1 The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
2 In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
3 My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name's sake.
1. The LORD is my shepherd. Although the likening of God or a ruler to a shepherd is a commonplace in this pastoral culture, this psalm is justly famous for the affecting simplicity and concreteness with which it realizes the metaphor. Thus, in the next line the shepherd leads his sheep to meadows where there is abundant grass and riverbanks and where quiet waters run that the sheep can drink.
2. makes me lie down. The verb used here, hirbits, is a specialized one for making animals lie down; hence the sheep-shepherd metaphor is carefully sustained.
3. My life He brings back. Though "He restoreth my soul" is time-honored, the Hebrew nefesh does not mean "soul" but "life breath" or "life." The image is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life.
pathways of justice. With this phrase, the speaker glides from the sheep metaphor to speaking of himself in human terms.
Though I walk in the vale of death's shadow, 4
I fear no harm,
for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me 5
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
4. in the vale of death's shadow. The intent of the translation here is not to avoid the virtually proverbial "in the shadow of the valley of death" but rather to cut through the proliferation of syllables in the King James Version, however eloquent, and better approximate the compactness of the Hebrew—begey tsalmawet. Though philologists assume that the Masoretic tsalmawet is actually a misleading vocalization of tsalmut—probably a poetic word for "darkness" with the ut ending simply a suffix of abstraction—the traditional vocalization reflects something like an orthographic pun or a folk etymology (tsel means "shadow," mawet means "death"), so there is justification in retaining the death component.
I fear no harm. The imbalance between this extremely brief verset and the relatively long first verset, equally evident in the Hebrew, gives these words a climactic effect as an affirmation of trust after the relatively lengthy evocation of the place of fear.
You are with me. / Your rod and Your staff. At this crucial moment of terror in the valley of the shadow, the speaker turns to God in the second person, though the rod and staff are carried over from the shepherd image.
5. You moisten my head with oil. The verb here, dishen, is not the one that is used for anointment, and its associations are sensual rather than sacramental. Etymologically,
it means something like "to make luxuriant." This verse, then, lists all the physical elements of a happy life—a table laid out with good things to eat, a head of hair well rubbed with olive oil, and an overflowing cup of wine.
6 Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for many long days.
6. for many long days. This concluding phrase catches up the reference to "all the days of my life" in the preceding line. It does not mean "forever"; the viewpoint of the poem is in and of the here and now and is in no way eschatological. The speaker hopes for a happy fate all his born days, and prays for the good fortune to abide in the Lord's sanctuary—a place of security and harmony with the divine—all, or perhaps at least most, of those days.
Excerpted from The Book of Psalms Copyright © 2007 by Robert Alter.