Rereading Psalm 23: Prayer and Prophesy

Several years ago, a new interpretation of Psalm 23 by Douglas Green at Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, resulted in his forced retirement. Dr. Green’s thoughts are provoking, and the imagery is beautiful. The issue is one of orthodoxy versus heresy. What mostly follows are his thoughts on this issue.

flat,550x550,075,fOfficial Christian orthodoxy holds that the sheep in Psalm 23 illustrate our natural tendency, as humans and believers in Christ, to wander off and get lost. The profit Isaiah was clear…

We all, like sheep, have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6)

But there’s hope. “The Lord is my shepherd,” in Psalm 23:1 places David as a sheep in the care of Yahweh. King David is serene because God meets his needs, leading him on a journey to safety and victory.

At least that’s the usual interpretation of the world’s best-known psalm.

But what if, as Dr. Green claims, Psalm 23 is not about King David as the sheep and God as the shepherd? What if David witnessed a prophecy in which the sheep was Jesus and the Shepherd was God? What if Psalm 23 tells a story about a journey that reaches its goal at the “the house of Yahweh” — the temple in Jerusalem?

This psalm passes through sufficiency and safety (Psalm 23:2-3); then to quasi-exile of life under the treat of death (Psalm 23:4). Finally, passing safely through the “valley of the shadow of death,” it ends in the temple of Jerusalem in early autumn at the Feast of Tabernacles (Psalm 23:5).

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (v. 2-3) Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (v. 23:4) Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. (v. 23:2-5)

Luke tells us that even during Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane, an angel came and strengthened him. For Luke, Jesus went to the cross comforted by the confidence that his Father was with him.

An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:43-44)


Evangelical scholars agree that The Old Testament anticipates a Messiah — one who would fulfill the law and redeem Israel — while the New Testament presents Jesus as the fullness of God’s revelation.  They debate the extent to which the Old Testament — and which of its passages — can be read Christologically. Viewed from that perspective, Dr. Green’s interpretation might be construed as heresy — denial or doubt of a core doctrine of the Christian faith.

Orthodoxy is important. Without it, Christianity as we know it today might be very different or nonexistent. Perhaps, the school felt it was important to act against this alternative interpretation of one psalm.

But regardless of the interpretation, Psalm 23 is a beautiful message of uniting with our Lord God through faith. Both interpretations should encourage Christians on our journey through to eternal life.