June 4, 2007

Psalm 23

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

A Psalm
By David.

Yahweh is my shepherd;
I will not lack.
In green pastures he makes me lie down;
Beside restful waters he leads me.
My soul he restores;
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk in the valley of death-shadow,
I will not fear evil,
For you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare before me a table in the presence of my oppressors.
You fatten my head with oil.
My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and loyalty will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in Yahweh’s house to length of days.

As James Jordan argues, this psalm is a battle song. We often sing it (or paraphrases of it) to quiet settings, like “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” or the Scottish Psalter melody. But the psalm talks about being “in the presence of my enemies” and “in the valley of death-shadow.” Perhaps we need some more martial melodies for this psalm.

In connection with the “green pastures” (which could be rendered “pastures of green-grass,” since the word for “green” is the word for “grass”),  compare Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, where he points out that Jesus made them recline on the “green grass.”

In the second stanza, “death-shadow” is a rare compound word in Hebrew.  It combines the word for “shadow” and the word for “death.”  It may refer to a very dark shadow, as some suggest, but the threat of death seems to be present.  Hirsch renders this “the valley overshadowed by death.”

The phrase “you fatten my head” immediately makes us think of someone who is a fat-head or perhaps of someone who is proud and is “getting a swelled head.”  That’s unfortunate, but I don’t know that it can be helped.  Most translations say something like “You anoint my head with oil,” and that’s certainly what’s in view here.  But the word is not the normal Hebrew word for anointing.  It does quite literally mean “to make fat.”

What’s in view here?  Fat is God’s portion of the offerings, and so to make someone’s head fat might mean to make that person’s head acceptable to God. That’s part of the purpose of the anointing with oil.  Alternatively (or in addition), as James Jordan suggests, it may imply here that David’s headship will become fatter; that is, his rule will expand to include more territory, perhaps as a result of the battles mentioned in the psalm.

Finally, the word translated “surely” in the last couplet can also mean “only” (“Only goodness and loyalty will follow me…”), which is the way Hirsch renders it, so that the meaning may be that, no matter what comes, what follows me is only Yahweh’s goodness and loyalty.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:21 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Psalm 23”

  1. Al Says:

    A few brief questions and suggestions:

    1. ‘My soul he restores’. I like Kenneth Bailey’s suggestion that this refers to rescuing a lost sheep — ‘He brings me back’.

    2. ‘Righteous paths’. Although most translations use ‘righteousness’ here, I wonder whether it might be better to use a slightly weaker word here. ‘tsedeq’ could simply refer to ‘right’ or ‘faithful’ paths, without denying the possibility of a stronger meaning to the term. Like the term ‘evil’, the English term ‘righteousness’ is stronger than the Hebrew term that it translates.

    3. ‘My cup is overflowing’. It seems to me that it is slightly more probable that this phrase means that his cup fully satisfies him.

    Apart from these very minor issues, I like your translation.

  2. John Barach Says:

    Thanks for the interaction, Al.

    1. My soul he restores. The idea here may very well be that the shepherd brings the sheep back. “My soul” here doesn’t mean “the inner invisible part of me” or something like that. It refers to the psalmist’s life which has been restored, perhaps by being rescued, perhaps also (given the context) by good food and drink.

    2. Paths of righteousness. I’ve tried to translate tsedeq fairly consistently, but there’s no one word that quite does justice to it. “Right paths” is probably good here, and of course “righteousness” often has the sense of faithfulness in relationships, so your suggestions are valid. Still, I wanted the reader to be able to recognize that this line is related in some way to all the “righteousness” stuff in the Bible. So these are “right paths” in the sense that they go in the right direction, but that still seems to have an ethical sense: the sheep is being led in the direction he ought to go which, ethically speaking, is righteousness.

    3. My cup is overflowing. I think you’re right about the implication: the cup is abundant enough to fully satisfy. “Overflowing” is a hard word to translate: “abundantly satisfactory” perhaps.

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