Pastoralism in Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is one of the, if not the best-known psalm in the Bible. The value of this poem was expressed well by Bernhard Anderson when he said, “No single psalm has expressed more powerfully man’s prayer of confidence ‘out of the depths’ to the God whose purpose alone gives meaning to the span of life, from womb to tomb.” This Psalm is considered a pastoral poem and is thought to be written by David. This would be appropriate since David was a Shepherd in his youth.

Psalm 23 is one of the earliest examples of pastoral poetry and was written hundreds of years before pastoral poems came to popularity. Classic pastoral poems are about the good life of being a shepherd in the countryside, away from the bustle of urban life. They are often filled with images of domesticated nature that one often finds to be soothing. These images can be seen almost immediately in Psalm 23. The very first line makes the comparison of God to a shepherd. Most times shepherds are the main characters of these poems. Then in line 2, there are calm images of “green pastures” and “water in places of repose.”  These images reinforce the soothing tone of the psalm.

The first line of verse three “He renews my life” is also a characteristic of pastoral poems. It gives a sense of God giving the shepherd peace and restoration.  Pastoral poems often give feelings of peace and calm. These poems idealize rural life and often portray it in an unrealistic way.

While Psalm 23 does have a lot of similarities to a pastoral poem, there are some discrepancies. The psalm starts to lose its feeling of calm and serenity in line 4 with the words, “Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness.” This changes the previously calm and peaceful tone of the poem to a darker, more frightening one. It is as if death is consuming the writer’s life. However, the next line, ”I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff- they comfort me” bring the poem back to a pastoral feeling. The fearlessness and feelings of comfort add to the calm and relaxed tone typical of pastoral poetry.

The images of the last lines of the poem are more social, but still have pastoral characteristics. A banquet is described with the Lord as the host. The writer acknowledges that he has enemies, but instead of fearing them he is calm. “Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life.” This line has the characteristic of a pastoral poem because he is idealizing the rest life, because not every day can only be filled with goodness and love, just like pastoral life is not always calm and serene. Throughout the psalm, images like “my drink is abundant” are put together to create a mood of safety and ease.

The overall meaning of Psalm 23 is to explain the blessings and goodness of God. In order to receive these blessings a person must be one of God’s “sheep.” As sheep, Christians are provided with a life of comfort and ease by God.

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2 Responses to Pastoralism in Psalm 23

  1. You are right to note the turn from the “ideal life” in the green pastures and still waters to the darkness. But recall that this poem was written at least a thousand years before there ever was such a thing as Christianity. It’s one thing to talk about how Christians have adapted this poem into faith practice, but it’s another to say that it is an allegory for Christianity.

  2. csmith73 says:

    Recalling what was said in class, “Sheep are not meant to remain in pasture; they must eventually return to the heard.” I’d be interested to hear some interpretations of that quote in the context of this poem as applied to Christianity. Jesus is the shepherd, but does that mean that his sheep (people) are supposed to intentionally wonder away from him to “graze” only to return to his guidance? Maybe I’m not thinking clearly or perhaps my knowledge is skewed, but that almost seems counter-productive to the Christian religion’s prerogative.

    But I agree, as applicable as the poem is to Christianity, it’s chronologically apparent (inherent) that it is not an allegorical poem exclusive to Christianity.

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