David, king of Israel is referred to as ‘the Psalmist’. This psalm, like most of the others is attributed to him. From the onset in verse 1, he acknowledges God as his shepherd. The imagery on use here is drawn from the real setting in ancient middle-eastern practice where the sheep’ every need are met by the caring shepherd. The psalmist is the sheep and the Lord, his shepherd. This is a metaphor. God meets all his needs so that nothing he wants beyond what the Lord offers is needful. In other words, there is nothing he needs that the Lord cannot provide. Bible scholars do sometimes represent the shepherd-hood elaborated in this psalm as the welfare function ancient near-eastern kings demonstrated in the life of their people. For this reason, propositions that suggest that the psalm may have been written at about the time of Jeremiah when kings and other forms of leadership started assuming some responsibility for the layman have emerged. This date would be sometime about 590 B.C., before the Babylonian captivity. This notion doesn’t favour the general belief that David wrote it. Surely, Yahweh did reign as a king in the psalmist’s life and Israel’s nationality but while scholarship may use this often as an allegory to state their position, it is worthwhile to note that the psalmist most probably viewed the nature of his relationship with God as something much greater than a king’s concern for those he ruled. Obviously, God was far much more than a king to him. Otherwise, God wouldn’t have to deliver him from troubles human kings wouldn’t be able to (see verse 4). Secondly, the possibility that David is drawing a parallel between his experiences and relationship with God cannot be overlooked. He was a shepherd boy in his father’s house before Samuel anointed him king(1 Sam.16:11-13). He definitely knows what it’s like to be a shepherd or to be looked after by one and he shows this in his conversation with Saul, just before he slew Goliath. He draws inspiration from his experiences in saving his sheep from lion and bear attacks (1 Sam. 17:34-37). Indeed, these past experiences must have inspired his writings in this psalm.
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From verse 2, the psalmist begins to explain how the Lord meets his needs. â€¦making him lie down in green pastures and leading him besides still waters. This is a metonymy. Today, people use the sentence, ‘in search of greener pastures’ figuratively to mean looking for better living. The ‘still waters’ in 2b is indicative of the peace and tranquillity that is expected to accompany the good life, both externally from enemies around and inwardly. One can readily call to mind that David, the psalmist and popular king of Israel in the Bible was a man of war. He spoke of this peace (1 Chron. 22:18) and craves it here. The entire verse is reminiscent of the atmosphere, often of an euphoria evoked when reading a typical romantic literature. Because he knows that living in sin ultimately leads to the death of the soul (Ezek.18:4b), he acknowledges God’s shepherd-hood and righteous nature in bringing him back to the ways of life through doing right(verse 3).
Clarke(1952) opts for the view that the valley of the shadow of death in the fourth verse is probably one of hostile spirits like a situation experienced in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. This is a literal posture to take especially when considering the fact that nothing brings one so close to dying as the experience of being at war and in danger of an enemy that can kill at any time. David must have been hunted by such despair often. He was a man of war and must have had a close shave with death sometimes while fighting. It is the despair amidst these encounters of narrow snatches away from the pangs of death that he probably refers to as the shadow of death. The second part of the verse is more revealing in this regard, taking into consideration the old usage for the word ‘comfort’: to encourage and strengthen in times of fear or grief, pain, anguish, sorrow, discouragement, or discomfort. Although similar themes would have been very much prominent during the reign of Solomon or the era of Jeremiah, certain features of this psalm that make it seem older than these periods.
In verse 5, the psalmist reiterates the declaration he made at the beginning, but this time doing it with a greater assurance that God will meet his needs even in the presence of his enemies, ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’. The middle part cannot be explanatory of anything else other than the dwelling of God’s spirit upon him. Anointing with oil on the head is usually indicative of the presence of the Holy Spirit, not just symbolic. This is especially so in the old testament. It is not clear what is being referred to in the concluding part of the verse ‘my cup runneth over’, whether it is just the blessings that had been recanted in past verses or the anointing of the Spirit shortly acknowledged. It probably refers to an abundance of all of them.
Clarke’s Concise Bible Commentary suggests ‘house of the Lord’ in versa 6 referring to the temple as counteractive to the old belief that David wrote this psalm, because the temple was not built by the time of David. God told him that he would not build His house but his son shall build it (1 Chron. 17). However, it should be called to mind that even before the temple was built, David referred to God’s dwelling presence as His temple (2 Sam. 22: 7). Therefore, ‘house of the Lord’ cannot be solely representative of a physical temple. Even if a physical abode were to be ascribed to it, it surely had to be the ark of the covenant or tabernacle which was the only way God assured the Israelites of his presence with them then. There seems to be a play of words here. Indeed, David was a man of war and blood but what this line of reasoning fails to acknowledge is that in his eagerness to build a house for the Lord, he could have referred to the abiding presence of God in his own life, represented at certain times by the ark of the covenant in the tent as the house of God. For him who was used to the presence of God and had enjoyed so much of God’s favour upon his life, the house of the Lord may not necessarily have to be a physical temple. It could be the tent or the manifest presence of God’s spirit. Even Clarke(482) does not fail to recognize the metaphor that ‘dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ could connote. That is, a metaphor for the wider presence of God. In another sense, it could be a prophetic declaration referring to worship in the eternal life to come.
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The Psalm would have been written at about 980 B.C. if David wrote it. Solomon’s reign at the temple was at about 930 B.C. Some schools of thought are of the view that it could have been written much later during the exile of 722 B.C. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary ( 530 ) for example relates the “dwell” in v. 6 with that in Psalm 27:4. In a sense, it’s used to mean “return”, i.e. to the land of Israel from which they have been taken bondage. Therefore, beyond the generally accepted notion that the house of the Lord is the temple, it could as well be symbolic of the entire land of Israel. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary ( 530 ), making reference to 1 Kings 8: 65-66, draws attention to the way ancient Near Eastern kings would organize lavish banquets on special occasions as an imagery the writer employs to describe the care and provision by the Lord, his shepherd king. Although the instance cited above took event during Solomon’s reign, but even David as an experienced king showed he knew this culture when he allowed the only surviving member of Saul’s family, Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth to continually dine at his table (2 Sam. 9). Also, this verse could be reflective of the numerous blessings and victories the psalmist has enjoyed around and about himself from God in the form of all sorts of victories from warring with hostile neighbours and the spoils gained from such victories. The peace alone from such conquests was much consolation. By ‘goodness and mercyâ€¦.days of my life’, the psalmist doesn’t seem to want this feast of favours upon him to come to an end. The psalm shows God’s care for those who truly worship Him.
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