23 Things About The World’s Most Famous Psalm - Salt 106.5

23 Things About The World’s Most Famous Psalm

The Psalm 23 podcast explores the depths and riches of what "The Lord is my shepherd" is all about... Jesus.

By Salt 106.5 Network Sunday 16 Jun 2024FaithReading Time: 12 minutes

When you think of psalms, we think of Psalm 23.

Key Points:

  • The Psalm 23 podcast mines the depths and riches of The World’s Most Famous Psalm.
  • Surely, Psalm 23 is the uncontested “World’s Most Famous Psalm”.
  • Listen to the Psalm 23 podcast in the listener above, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The World’s most famous psalm, the one beginning with “The Lord is my shepherd” has left an indelible mark of security and comfort upon the cosmos.

But how well do you know it?

Do you know what Psalm 23 was all about before Jesus came to earth?

How did Jesus impact Psalm 23?

And what does that mean for our lives?

The Psalm 23 podcast is three conversations between Hope Mornings’ Ben McEachen and theologian, author and lecturer in Christian Thought at Sydney’s Moore Theological College David Hohne.

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Previously, David and Ben explored the World’s Most Famous Prayer in The Lord’s Prayer podcast.

With help from a new book on the Psalms by David’s colleague Andrew Shead – Walk his Way – The Psalm 23 podcast mines the depths and riches of The World’s Most Famous Psalm.

Here are just 23 of the best bits from The Psalm 23 podcast.

The Psalm 23 podcast mines the depths and riches of The World’s Most Famous Psalm.

1. Funerals made Psalm 23 popular

We don’t think an official poll has been conducted but, surely, Psalm 23 is the uncontested “World’s Most Famous Psalm”.

Why is it so well-known?

“Psalm 23 has the reputation of being ‘the funeral psalm’,” David said on The Psalm 23 podcast.

The strong link between Psalm 23 and remembering the dear departed goes back a long way.

David said that influential Christian thinker Augustine, during the 5th Century, described Psalm 23 as “the perfect martyr’s psalm”.  

2. What is a psalm?

“Psalms are songs,” David said.

This simple explanation is a fine summary of the 150 psalms contained in the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms.

“They have become special religious poetry but, literally, the Hebrew word for ‘psalm’ is the same word [English language] uses for ‘melody’.”

“The psalms were songs, especially spiritual songs, used in the life of [God’s people].”

3. What is the Book of Psalms?

David Hohn’s colleague Andrew Shead wrote Walk His Way, a survey of the sweep of the Book of Psalms, biblical poetry and how these ancient songs fit with Jesus.

While the Scripture around the psalms might articulate the Mosaic law or the history of the nation of Israel, they describe “what it feels like” to live with God under the Old Covenant, in everyday life.

“The Book of Psalms is like a library with five large rooms in it,” David said.

“In each one is a collection of books.”

Divided into five sections, the journey of the Old Testament can be charted across the 150 psalms.

Surely, Psalm 23 is the uncontested “World’s Most Famous Psalm”.

4. Who wrote Psalm 23?

As identified in your Bible, King David wrote Psalm 23.

In fact, King David wrote many of the psalms.

Other authors include well-known Moses, and less-well-known Asaph and Korah.

5. Once in a lifetime

David said Psalm 23 is a “retrospective” of King David’s life.

Understood to have been written by a “mature” David, the psalm charts a progression from his shepherding days (see 1 Samuel 16) through his battle with Saul and other enemies, to assured standing within God’s household.

6. Three parts to Psalm 23

You can divide Psalm 23 into three sections:

Verses 1-3 – Protection of the shepherd (younger David) by The Shepherd (God).

Verse 4-5 – Death’s door and vindicated before King David’s enemies.

Verse 6 – Dwelling forever in the Lord’s house.

“Imagine them as scenes of David’s memory, as he reflects on his life with the Lord.”

7. Long shepherding history

Psalm 23 begins with the quotable declaration that “the Lord is my shepherd”.

Before Psalm 23, the Lord God was not really referred to directly as a shepherd.

Many prominent figures in the nation of Israel were shepherds, including Jacob, Moses and David.

This long line of shepherd leaders nestles within the bigger picture of God’s guidance, protection and provision.

David Hohne pointed out that the Exodus events easily indicate the Lord God as shepherd.

“It’s not hard to see those activities being reflected in the beginning of this psalm,” David said.

“The Lord was always like a shepherd to Israel but it seems that this poem of David’s captured that analogy.”

8. The Shepherd vs the shepherds

Fast forward to Old Testament books of prophecy such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Warnings given that Israel’s human leaders will lead God’s people astray. They will be “like sheep without a shepherd”.

Set to be fulfilled in messiah Jesus, prophecies indicate that God himself will have to shepherd his people (because human leaders fail to do so).

9. Being called a sheep is, actually, a good thing

Imagine hearing Psalm 23 read out during the reign of King David.

As you tried to apply it to your own life, how would you feel about being called a sheep?

As David Hohne said, “it sounds like the kind of thing an atheist would say about religious people in general – they’re just mindless sheep.”

But David said Israelites were unlikely to hear Psalm 23 as an insult, given the threat of attack, theft or starvation upon sheep in the formidable terrain of the ancient Near East.

“The symbol of being referred to as sheep is one of dependence.”

“God’s people are dependent upon God’s provision in exactly the same way as sheep are absolutely dependent upon the care and guidance of a shepherd.”

“God’s people are dependent upon God’s provision in exactly the same way as sheep are absolutely dependent upon the care and guidance of a shepherd.”

10. It is about the Shepherd, not the sheep

As much as we always try to work out what God’s word has to do with humans, a steady vibe emerges through closer investigation of Psalm 23.

The focus is upon the Shepherd – the Lord God – more than his flock.

David pointed out the “green pastures” and “quiet waters” are indicative of what God has done and delivered.

“This is a reminder to Israel that… the Lord provides that,” David said.

“He has led us to this place.”

11. Old school “prosperity gospel”?

Hold the phones. The opening lines of Psalm 23 sound a bit like a promise of everything will be all right, if the Lord is your shepherd.

Does that make them some sort of ancient “prosperity gospel”, as if there is a promise here that it all works out when we are in God’s flock?

“Remember, I mentioned this is a retrospective psalm,” David said.

“This is David looking back on his life and understanding his good fortune to have been a gift from the Lord.”

As Psalm 23 goes on to indicate, following the lead of the Lord is not a guarantee of green pastures always.

Enemies, dangers and the “shadow of the valley of death” can arise.

Psalm 23 helps to remind David and others that whatever season or situation they are in, the Lord’s protection and provision are to be relied upon.

“One of the most consistent themes throughout the psalms is trust [God’s] promise, not the circumstances.”

“One of the most consistent themes throughout the psalms is trust [God’s] promise, not the circumstances.”

“The promises actually provide for the circumstances, not the other way around.”

12. The King’s cup overflows to the people

The fifth verse of Psalm 23 does not only refer to what God has done for King David.

According to David Hohne, the anointed king of Israel’s cup overflowed to his people.

Before Jesus, kings of Israel (and, later, of Judah too) were meant to lead their people in responding rightly to God.

Read 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles to find out how well the kings did in this role.

As indicated by the Book of Psalms and the Old Testament history of the nation of Israel: “When things go well between God and the king, they go well for Israel.”

“When they go badly between God and the king, they go badly for Israel.

“The Lord’s faithfulness to David and vindicating him before his enemies is the first part of a promise to Israel that I will vindicate you against the nations.”

13. Kinsman Redeemer

Expanding our understanding of these links between God, his king and his people is the biblical expression “kinsman redeemer”.

Notably, it appears in the Old Testament book of Ruth and it is an undercurrent of Psalm 23.

An established part of God’s laws handed down to the people by Moses, the “kinsman redeemer” was a male family member who could marry the widow of a deceased relative.

This marriage provided a home, security and legacy for the widow and her immediate family.

David Hohne pointed out that King David is in the family line of Boaz, the “kinsman redeemer” in the book of Ruth.

Such an “embedded” identity flows through King David’s relationship of saviour, redeemer and leader of the nation of Israel.

14. Goodness and faithful love

Captured within the first few words of verse six are some huge truths about God’s treatment of his people.

“Faithful love” comes from a Hebrew word that throughout the Old Testament is used to refer to God’s commitment to the promises he has made.

In simple terms, how a shepherd protects, provides for and pursues the sheep depicts the unwavering dedication God has.

When it comes to covenants which God enacted with his people, nothing that the latter does will alter God’s sticking with them.

15. Theological term: “Knuckleheads”

With so much in Psalm 23 to declare the guidance, faithfulness, provision and protection of God, David Hohne got all technical about the flock.

“Anybody who has observed sheep notices that occasionally they are knuckleheads,” David said.

“And if you hang around with God’s people long enough you will notice that, occasionally, they act like knuckleheads as well.”

“Well, David’s promise to them [in Psalm 23] is to think about the enduring faithfulness of the shepherd who gets up at the crack of dawn, leads his sheep out across the desert… and brings them back so they have somewhere safe to sleep.”

“That sort of enduring faithfulness is the Lord to you.”

16. From Psalm 23 to Ezekiel’s shepherd announcement

The imagery of God as “the Shepherd” of Israel doesn’t stop at Psalm 23.

As David Hohne deftly summarises, the prophets of God run with a burgeoning contrast between the Lord and the earthly religious leaders, judges and kings.

“Look in Ezekiel chapter 34, the Lord – speaking through Ezekiel – addresses the ‘bad shepherds of Israel’,” David said.

Particularly referring here to the priests, although the kings also fit this bill, Ezekiel’s word from God is these shepherds neglected their flock. Instead of protection, destruction and damage was done by these earthly shepherds of God’s people.

“So, the Lord himself has decided he will come and gather his flock. He will be the shepherd who will bring the people back to himself, back to pleasant places and green pastures.”

Also, Ezekiel 34 prophesies a future king in the line of David who will be the ultimate shepherd.

How does this future king, and the Lord himself, fit together in the figure of the prophesied shepherd of God’s people?

17. Enter: The Good Shepherd

Flick forward to John 10 in the New Testament.

Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem where he declares himself to be “The Good Shepherd”, in stark contrast to those who have previously done a poor or woeful job of caring for God’s flock.

“As we read through that [account], it’s hard to not hear Yahweh talking about the bad shepherds of Israel, back in Ezekiel 34,” David said.

“As Jesus goes on, what will make him a good shepherd is not only does he look after the sheep but he is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.

“That’s the difference between him as The Good Shepherd and the false, bad, crummy shepherds of Israel before.

“Jesus wants for the flock what God wants for the flock because… as Jesus says [in John 10]: ‘I and the Father are one’.

The answer to the riddle in Ezekiel 34 of how God and the “king like David” can be the one shepherd for God’s people? Jesus.

“What will make Jesus a good shepherd is not only does he look after the sheep but he is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.

18. Setting expectations of The Shepherd

The four gospels display how religious leaders, Jesus’ disciples and those who encountered Jesus were unable to pull together all the prophetic threads which he combined.

Before we get too judgy, remember the importance of the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment – and Jesus’ death and resurrection – to grasping the full truth of who Jesus is.

Still, David Hohne said understanding about the coming Messiah would have included expectations of the shepherd aspect.

“The idea of messiah… God’s chosen king, the son of David, carries all the freight of the imagery of the Old Testament,” David said.

“The images are stronger to some groups than others [in the first century] but the ideas are all there.

“When Jesus comes and starts grabbing hold these semi-popular ideas and starts attributing them to himself… those with an ear to hear, ‘Ah, he really is The One’.”

19. Jesus changes every psalm

Like all of the Bible, the book of Psalms is reframed by Jesus.

“There is a new focus,” David said.

A swift way to view how Jesus puts a “new focus” on all the psalms is considering his impact on the first two.

Psalms 1 and 2 are the “lens to read the other 150 psalms”.

Psalm 2 describes the relationship between God and his “chosen king”.

Following in the “footsteps of that righteous king would be the key to living the good life, described in Psalm 1”.

“Jesus is that one, good king.”

20. So, Jesus changes Psalm 23

As David summed up about the book of Psalms, when we think about what God does for his people, we now think about how that is done through Jesus.

Take Psalm 23’s opening line, for example: “When the Lord leads us, it is the Lord Jesus going before us,” David said.

“And that’s one of the great things now [with] this Jesus-shaped lens we are looking at.

“The Psalmist calls us to follow the Lord. But what we know from the gospel story is that we are following a shepherd who has gone before us himself.”

21. Short story: Be like Jesus

David suggested three words to encapsulate what it looks like now to walk in the paths of righteousness.

The sort of paths signposted in Psalms 1 and 2 and alluded to in the first section of Psalm 23.

“Be like Jesus.”

“That’s the simple way of understanding what it means to be led in the paths of the Lord.”

“Be like Jesus. That’s the simple way of understanding what it means to be led in the paths of the Lord.”

“When the Psalmist writes about walking through the darkest valley and fearing no evil, we know that we can trust God to lead us through the darker times of our lives because the Lord Jesus has gone through them for us.

“His engaging with darkness – going to the cross – is what has saved us from sin, death and evil.”

22. Psalm 23 is still not a “prosperity gospel”

Before Jesus came to earth, Psalm 23 already was not a guarantee of everything being excellent all the time.

Same applies to Psalm 23 on this side of Jesus life, death and resurrection.

David gave the example of Psalm 23 indicating to King David’s enemies that he was vindicated for trusting in God through the turmoil, pain and struggle of life.

“Amp that up 10,000 times [for] those who trust in Jesus, the glory we look forward to in the new creation… is the point God the Father will say, everlastingly: ‘Yes, you were right to trust Jesus’.

“‘Come and enjoy life with me forever.’”

23. You are a sheep – who is your Good Shepherd?

“Like Jesus says in John 10: ‘My sheep hear my voice,’” David said.

“The only way you will be able to do that is if you are reading the words of the Lord Jesus in the Bible.

“Coming back to God’s promises.

“Having God’s word as the rod and staff, which give us shape, direction, discipline – but comfort as well.”


Listen to all three parts of the Psalm 23 podcast in the listener above or wherever you get your podcasts.

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