It’s not about you. At least that’s what a friend and former colleague of mine (Robert Cole) says about Psalm 23 in an article he wrote entitled, “Why Psalm 23 is not about you”. As much as I would love to delve into the fine details of his argument, given that I keep these posts to 500 words or less, a precis will have to suffice.
Bob opens by stating his long held belief that the Psalms have been very carefully and intentionally ordered. This does not mean that we should read them like a Pauline epistle, but that we should be aware of connections between them that present, develop and reflect themes. When approaching Psalm 23, he argues that this Psalm is drawing on themes of kingship and salvation most recently introduced in Psalms 20 & 21, and that they, in turn, are reflecting on these themes as they were introduced in Psalms 1 & 2.
Specifically, Bob contends that salvation and kingship are introduced in the second half of Psalm 20 and thus connected to the first half of Psalm 21 where salvation and kingship appear again. Compare, for example, Ps. 20:5, 6, 9 where forms of “save” occur 4x. Also, in Ps. 20:6, 9 reference is made to “his anointed” and “the king”. Both of these are then picked up immediately in Ps. 21:1 which are then elucidated in the following verses where it becomes clear this anointed king is eternal and will be victorious over all enemies. And then comes Ps. 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The enemies in the background have entered the foreground.
That Psalms 20-21 & Ps. 22 are in conversation is made clear when Ps. 22 picks up particular words from Psalms 20-21. Consider, for instance, “trouble” in Psalms 20:1 & Ps. 22:11 or “help” in Ps. 20:2 & Ps. 22:11 or evildoers in Ps. 21:11 & Ps. 22:16. The examples could be multiplied.
So, to recap, the clear presence of verbal and thematic connections between Pss. 20-21 show that they are intentionally connected, and as such focus our attention on the anointed / messianic king’s victory. Ps. 22 is also connected, but the victory is obscured by suffering and death. In fact, the end of Ps. 22 leaves us scratching our heads because the messianic king is dead (vv. 15, 18, 29), yet he anticipates joining God’s people again to praise him for salvation! How?
Enter: Psalm 23:3, “He restores my soul / life”. The verb, “restore” there can also mean “return” and, Bob argues, should be translated this way (“He returns my life to me”). Thus, Ps. 23:3 tells us how the messianic king who is promised victory in Psalms 20-21, but is killed in Ps. 22, actually receives that victory: resurrection. Perhaps we could say that the work of restoration is bound to the work of resurrection. Not surprisingly, this resurrected messianic king is the one who, in Ps. 24, is able to ascend into God’s presence.
All in all, there is much to commend Bob’s interpretation of these Psalms as long as two things remain true: (1) we don’t try to read them as narratives, but as poems unpacking themes; (2) we don’t lose sight of the fact that even Psalms that are supremely fulfilled in Jesus still apply to us today. Perhaps the best takeaway from all this is that the Psalms are most fully and effectively true for us because they have been fulfilled in Christ.