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Psalm 23 - An Exhaustive Verse-by-Verse Analysis of the Psalms from a Natsarim Perspective

Tehillim תְהִלִּים (Praises)

Psalm (Tehillah) 23

This information is compiled predominantly from an anthology of Orthodox Jewish commentary, written and arranged by Rabbi Avroham Chaim Feuer from the Artscroll Tanach Series Tehillim Volume 1. Some of the original text has been modified and expanded to include reference to Yahshua HaMoshiach. This and other additional material has been added for a Nazarene Israelite (Natsarim) perspective by Jason Jordan. Additional Tehillim translation by Rabbi Hillel Danziger

David composed this famed psalm during one of the most dangerous and discouraging periods in his life. He was a forlorn fugitive, fleeing from King Saul and his army. In desperation, David hid himself in a barren, desolate forest called Hereth (1 Samuel 22:5), so named because it was parched and dry, baked earthenware. But Elohim did not forsake David. He soaked this dry forest with a moisture which had the flavour of the World to Come, making even the grass and leaves of the forest succulent and edible (Midrash). This showed David that Elohim supports and nourishes at all times even when the chances of survival seem to be non-existent.

David does not confine his inspiration to himself; he utilises it to sing for all of Israel, recalling how Elohim provided for the entire nation throughout its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 166:1) cites a custom to recite this psalm between the washing of hands and the recital of the blessing of bread (cf. Eliyahu Rabba ibid.).

Arizal explains the connection between Psalm 23 and the (bread) meal. The psalm contains fifty-seven words, the numerical equivalent of the word ‘nourishes.’ Furthermore, it contains 227 letters, the numerical equivalent of ‘blessing.’ Arizal concludes that those who recite this psalm and live by its message will always be blessed with ample provisions.

Psalms 23

1. “A song of David: YHWH is my shepherd, I shall not lack.”

“…my shepherd…” This term describes Elohim as the Supreme Provider of all human needs.

The Targum translates it, ‘He provided all of His nations needs in the wilderness.’ In Psalms 80:2 we find another example of this title, ‘Shepherd (Targum: ‘Provider’) of Israel, listen, You who led the people of Joseph like sheep.’ The entire nation is identified with Joseph because he supported them and provided for all their needs during the famine (Rashi).

Similarly, Jacob said of Elohim: (Genesis 48:15) ‘…Elohim who provided for me.’

Midrash Shocker Tov comments: ‘There is no occupation which is more degrading and lowly than that of the shepherd who trudges about all day carrying his stick and his knapsack. Yet David dared to call Elohim a shepherd! David declared, ‘I take a lesson from my ancestors! Jacob called Elohim his shepherd and so I call Him that too!

Isaiah 40:11; “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.”

Yahshua said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

John 10:14-15; "I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”

David had the same devotion to protecting his flock as Moshiach does toward Israel. 1 Samuel 17:34-36; “But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living Elohim.’”

1 Peter 5:4; “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

Revelation 7:17; “…for the Lamb in the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and Elohim will wipe every tear from their eyes."

Moshe Rabbenu, (our great teacher, Moshe) and King David were considered worthy to be leaders of Israel because of their compassionate treatment of animals, when they were shepherds. Rebecca was judged suitable to be a wife of the patriarch Isaac because of her kindness in watering the ten camels of Abraham's servant.

Many Torah laws involve proper treatment of animals. One may not muzzle an ox while it is working in the field nor yoke a strong and a weak animal together. Animals, as well as people, are allowed to rest on the Sabbath day.

The psalmist indicates Elohim's concern for animals, for "His compassion is over all of His creatures" (Psalms 145:9). And there is a mitzvah-precept in the Torah to emulate the Divine compassion, as it is written: "And you shall walk in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9). Perhaps an Israelite’s attitude toward animals is best summarized by Proverbs 12:10: "The righteous person considers the soul (life) of his or her animal."

In summary, the Torah prohibits an Israelite from causing tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, any unnecessary pain to living creatures, even psychological pain. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an outstanding 19th century philosopher, author, and Torah commentator, eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals:

Here you are faced with Elohim's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours. (Horeb, Chapter 60, #416) In the same section, Rabbi Hirsch indicates further how great our concern for animals must be:

There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beating as man.

David spent the early, formative years of his life as a shepherd. He was proud of those years which played such an important role in developing his leadership abilities. The Midrash (Shmos Rabba 2:3) sets down the rule: ‘The Holy One blessed be He does not elevate anyone to a great position of leadership until He first tests him in small, lowly matters.

“…I shall not lack.” David felt like a sheep who has no reason to care for his own welfare because he knows that his shepherd (Elohim) will provide for all of his needs (Radak).

2. “In lush meadows He lays me down, beside tranquil waters He leads me.”

Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Metzudos relate ‘dwelling, abode,’ as it refers to pastureland of the sheep which is its abode.

David continues his comparison of Elohim to a shepherd, likening Him to one who seeks out choice grazing grounds for his flock (Metzudas David).

According to Midrash Shocher Tov David alludes to Elohim’s generosity in providing the necessities and comforts of Israel in the desert. In particular he refers to the well of Miriam, a fresh-water spring that followed the Israelites wherever they went in the parched desert, thanks to the merit of the righteous prophetess.

3. “He restores my soul. He leads me on paths of justice for His Name’s sake.”

“He restores…” This translation follows Rashi who explains: My spirits have become faint as a result of great trials and tragedies, but YHWH revives me and restores my vigor. [Thus the word is derived from ‘return.’]

Elohim is not inconsiderate of His flock, driving it rapidly from one grazing area to another. He leads it slowly so that the sheep never become exhausted.

4. “Though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

“Though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death…” The Targum says that this refers to ‘exile,’ in general. Radak explains that this describes a place of danger which is as dark and forbidding as the grave. Rashi maintains that David had a specific place in mind here, the Wilderness of Zif, where he was treacherously betrayed and came face to face with the scepter of death at the hands of Saul (1 Samuel 23:19-29). Never in his life was David closer to the grave.

“…I will fear no evil” Chovos Halevovos tells that a devout person was once found sleeping alone in the middle of a barren and forbidding wilderness. When he was asked, ‘Are you not afraid of the many wild beasts?’, he replied, ‘I am too ashamed before Elohim to be afraid of anything in the world accept Him!’

“Your rod…” This alludes to afflictions as in, ‘And I will punish their transgressions with the rod’ (Psalm 89:33) (Midrash Shocker Tov; Rashi)

“…Your staff…” I count on YHWH’s mercy to be my staff for support in times of affliction (Rashi).

According to Targum and Midrash Shocker Tov, YHWH’s staff is His Torah, as in the phrase ‘with the lawmakers scepter, with their staff’ (Numbers 21:18).

[Others explain that the rod of affliction is itself the staff of support. For, only through affliction can man atone for his sins in this world so that he may stand upright to receive his reward in the Hereafter. Furthermore, without afflictions one cannot merit the comprehension of Torah, as David himself said: ‘Fortunate is the man who is afflicted by YHWH and from His Torah He teaches Him (Psalms 94:12).]

“… they comfort me.” They actually means both of them together, as one; for Elohim provides an equal balance of affliction and support, blending them skillfully to achieve the desired effect. This follows the idea mentioned previously that the affliction itself is a support. “I give thanks to You YHWH for You were angry with me. May Your wrath subside and Your will comfort me” (Isaiah 12:1).

5. “You prepare a table before me in full view of my tormentors. You anointed my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

“You prepare a table before me…” The Midrash (Shmos Rabba 25:7) says that these words are directed towards the nations of the world who saw Israel leave Egypt and enter the wilderness. They gloated, ‘this nation will surely perish in this desert!’ The Psalmist records their words, ‘Is Elohim able to prepare a table [for them] in the desert?’

What did Elohim do? He surrounded them with protective clouds and rained down so much manna that it piled up high to the sky for all the nations to see. As Israel relaxed and ate they offered praise to Elohim, fulfilling the verse, ‘You prepare a table before me in full view of my tormentors.’

“You anointed my head with oil…” This literally means ‘to saturate with fat, to moisten with oil.’ David used this odd term to describe his anointment as king because many of his enemies conceded that he had been chosen king, but that his sins had invalidated the choice – that it was as if the anointing oil had become dry. Therefore, David stresses that the anointment is still ‘moist’ on his head, i.e. just as valid as when Samuel poured it on him (Alshich).

“…my cup overflows.” This is a metaphor describing contentment (Rashi).

Elohim’s provisions are not meager; they are generously given (Sforno).

The Midrash (Shemos Rabba, ibid.) interprets this as referring to the free-flowing, never ending waters of Miriam’s well.

6. “May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the House of YHWH for long years.”

According to Midrash Shocker Tov, ‘goodness’ and ‘kindness’ refer to material success. However, David prefaces his request with the diminutive ‘only,’ a small amount, to emphasize that he asks only a bare minimum of worldly goods, lest unnecessary luxury deprive him of the full share in the World to Come.

Ibn Ezra (v.5) explains that ‘good,’ refers to spiritual self-enrichment. ‘Kindness,’ describes a deep concern for the spiritual welfare of others which is manifest in an effort to teach them the ways of Elohim. These two activities should become a constant, irreversible way of life. So much so, that the ingrained nature to do only good would not allow even a momentary lapse. Thus his noble inclinations will ‘pursue; him relentlessly to continue on the path of ‘good’ and kindness.’

Galatians 6:9; “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

2 Thessalonians 3:13; “And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.”

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