If by chance someone has a psalm memorized by heart, it’s almost certainly Psalm 23. This short poem is exceedingly well-known and is often recited in contexts of suffering, sadness, and death. But what makes this particular psalm, just one of 150 in the book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, so popular? And what is this famous little poem about, anyway?
Why is Psalm 23 so popular?
The first thing that should be said in answer to the first question is that Ps 23 hasn’t always been so popular. Like other parts of the Hebrew Bible, the fame of this biblical composition has waxed and waned through the centuries. There are, after all, no less than 149 other psalms, and there is nothing inherently noteworthy about number 23, as opposed to, say, the 19th or the 141st. In the United States, the popularity of Ps 23 may have been triggered by the prominent 19th-century preacher Henry Ward Beecher. In 1858, Beecher described Ps 23 as the nightingale of the psalms.
It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, oh! it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive. Blessed be the day on which that psalm was born! (Beecher, Life Thoughts, 11)
This statement was reused by other writers, some without attribution to Beecher. Louisa May Alcott alluded to the psalm in her novel Little Women (chapter 40 is entitled “The Valley of the Shadow”) and famous politicians even referred to the psalm when describing their own illnesses. By 1916, Ps 23 was part of the standard funeral litany of Methodist churches, placed there, no doubt, as a sign of hope in the life to come.
Indeed, the psalm’s popularity is in no small way due to its hopeful tone, nicely captured in the final line:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Ps 23:6, King James Version [KJV])
Though other factors, such as the psalm’s brevity and its apparent emphasis on individual religion, no doubt contributed to the psalm’s fame, it is this confident tone, coupled with the reference to “forever” in verse 6, which has led to its frequent use at funerals.
What is Psalm 23 about?
But is Ps 23 really about confidence in the face of death? Not really—at least not originally. The psalm is definitely hopeful; generically, it can be classified as a song of trust—a certain type of psalm, other examples of which are known in the book of Psalms (see, e.g., Ps 4, Ps 11, Ps 16, Ps 27:1-6, Ps 62, Ps 131). The hopeful tone evident in the psalm is conveyed through two central images:
- God as a good shepherd, which figures the psalmist as a sheep (Ps 23:1-4).
- God as a gracious host, which figures the psalmist as a guest (Ps 23:5-6).
Neither image concerns death; indeed, shepherds want to keep their sheep alive, as do hosts their guests! This same point is underscored by the excessive and abundant way God’s care (whether as shepherd or host) is described in the psalm. Death is simply not in the poem at all, except, of course, for the famous phrase “the valley of the shadow of death.” This translation, familiar from the King James Version and many other translations, is an ancient one, going all the way back to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. But in each instance, such translations are a “best guess” interpretation of a Hebrew word (tsalmawet) that probably doesn’t mean “shadow of death” at all. Most recent translations reflect different understandings of tsalmawet. Hence: “dark valley” (New American Bible [NAB]), “darkest valley” (New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]), or even “deepest darkness” (TANAKH [NJPS]). If these newer translations are correct, the psalm never once mentions “death,” but is rather about life-giving images of God that create trust and inspire confidence.
But what about “dwelling in the house of the Lord forever” (verse 6)? Isn’t that about the afterlife? At this point, attention to the dynamics of Hebrew poetry is crucial. “Forever” in verse 6 is in parallel relationship to the phrase “all the days of my life” earlier in the same verse. That explains why some translations do not translate “forever” at all but rather “my whole life long” (NRSV) or “as long as I live” (Common English Bible [CEB]). The psalmist is expecting not to die but to live—indeed, the psalmist is deeply thankful for the restorative care God has provided, which enables the psalmist to experience goodness and mercy at all times and to continue to return to God’s house (the temple) as long as he or she lives.
The message is powerful: that the psalmist will be pursued not by enemies but by goodness, and will continually experience God’s presence in the temple. That is why Ps 23 is so famous and well-known. The appeal of such imagery, especially that of God’s protective guidance and hospitality, also commends the (re)use of the psalm in virtually every context—even and especially contexts of distress and death—despite the fact that the psalm itself is somewhat tight-lipped about such circumstances, choosing to focus instead on God’s abounding good care: “my cup is so full it spills over!” (Ps 23:5 CEB).
- Goldingay, John. Psalms 1-41. Vol. 1 of Psalms. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.
- Beecher, Henry Ward. Life Thoughts. Boston: Phillips Sampson, 1858.
- Strawn, Brent A. “Hebrew Poetry.” Pages 959–60 in The New Interpreter’s Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Edited by B. R. Gaventa and D. Petersen. Nashville: Abingdon, 2010.
- Holladay, William L. The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.