Psalm 23 – exploring the Hebrew

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exploring Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is probably the most well-known psalm!

However, there’s always more to discover, as I found when I started to explore the Hebrew words and their meanings.

To do this, I’ve looked up the psalm on Biblehub and clicked through to look at the root Hebrew words and what other meanings are also ascribed to that word.

(You’ll find loads of fun activities to explore this together in the Shepherd Faith at home mini-mag.)

Verse 1
A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want.

The word ‘psalm’ in Hebrew is מִזְמ֥וֹר miz-mō-wr (pronounced miz-more) which literally means ‘melody’. It comes from the Hebrew root word זָמַר zamar, which means ‘to make music [in praise of God]’. That is what a psalm primarily is: a song of praise to God. It’s amazing to have an ancient song which has been used by God’s people over many centuries, and while I will look into what this psalm says about our relationship with God, let’s remember at the start that it was not written as a way to teach others about God, but as a way of praying or chatting with God, of singing praise and worshipping God. As we look at the Hebrew words and what they might mean both for all God’s people and so us personally, let’s be open to using these words in our own praise of God. You might like to find a song version to listen to as we explore!

The first word of the psalm proper is God’s name, יְהוָֹה Yahweh (pronounced yeh-ho-vaw’, thus where we get the word Jehovah). It’s the word being used every time our English translation uses LORD in caps, and it’s where we get the word ‘Halelujah which literally means ‘Praise Yah’ or ‘Praise the Lord’.

The Yahweh is coupled with the word רֹ֝עִ֗י rō-‘î, translated ‘my shepherd’. This Hebrew word is from the word רָעָה ra’ah which means to pasture, tend or graze

The second sentences is also two words in Hebrew: לֹ֣א אֶחְסָֽר׃ ’eḥ-sār, literally ‘Not I shall want’. The word ‘want’ could also be translated as lack or need, lacking or decrease.

Thus this sentence could be read: God is the One who tends to me, therefore I am not lacking anything.

How would you word it?

Verse 2
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

The word ‘pastures’ is בִּנְא֣וֹת  bin-’ō-wṯ which comes from the root word ‘naah’ meaning habitation, house, pasture, pleasant place.  To me, this suggests that this place where the Lord makes us lie down is a good place for us to stay, not just a temporary pausing place.

The word ‘green’ is דֶּ֭שֶׁא de-še which has connotations of fresh growth and tender grass; this is a vibrant, abundant place where our needs are met.

The phrase ‘he makes me lie down’ comes from the Hebrew יַרְבִּיצֵ֑נִי yar-bî-ṣê-nî; which stems from the root word ‘rabats’ meaning to stretch oneself out, lie down, lie stretched out. Again, this doesn’t sound like a quick sit down on a long walk, but a place to really stop and stay.

The is confirmed by the word ‘still’ which is from the Hebrew word מְנֻח֣וֹת mə-nu-ḥō-wṯ from the root word ‘menuchah’ meaning resting place.

The Hebrew word used for ‘he leads me’ (יְנַהֲלֵֽנִי׃ yə-na-hă-lê-nî.) is also specific to this situation. It comes from the root word ‘nahal’, meaning to lead or guide to a watering place, bring to a place of rest, refresh.

These words all lead to a picture of God who leads us to a place for us to rest and have our needs met. It sounds idyllic, but wait for the rest!

Verse 3
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

This first phrase is again two words in Hebrew: נַפְשִׁ֥י nap̄-šî יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב yə-šō-w-ḇêḇ;

Napsi comes from the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ which has a dense and rich meaning: a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion. I think of this as being the essence of what makes you alive, what drives you, including your whole self. (For more on this you could look at the book Body by Paula Gooder.)

The second word comes from the root word shub, which means to turn back or return.

For me, this opens up a picture of this place God takes us to having the effect of restoring us to the way he first created us, of turning back time on all the mess in our lives due to our own baggage or that of others and restoring his image in us when he first made us, returning us to a place of complete goodness and blessing, as in Genesis 1.

This time the words ‘He leads me’ come from the Hebrew word יַֽנְחֵ֥נִי yan-ḥê-nî , from a different root word from this phrase in verse 2. This time it means to lead or guide.

In the paths is from the Hebrew word בְמַעְגְּלֵי־ ḇə-ma‘-gə-lê-, from the root word ‘magal’ meaning entrenchment, track. I’ve read a commentary which suggested this referenced the terraced pastureland in Israel, where there were circular tracks leading up hills, where flocks could be lead upwards in a spiral. This, it said, could be a picture of how we sometimes feel like we are moving in circles, like we’ve been here before, but that God is leading us ever upwards.

I also like the idea that righteousness is a track or a trench in which I am moving, following in the footsteps of many others who have created this way in which I follow. It reminds me of Hebrews 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” 

The word ‘righteousness’ comes from the Hebrew word צֶ֝֗דֶק ṣe-ḏeq, which includes concepts of justice and ‘rightness’. It’s a word used a lot in the Old Testament to describe the way of life which God desires for us. It’s something we long for in all areas of our life from an early age, for things to be as they should be. It’s also a word used to describe God’s character and actions.

The phrase ‘For the sake of his name’ comes from the two Hebrew words לְמַ֣עַן lə-ma-‘an שְׁמֽוֹ׃ šə-mōw. This word can literally mean a person’s name, and also their renown or reputation, but also refer to their character, to how people understand them to be. God has many names, all of which refer to different aspects of his character.

I wonder which one the author was thinking of.

I wonder which is your favourite.

Verse 4
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

This verse is where the Psalm moves from a kind of idyllic picture of a wonderful life with God with no problems to one which includes difficulty and even death!

The word ‘even’, sometimes translated ‘Yea’, comes from the Hebrew word גַּ֤ם gam , which means also, moreover, yea. This darker verse is not meant to be taken separately from verses 1-3, but alongside. The author is describing a relationship with God in which God’s intentions for them are very good, but even when life is difficult and dangerous, they will not be afraid. Why? Because of the presence of God beside them.

The phrase ‘darkest valley’ or ‘valley of the shadow of death’ comes from the Hebrew word צַלְמָ֡וֶת ṣal-mā-weṯ  from the root word ‘tsalmaveth’ meaning black gloom, dark, deep darkness, deep shadow, shadow of death, thick darkness. I’m sure you can think of a season of life where this would be a good word to describe your situation or that of someone you love. This phrase lets us know the author is not someone whose life was all easy and happy.

‘I will fear no evil’ comes from the Hebrew words לֹא־ lō- אִ֘ירָ֤א ’î-rā  רָ֗ע rā‘.

The word ‘ira’ means to be afraid, while the word ‘ra’ includes the concepts of things which are bad, disagreeable, unpleasant, malignant, things which give pain, sadness and misery. Evil is a word which perhaps gives a certain image, but these words are words I could use to describe many difficult situations in life! It is perhaps the fear of these times, or the fears which arise in these times which can be paralysing. This psalm is not saying these times won’t happen, but that the effects of them on our ‘nephesh’, on the part of us which makes us alive, can be diminished when fear isn’t also present.

And why?

Now we come to the central phrase in the psalm, the crescendo, the centre piece (this is the way psalms are often structured, with the central concept in the middle):

אַתָּ֥ה ’at-tāh עִמָּדִ֑י ‘im-mā-ḏî; You are with me.

‘Atah’ is the word used in many of the daily blessing prayers, and those used in Shabbat and other festivals: ‘Baruch atah Adonai’ : ‘We bless you, Lord our God’.

This reminds me of Isaiah 7:14, ‘im·mā·nū עִמָּ֥נוּ ’êl. אֵֽל׃ ‘And he shall be called Immanuel;, from the word ‘im’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘el’ meaning ‘God’.

This is a powerful reason not to be afraid!

It also reminds me of Zephaniah 3:17: The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.

What does it remind you of?

Verse 5

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

There is a gap between the first four verses and verse 5, which is helpful as the metaphor suddenly changes.

‘You prepare’ comes from the Hebrew word תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ ta-‘ă-rōḵ , which could also be translated ‘you arrange’. I love the idea of God arranging things for me!

‘Before me’ is the word לְפָנַ֨י ׀ lə-p̄ā-nay which comes from the root word ‘panin’ literally meaning ‘face’. One way it is used it to mean ‘presence’. Having said that God is present, the next verse is describing something which God does in the presence of our enemies, or in their face! If our enemies are the ‘evil’ described in verse 4, this is God’s goodness conspicuously displayed in the middle of all that darkness.

The word used here for enemies is צֹרְרָ֑י ṣō-rə-rāy; from the root word ‘tsarar’ meaning to bind, tie up, be restricted, narrow, scant, or cramped. It is possible to view our enemies anything which cause us to be bound, restricted or cramped. I think this picture is in purposeful contrast to the picture of the goodness and abundance in verses 1-3.

דִּשַּׁ֖נְתָּ diš-šan-tā is translated ‘you annoint’ but it comes from the root word ‘dashen’ which means to anointed, become greasy (from being annointed with oil?!), and also to become prosperous and to removing ashes (ashes were used for mourning).

We get the word ‘oil’ from the Hebrew word בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן ḇaš-še-men which also has connotations of fat, fertile and lavishness! Anointing was done for a king or priest as they begin their role, but also as a sign of respect from a host to a guest. Perhaps this is what this word means in this context as it is at a feast.

The word ‘head’ in Hebrew is רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י rō-šî, as in Rosh Hashana, which is the Head of the Year.

‘My cup over flows’ comes from the two Hebrew word: כּוֹסִ֥י kō-w-sî רְוָיָֽה׃ rə-wā-yāh. Rewayah comes from the root word ‘revayah’ meaning saturation, or abundance. Next to this description of death’s dark shadow is this picture of abundance and lavish welcome!

Verse 6

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The words ‘Surely goodness’ are the Hebrew word: אַ֤ךְ ׀ ’aḵ ט֤וֹב ṭō-wḇ
The word used for good here means ‘pleasant, agreeable, good’ and is from the same root word as God used to describe creation in Genesis 1. Again, this whispers about a God restoring things to how he originally made them.

Goodness also is about the senses: sight, taste and smell, all of which were stimulated by the earlier description of a wonderful pasture, a feast and annointing!

It also includes the concepts of excellence, quality and value, welfare, prosperity and happiness.

The word ‘mercy’ comes from the Hebrew word וָחֶ֣סֶד wā-ḥe-seḏ from the root word ‘checed’ meaning goodness and kindness, doing favours and bringing benefits (see Psalm 103 for a list of God’s benefits!). It can also include the concept of God’s loving kindness, redemption from troubles and from sin, preservation from death, a quickening of the spiritual life, and keeping his covenant. This is an abundant kindness!!

Now get this:

‘Sure goodness and mercy shall follow me’ isn’t a great translation. The Hebrew word is  יִ֭רְדְּפוּנִי yir-də-p̄ū-nî from the root word ‘radaph’ which means to pursue, chase, persecute.

So goodness and mercy aren’t just bumbling along behind, they are pursuing, chasing, hunting, running after!

What might it mean for goodness and mercy to persecute?!

‘And I will dwell’ is from the Hebrew word וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י wə-šaḇ-tî from the root word ‘yashab’ which means to sit, remain or dwell. This bring us round again to the concept of a place to stay, as in verse 1. (See how the psalm structure is symmetrical, with You are with me in the centre? This verse is also the only other place where the word ‘Yahweh’ is used in the psalm, mirroring it’s used in verse 1.) The word has connotations of abiding or inhabiting. I notice that it also has many of the same letters as the word ‘Shabbat’, meaning Sabbath, which is also a place of rest and abundance, given as a gift from God.

‘In the house’ is from the word בְּבֵית־ bə-ḇêṯ- from the root word ‘bayith’, which can means both house and also household or family, home, as well as temple, prison and palace, among others!

This could be written: ‘I will remain in God’s household’

How would you write it?

The word forever is actually a translation from TWO Hebrew words: לְאֹ֣רֶךְ lə-’ō-reḵ יָמִֽים׃ yā-mîm.

The first is from the root word ‘orek’ meaning ‘forever’ but also ‘length’, specifying the length of time.

The second comes from the root word ‘yom’ meaning ‘day’. These two together literally mean ‘forever / long day’. You can see why it’s translated ‘forever’ or ‘forevermore’!

I hope this has given you some insights into this familiar Psalm.

Why not try writing your own version using the concepts here to inspire your own song of praise to God?

For some creative activities to explore this psalm, you can get the Shepherd edition of the Faith at home mini-mag.

Thanks to my friend, Martin Hull, for this wonderful picture of a sheep!