This psalm is attributed to David. As a shepherd in his youth, he deeply cared about the welfare of his father’s sheep, leading them to pasture and water and courageously protecting or rescuing them from lions and bears. (1 Samuel 16:11; 17:34-36) In this psalm, he likened himself to a sheep under the protective care of YHWH, his shepherd.
With YHWH as his shepherd, he was confident that he would never find himself in a state of hopeless need or lack. In being well cared for, his situation was comparable to that of a sheep in a pasture, surrounded by abundant vegetation on which to feed and where there was ample space for rest. Like such a sheep, David would be at rest, content with what YHWH had done for him.
Besides leading sheep to pasture, a shepherd would also conduct them to streams so they could drink. He would locate fresh and gently flowing streams, not turbulent or stagnant waters. From David’s perspective, YHWH’s provisions for him were comparable to waters that would be refreshing and satisfy thirst.
Although David may have been exhausted or weary, YHWH restored or refreshed him (his “soul”). The paths in which he was led were ways of “righteousness.” They were the right paths, never putting him in harm’s way and always leading to benefits and blessings.
David acknowledged that YHWH did this for the “sake of his name.” As his shepherd, YHWH proved true to his word, always acting in harmony with what his name represented, the revelation of himself as the loving, merciful and just God. (Exodus 34:6, 7)
Assured of protective care, David would not give way to fear of being harmed when in a situation comparable to a valley or ravine where shadows hide possible dangers. The imagery suggests a narrow valley between cliffs, where beasts of prey may lurk in the shadows, ready to pounce upon a sheep passing by.
Because YHWH was with him, David believed that he would survive even the most terrifying and gloomy experiences. To him, divine protection was like the rod and staff of a shepherd. With the rod, a shepherd could beat off predators to protect the sheep. The staff, especially one with a crook at the top, could be used to take hold of a sheep’s leg and keep the animal from straying into dangerous areas. The sight of what to him was like a rod and staff proved to be a source of comfort or reassurance to David when faced with difficulties.
At this point, David evidently represents himself, not as a sheep, but as YHWH’s guest, one who is accorded hospitality and protection. In the very presence of foes, where they could not escape noticing it, YHWH arranged a table, supplying him with everything he needed and providing him with an avenue of escape when they might have thought they had him within their grasp to inflict harm.
It was common for a host to anoint the head of a guest with oil. (Compare Luke 7:46.) Applying olive oil, often perfumed, to areas of the skin exposed to the sun would have been refreshing. In speaking of YHWH’s anointing his head, David may have been referring to the refreshment and favor he had bestowed upon him. The Almighty’s provisions for him were so abundant that David could speak of his “cup” as overflowing.
Looking to the future, he confidently expected to be a recipient of divine goodness and abiding loyalty (Hebrew, chésed) or mercy (Greek, éleos) for the rest of his life. There would never be a time when YHWH would withhold from him what is good or fail to reach out to him compassionately in times of need or distress. Divine goodness and compassion would always be present as if continually following or running after him.
David also saw himself as a dweller in YHWH’s house for all the days that lay ahead. This house evidently was the tent where the sacred ark of the covenant was kept, and this was regarded as YHWH’s representative place of dwelling. In a literal sense, David could not live there throughout the rest of his life. But what he could do and ardently desired was to live in a manner that would allow him to enjoy YHWH’s favor and blessing as if a guest in his tent or house for the length or duration of days—all time to come.
In verse 4, the Septuagint uses the expression “shadow of death,” whereas the Masoretic Text may be understood to mean “valley of gloom.” There is also a possibility that the Hebrew expression could signify “valley of the shadow of death.”
In verse 5, where the Masoretic Text reads “my cup,” the Septuagint rendering is, “your cup [is] intoxicating like the best,” probably meaning that the cup or portion from YHWH is as cheering as the best of wine.
See Psalm 5, regarding chésed and éleos.
The Septuagint (in the concluding verse) does not refer to “goodness,” as does the Masoretic Text.
See Psalm 1 regarding the divine name (YHWH).