When you teach on the Psalms, you need to discuss the headings, but sometimes it gets a little sticky, even controversial.  Unlike the headings (also called titles or superscriptions) Bible translations sometimes add these headings are actually present in the Hebrew text.  The person mentioned most frequently in psalm headings is David, who appears in just less than half (73 headings, Psalms 3-41 and 34 other psalms).  

Now, I’m going to talk a little about Hebrew, but bear with me.  It will help you understand the Psalms better, particularly Psalm 23, and I’ll tell a personal story at the end. 

In the Hebrew, these headings read simply ledawid. The Hebrew preposition le is added to the beginning of a word (dawid is “David” transliterated) and often means “to” or “for”, but can mean other things as well.  So, ledawid could be translated as “to David,” “for David” “by David” or “of David.”      

Most contemporary translations go with “of David” (ESV, NIV, NIV, NRSV).  Eugene Peterson’s The Message has “A David psalm” which I like because it works well with the ambiguity of the Hebrew and still sounds fresh.

When I teach on the psalm headings, I tell people it is safe to assume that David wrote many of these “Davidic” psalms, but it is not necessary to conclude that he wrote all of them.  When it comes to Psalm 23, however the language of the psalm itself would suggest the author was very familiar with the occupation of shepherding.  As a shepherd, David seems a logical choice (1 Sam. 16:11; 17:34).  It is safe to say, Psalm 23 is a psalm “by David.”

Now you’re thinking, “Wow, it took you a long time to tell me something I already know.”  Yes, be patient.  Hopefully, my story that will tie some of this together. 

Recently I’ve been reading the psalms daily.  The psalmist gives voice to my prayers because of my health problems (reflux, vocal chord damage and stress).  This morning as I was praying through the psalms I asked God to speak to me.  I waited for awhile in silence.  Then I felt like God said to me, “I am your shepherd, David.”  Hearing it this way, the psalm connected with me deeply. 

Then it struck me—Psalm 23 is a psalm “by David” yes, but it was also a psalm “for David” since God was the shepherd for the shepherd-king.  The ambiguity of the heading fits perfectly for this dual meaning. 

But then I was struck again, God was speaking this psalm to me personally.  It was a psalm “for David” –that’s me (I was named after King David).  “I am your shepherd, David.”

Since the psalms were recorded in Israel’s book of corporate worship, we can be confident we are supposed to identify with the psalmist.  So Psalm 23 is for any of God’s people who need a shepherd.  God says, “I am your shepherd David, Cindy, Sansung, Linda, Noah, Jason and Xiaowei.”  The last six names represent nine students (3 have the same name) I’m currently teaching in my Reading the Old Testament Missionally course. 

In this course, students recently visited a marginalized community, interviewed people, then wrote a sermon based on an Old Testament passage that would speak to their needs.  Communities that were visited included AIDS patients, the disabled, immigrants, widows, prisoners, hospitalized soldiers and families of children with autism. 

As God sends us into the world to spread the gospel and care for the marginalized, we’ll need a shepherd to look after us.  And we’ll need to tell people the good news that, in the midst of their pain, need or loss, they also have a good shepherd in Jesus. 

Jesus says to each of us, “I am your shepherd (fill in your name here).” 

If you are interested, here is my previous post on Psalm 23 for Biblical's faculty blog.. My next blog post will continue to focus on Psalm 23.

During this Christmas season, how will you need a shepherd as you care for others?

Psalm 23  A Psalm of David.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

3He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?  David blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb


0 # carter hewson 2012-12-29 15:53
Thanks for the encouragement offered through these insights on Psalm 23. You've helped me to re-appropriate these familiar words to my life.
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0 # David Lamb 2013-01-01 16:53
Hi Carter. Thanks for interacting. I'm glad it's been an encouragement. Despite it's familiarity, the Psalm continues to bless me. Happy New Year.
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