption can share in this confidence.
“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” (Theodoret of Cyrrhus, De Incarnatione Domini, 28).