Open Psalm 23.
If you like mysteries, how about the clue above verse 1 in Psalm 23? The compilers who arranged the Psalms after the exile added some clues about how the Psalm was used or understood. Some of these headings are musical instructions. Some provide a historical setting. Almost half the Psalms are labelled “Of David.” What does that mean?
Does it mean that David wrote them? Probably not, since some refer to things that didn’t exist in David’s time (e.g. the temple). Scholars offer alternative suggestions, such as Davidic in style or authority. Here’s another suggestion.
David was the fountainhead of the kings who represented God’s kingship on earth. Each king in his own generation continued David’s role as the representative of God’s reign. Even a future king could be called a “David” (e.g. Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25). When the compilers labelled a psalm as “Davidic” they wanted us to hear the voice in this psalm as the voice of the king. A Davidic psalm was not limited to the original David, but applied to the Davidic ruler in each generation.
If this approach is correct, the “I” in these Psalms it not me (the twenty-first century reader). The “I” is the voice of David, the king who bears the responsibility of caring for God’s people on his behalf. That means the “I” is not merely an individual. The “I” incorporates the nation, all the people represented in their king. If the king lacks no good thing, the people lack no good thing, for what is true of him is true of them.
Let’s try reading Psalm 23 like this. The original David was merely a shepherd boy when anointed as the king to represent God’s reign on earth. The one thing he knew was how to care for and protect his father’s sheep. Now he had responsibility to care for and protect God’s nation. His greatest temptation is to grasp and abuse this power, something David did not completely avoid according to 2 Samuel. But in this Psalm, he has it right. He has authority over God’s people only because he himself is under YHWH’s authority. His voice is the voice of an under-shepherd.
Psalm 23 (amplified to make explicit the care of YHWH through the king for his people):
1 YHWH shepherds me (and all his people through me).
There is nothing I lack (for all those in my care).
2 His leads me, so we rest in verdant pastures.
He guides me along still waters, where we feel safe.
3 He restores my life (which in turn restores his people).
He leads me the right way, so I (and my people) honour his authority.
4 Even when I walk through the darkest shadow, I don’t fear evil overtaking us,
because you are present; your shepherd’s rod and staff are my comfort.
5 You provide for me (and my people) at your table, even though enemies are present.
You anointed me to be your representative king, so my cup contains more than enough to supply your people.
6 Here’s my declaration to my people:
Goodness and covenant faithfulness will follow me (your king) all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the household of YHWH’s reign unceasingly.
Once you see the Psalm like this, there is an application for you, the twenty-first century reader. Do you also have responsibility for other people? In business, education, government, community, church, or family? Let Psalm 23 inspire you to shepherd those in your care in the same way God shepherds you. Let it inspire you as an under-shepherd.
Then re-read the Psalm as it applies to the Son of David who restored the kingdom of God after its 600-year hiatus. Jesus’ role as “good Shepherd” is a royal role: he is the Son who acts on earth for the Father in heaven. The last half of Psalm 23 then takes on a whole new dimension as it describes the Son of David restoring God’s reign on earth.
Try this approach with other Psalms too. It may revolutionize the way you read them. It certainly makes sense of the way the New Testament writers read them.
What others are saying
Bruce K. Waltke et al, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 445:
Ezekiel predicted Messiah’s role as shepherd (Ezek. 37:24), and so did Micah (Mic. 5:2, 4 [1, 3], fulfilled in Matt. 2:6). In the New Testament, Jesus Christ as son of David according to the flesh experiences the shepherding care of his Father in heaven, and as Son of God becomes the good shepherd, providing, restoring, guiding, and protecting his sheep. He is the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:1–16), the “Great Shepherd” (Heb. 13:20), and the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4), forever provisioning them, providing them with rest, restoring their vitality, and safely guiding them to royal festivities at the end of days.
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 2nd edition, (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2004), 209:
The psalm is written consistently from the perspective of the sheep; that is, its expression of trust and confidence presupposes an awareness of helplessness and need on the part of the one who trusts. In a distinctive fashion, the psalmist has set forth the fundamentals of the covenant relationship, not in terms of Lord and servant, but in the more intimate language of shepherd and sheep.