The best loved Psalm is also one which comes alive the most when a little contextual light is shone upon it.
<A Psalm of David.>
Yhwh is my shepherd, I shall not be needy.
Shepherds did not drive their flocks, or leave them out on the hills to fend for themselves. Because of the protection and care flocks needed “shepherd” was a common metaphor for leadership, especially kingship. In the Bible and the ANE more generally.
He causes me to lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my life.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
“Green” is a relative term! Except after rains, pasture land in the Judean Desert or the northern Negev is seldom lush. Cf. “I shall not be needy” (v.1). Shepherding country in Palestine is in drier areas (east of the hills or in the south) where surface water is found at the bottom of “Wadis”, steep gorges cut by torrential flooding as water runs quickly off the hills in the rainy season. Such water was life-giving, but potentially dangerous, if run-off from a storm far away in the hills was approaching as a flash flood.
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.
Rods are often thought of a sticks for beating people, but here the thought is of a shepherds crook, used to guide, protect and sometimes rescue…
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Anointing could be a reference to the consecration of kings and priests, but it could simply be continuing the theme of a host and guests, in Egypt for example perfumed wax cones were given to guests to place on their heads, so that as they melted the perfume was released.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall live in the Yhwh’s house my whole life long.
Yhwh’s house here is not the temple, the psalmist is not envisaging a life in temple service, but rather Yhwh’s household, as a member of the “family of God”.
NB: This post is a companion to my E100 podcast at 5 Minute Bible.