Why Psalm 23 is a Psalm About Life – Not Death

If you have ever attended a funeral service, you have almost certainly heard the reading of Psalm 23. It’s quite possibly the most famous psalm in the Bible (and there are 150 of them!), almost certainly because of its connection to funerals and ultimately death. And there’s no question that it is a comforting passage in that regard. But over the years I’ve come to believe – strongly – that Psalm 23 is a psalm about life, not death.

A deeper reading of the psalm makes the point, so let’s go through the verses one at a time.

I’m not a fan of the King James version of the Bible, but it has a poetic flow to it that works with certain passages, and Psalm 23 is definitely one of them.

The Psalm 23/Death Connection: “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”

My sense is that the connection between Psalm 23 and death is contained in a single verse, or actually only part it. Verse 4 begins with…

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

As mortal human beings, the very mention of the word “death” takes on exaggerated meaning. We see that word, fixate on it, and it becomes the focal point for everything else in the entire Psalm.

Now it’s not well known today, but the Valley of the Shadow of Death was an actual geographic location in Israel. 1bread.org describes it this way:

“This is a nickname for the Qidron Valley, since it was the only place in Yerushalayim not illuminated by the four great lights in the Temple at the feast of Sukkoth. David had to cross over it when he had to flee Yerushalayim during Avshalom’s revolt. Y’shua’s impending death also weighed heavily upon him right in that valley. Exodus 27 specifies that only pure olive oil, given willingly at the first crushing, can be used to light the lamps in YHWH’s sanctuary. The place Y’shua said “not my will but Yours be done”, Gath Shemen (which very appropriately means “an oil press”), was in this valley as well.”

The blog The Wild Olive Branches provides this description of the location, as well as the reason for the name:

“It is along the road GOING DOWN from Jerusalem towards Jericho, which is located in the Jordan River Valley. It is still there today. It is a steep, winding road, with rocks and a huge cliff on the right side. Shepherds would walk in the deep valley below, in order to get from one place to another. Thieves and bandits could hide along the top of the hill, by the road, or in crevices along the slopes of the hills. Looking down, they would wait for shepherds to pass through, and attack them and steal their sheep.”

When David (of David and Goliath fame) wrote Psalm 23, it’s quite possible that he actually was referring to that dreaded place where death may have been more than a reasonable possibility. Because the road between Jericho and Jerusalem ran through the valley, it was probably well understood as a place where people of the day came face-to-face with death.

None of this is to suggest that the use of the description “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is purely a geographic reference. In fact, the Bible sometimes uses geographic locations to describe certain spiritual conditions. For example, the ancient city of Babylon is used to describe sin, pride and idolatry, since all were known to flourish there in ancient times. Babylon is mentioned in this capacity several times even well after the city and its empire had collapsed and no longer even existed. A prominent example is in the last book of the Bible, Revelation (verse 17:5), which was written many centuries after the fall of Babylon..

Why Psalm 23 is a Psalm About Life - Not Death
The Kidron – or Qidron – Valley, a.k.a, the Valley of the Shadow of Death (it also contains the Garden of Gethsemane)

Was David mentioning the feared Valley as a metaphor for death, or as an actual place where death was likely to occur? It can go either way, but that may not be the primary meaning of Psalm 23.

Most of Psalm 23 Deals With Life

Psalm 23 is actually a short passage, comprised of just six verses. We’ve already covered the part of verse 4 that references the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and we’ll cover the second part of that verse in the next section. We’ll cover verse 6 separately, because I think it means something really special, and something that most of us miss.

Verses 1, 2, 3 and 5 are centered on life, and that’s what makes me think that common interpretations of Psalm 23 are not entirely accurate. Let’s break down each of the four verses, and see if there is any connection to death.

Verse 1 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

“Shepherd” is an agricultural reference that the people of the day – who were mostly farmers – readily understood. The shepherd was the protector of the sheep. “Shepherd” is a metaphor for God, while “sheep” is a metaphor for his people. That’s a common metaphor, particularly in the New Testament, where Jesus often refers to himself as the Shepherd, and his followers as the sheep. It’s even possible that this verse foretells the coming of Jesus, The Good Shepherd.

That being case, this verse really refers to God’s protection of his people, and not specifically to death. That protection is something that we are provided in life.

Verse 2 – He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

A shepherd leads his sheep to just such a place. For sheep, green pastures and still waters imply provision – food and water. But this verse also paints a picture of a place that is safe and secure – protection, once again – which is what God promises us when we’re walking with him. There we can rest from our troubles, and rest is another of God’s promises to us.

Verse 3 – He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

It’s likely that this is the verse that most directly relates to living this life. We have the word restores (OK, restoreth in the Old English), and that speaks of renewal and refreshment. Who among us hasn’t been so worn down by the stresses and battles of life, and hasn’t been in need of renewal or refreshment? Again, God promises us this if we walk with him.

The second part of this verse may offer even more evidence that the emphasis is on life. “…he leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,” implies that God still has a mission for us in this world. We can think of ourselves as an important chess piece that has been knocked down, and God is picking us up and preparing us for more work ahead. And it’s very important work because it’s for his name’s sake, implying a mission that he wants us to carry out for his own glory.

Verse 5 – Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

This verse takes us beyond restoration, and brings us to a place of victory. The table is referred to as a place of honor, as if we’re important guests. It’s in the presence of our enemies, which implies that we either achieved peace with them, or victory over them.

Anointing the head with oil was a symbolic gesture declaring one’s appointment to an important position or assignment. This once again reaffirms that God is guiding us in life because he has more for us to do while we’re here.

My cup runneth over once again suggests God’s provision – that we’ll have all that we need as we go forth and live out our anointing.

All of it speaks of an ongoing mission, which we can only have if we are alive.

Psalm 23 is Really About God’s Protection

Look at the second part of verse 4, the part after the reference to 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.

This part of the verse takes all of verse 4 and the whole psalm in a different direction, and I think one that represents the primary focus of the entire passage. This brief half of a single verse emphasizes God’s protection in the face of evil. It promises us that God is with us, and that he will comfort us. And as we’ve discussed above, protection is a recurring theme in the psalm.

Protection is a particularly significant promise. Whenever we’re facing troubles, particularly those that are especially overwhelming, our faith in God can desert us. We may even repeat the oft-expressed question of doubters and nonbelievers, how can there be a God if this awful thing has happened?

That’s actually a reasonable question, but here’s where we have to distinguish the critical difference between protection in the face of trouble, and exemption from trouble.

God tells us in Scripture that we will have troubles in life. It’s the basic message of my favorite verse in the Bible:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

I believe that we have troubles because it’s only when we are feeling weak and vulnerable that our hearts are open to a serious relationship with God. It’s all about coming to the end of ourselves, and being prepared to approach God on bended knee. That’s the only way that a human being can reasonably approach a holy and all-powerful God.

Trouble will find us in life, no matter who we are and how invincible or innocent we believe ourselves to be. It’s then that we need to seek God’s protection, with a full understanding that we will never be exempt from troubles. Verse 4 promises us that protection, and it’s something that we all need in this life.

The sermon Terror By Night by Pastor Levi Lusko of Fresh Life Church in Montana, does the best job with this important but poorly understood topic (protection vs. exemption in the face of trouble) that I’ve ever seen or heard, and it’s well worth the investment of 41 minutes of your time:

The Happy Ending – And MAYBE Another Reference to Death

The final verse of Psalm 23 is one that addresses both life and death, and even bridges the two:

Verse 6 – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

The first part of the verse is clearly about life, using the words all the days of my life. It references God’s presence in our lives, since he is the very provider of all goodness and mercy.

But the verse takes a sharp turn at …and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. “Forever” implies eternity, and here is the second likely reference to death in the psalm.

But it doesn’t reference the grim side of death, certainly not like the term “valley of the shadow of death”. That valley, whether an actual physical location, or a metaphor for death, is a violent place where death is likely to be the outcome. But in the last part of verse 6, we have David referring to eternity. That means that even when our lives come to an end in the physical sense, we will then move on to eternity with God.

This is a win-win outcome. During life, we have God’s protection, provision and peace. But when this life ends, we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

That’s a comforting promise at the moment of death, but it’s also a brilliant inspiration in the face of a life that’s often saturated with troubles.

I’m certainly okay with the reading of Psalm 23 at funerals, but I find it at least as comforting as I go about my life in this world.

Have you ever considered that Psalm 23 isn’t just about death? Have you ever seen it as a treasure trove of God’s promises in six short verses?

( Photo by somemone10x )

23 Responses to Why Psalm 23 is a Psalm About Life – Not Death

  1. Wow, what a thought provoking commentary on Psalms 23! Truly the best overview of the verses I’ve ever read or heard, and brings more force and power to the (sometimes almost remotely) memorized words. Thank you for your inspirational writing.

  2. Hi Fritz – It’s actually a thought – or interpretation of the psalm – that’s been on my mind for a good number of years. It took me that long to commit it to an actual article! I need to be more proactive in this area.

  3. Kevin, the psalms are about emotions/life and can be used for whatever situation we may be facing at the time of the reading. And you are right, we need to hear more from you in this forum. Blessings to you and your family!

  4. Thanks Angela! I agree, there are multiple meanings to the psalms. But Psalm 23 has been pigeon-holed to funerals, but I think it’s so much more.

  5. This paragraph really hit home for me: ?I believe that we have troubles because it is only when we are feeling weak and vulnerable that our hearts are open to a serious relationship with God. It?s all about coming to the end of ourselves, and being prepared to approach God on bended knee.?

    So very true! It was only when I really needed Him that my heart opened to a serious and beautiful relationship with Him! I experienced this myself and I?ve seen it happen with so many other people as well. Even my nephew, who became addicted to drugs, found God in prison and developed a relationship with Him.

    I truly believe that those who ?have it all? as far as money, health and possessions, have no room, and no need, for God, and so shut him out, even unintentionally. I don?t believe there is room for both. There is either greed (money and possessions) or God. That is not to say that all people who have money don?t have a relationship with God, but until they are at that desperate moment (broke or illness or death), I think God may be just an afterthought.

    I will be using that paragraph with others if you don?t mind! Thank you!

  6. Feel free to use it Linda. Until we can humble ourselves before God, we more or less think we ARE God. That is, we’re the god of our own lives. It’s what Jesus said, “It’s harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” (Mark 10:25) This goes a long way toward explaining why so many among the rich and powerful are non-believers. And the fact that they are probably turns millions of “just us” folks into non-believers, given all the hero worship that goes on. But when a man or a woman deifies him/herself, bad things start to happen. Problem is, so many of the rich and powerful are largely insulated from those consequences, which reinforces their belief in themselves. The Bible talks about how God hardens hearts, like the Pharaoh in Moses’s day. I think that happens more than we think.

    But all in all, I’m convinced faith is a miracle. If you have it, you’re a walking miracle. Especially when you consider all the people who don’t believe.

  7. Hi Kevin. I have so enjoyed your interpretation. Your ideas of life and living and all that we face during our lives has inspired me.
    I am so lucky to have led a happy and fulfilling life. But not without many high hurdles to overcome.
    I think your thoughts about taking P23 with us in our daily lives is magnificent.
    It’s not just for funerals and you have opened my eyes to it’s power.
    I might be facing the end of my life if I cannot fight off Coronavirus.
    So thank you for your inspiration. As I face my Valley of Death.

  8. Hi Neil – I’m glad my interpretation inspired you. It’s tough when we’re in that Valley, but God IS with us. I’ve been in a few valleys in my own life, including health related, and I’ve always been overwhelmed by how it turns out. But one day I will face my final moment in this life, and pray that I’ll be looking forward to dwelling in the House of the Lord forever.

    I’ll pray for you in your fight against the corona virus. Please keep me updated.

  9. Kevin, very interesting and insightful. I am currently in the middle of a study of Psalm 23 and had some very similar thoughts about this Psalm. Here are a couple of excerpts from the introduction to the study…

    And while it surely is a comfort to people experiencing difficulties, it is not a Psalm of despair, darkness, or dearth.

    It was, rather, an outpouring of what was in his heart. This Psalm is his enduring testimony. It is the short story of his life.

  10. I haven’t gone completely “public” with this yet as I am still developing it, but you can view more at my blog if you would like…johnrbaltz.com

    Blogging is new to me, so I am sure the site reflects that!

  11. Hi Kevin. Great breakdown of the popular Psalm. Quite interesting. Very informative, the Psalms is more about LIFE; God’s promise for provision, protection, renewal/restoration and an everlasting life after… Well done.

  12. Yes, definitely agree with her that psalm 23 is all about life because my belief is that you go through challenges when you are still alive and therefore you need protection from the Lord.The valley of the shadow of death is the time of going through challenges and some without hope that you will pass through but trusting and believing in God gets you through.

  13. I find this very inspirational and applicable to a situation I am going through, after failing to listen to God’s voice and falling into the trap of the devil! Nevertheless he is my Shephered, I shall not want! He protects me even at the verge of death! He renews my soul, annoints me and above all promises everlasting life as long as I dwell in him in righteousness.
    Thank you Kevin

  14. Hi Beatrice – Our pastor did a sermon a couple of years ago that was so inspirational that I wrote down the the highlights, printed them out, and pasted them over my desk. It said, “Who You Are in Christ: 1) You are saved, 2) You are chosen, 3) You are a child of God, 4) You are holy, and 5) You are sent”. It helps to remember all of these when life gets complicated or crisis hits.

    Since I’ve learned both are a routine part of life, I try not to stray too far from the faith. If you think about it, absent faith, life is truly hopeless. But with faith, we can look forward to a glorious eternity with the Creator of the universe, no matter what trials we face in this life.

  15. I have always feared that passage of Psalms 23 thinking it was death and I’ve been a Christian since I was 11 years old but I discovered I could ask questions on internet and understand the Bible more

  16. Hi Wilma – You don’t even need the internet to ask questions, though it is a good place to start. God is big enough to accommodate our questions and even our doubts. Believe it or not, they’re a form of faith because they show our interest in learning more about Him. Pray, then spend time reading verses and chapters you have questions about, and see what God reveals to you. I get new revelations often, even after reading verses I’m very familiar with.

    It’s often said the Bible is the living, breathing word of God, and that leaves plenty of room for our questions and for new revelations.

  17. Dear Kevin,
    This is very inspiring and educative . I have been reading Psalm 23 but did not know what it actually meant. I am sure there are many more who read it and don’t comprehend it. One of the main lessons I have learnt is the difference between God’s protection and exemption. Thank very much for the insight. God Bless You.

  18. Hi Frank – Thanks! But please understand that this article is MY interpretation of Psalm 23, and I’m sure there are others. I don’t want to leave the impression it’s in any way any kind of official interpretation.

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