- See Psalm 24 for Psalm 23 in Greek (Vulgata) numbering.
Psalm 23 (Greek numbering: Psalm 22 because of its opening line) is the 23rd and perhaps best-known psalm in the Old Testament Book of Psalms and perhaps the best-known chapter in the Hebrew Bible. The writer describes God as his shepherd. The theme of this poem casts God in the role of protector and provider, and is routinely read and recited by Jews and Christians alike.
Like all the psalms, Psalm 23 was used in worship of the ancient Hebrews.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
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.
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.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
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 theme of God as a shepherd was common in ancient Palestine and Mesopotamia. For example, King Hammurabi, in the conclusion to his famous legal code, wrote: "I am the shepherd who brings well-being and abundant prosperity; my rule is just.... so that the strong might not oppress the weak, and that even the orphan and the widow might be treated with justice." This imagery and language was well-known to the community that created the Psalm, and was easily imported into its worship.
Psalm 23 portrays God as a good shepherd, feeding (verse 1) and leading (verse 3) his flock. The "rod and staff" (verse 4) are also the implements of a shepherd. Some commentators see the shepherd imagery pervading the entire psalm. It is known that the shepherd is to know each sheep by name, thus when God is given the analogy of a shepherd, he is not only a protector but also the caretaker. God, as the caretaker, leads the sheep to green pastures (verse 2) and still waters (verse 2) because he knows that each of his sheep must be personally led to be fed. Thus, without its Shepherd, the sheep would die either by a predator or of starvation, since sheep are known for their helplessness without their shepherd.
J. Douglas MacMillan argues that verse 5 ("Thou preparest a table before me") refers to the "old oriental shepherding practice" of using little raised tables to feed sheep. Similarly, "Thou anointest my head with oil" may refer to an ancient form of backliner – the oil is poured on wounds, and repels flies. MacMillan also notes that verse 6 ("Goodness and mercy shall follow me") reminds him of two loyal sheepdogs coming behind the flock.
John Ellinwood argues that in verses 4 and 5 King David acknowledges God's protection in expeditions and in battles. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies" refers to the sober raucous dinner before major battles. These were raucous in order to demoralize hostiles camped within earshot, and (only) the king ate from a table. "Thou anointest my head with oil" because tomorrow this ceremony might be impossible. After each victory there was no longer a need for sobriety, so "my cup runneth over." The king's lyricist wisely shortened these military verses for balance. Also in Psalm 18 David mentions God's protection in battle. .
The first verse of the Psalm ascribes authorship to King David, said in the Hebrew Scriptures to have been a field shepherd himself as a youth. However, some scholars do not believe that David could have written any of the Psalms.
In Christian tradition
For Christians the image of God as a shepherd evokes connections not only with David but with Jesus, described as "Good Shepherd" in the Gospel of John. The phrase about "the valley of the shadow of death" is often taken as an allusion to the eternal life given by Jesus.
The Reformation inspired widespread efforts in western Europe to make biblical texts available in vernacular languages. One of the most popular early English versions was the Geneva Bible (1557). The most widely recognized version of the psalm in English today is undoubtedly the one drawn from the King James Bible (1611).
The psalm is a popular passage for memorization and is often used in sermons.
An early metrical version of the psalm in English was made in 1565 by Thomas Sternhold. Other metrical versions to emerge from the Protestant Reformation include those from The Bay Psalm Book (1640) and a version influenced by Sternholm published in the Scottish Psalter (1650). The latter version is still encountered, with modernized spelling, in many Protestant hymns. Other notable metrical versions include those by George Herbert, Philip Sidney, and Isaac Watts.
A metrical version of the psalm is traditionally sung to the hymn tune Crimond, generally attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine. This version, with its opening words "The Lord's My Shepherd", is probably the best-known amongst English-speaking congregations. Other melodies, such as Brother James' Air or Amazing Grace, are also used. Other tunes sometimes used include Belmont, Evan, Martyrdom, Orlington, and Wiltshire.
Use in funerals
In the 20th century, Psalm 23 became particularly associated with funeral liturgies in the English-speaking world, and films with funeral scenes often depict a graveside recitation of the psalm. Official liturgies of English-speaking churches were slow to adopt this practice, though. The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England has only Psalms 39 and 90 in its order for the burial of the dead, and in the Episcopal Church in the United States, Psalm 23 was not used for funerals until the 1928 revision of the prayer book.
Use in Judaism
Liturgical and classical
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata No.112 Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV 112
- James Leith Macbeth Bain – hymn tune Brother James' Air
- Lennox Berkeley Op. 91, No. 1 (1975)
- Leonard Bernstein – Chichester Psalms (Hebrew, in Part 2, together with Psalm 2)
- Anton Bruckner – Psalm 22 Der Herr regieret mich WAB 34 (c. 1852)
- Noah Creshevsky – Psalm XXIII (2003)
- Paul Creston – Psalm XXIII (1945)
- Herbert Howells – Hymnus Paradisi
- Jessie Seymour Irvine – hymn tune Crimond
- Albert Hay Malotte
- Clément Marot (Latin)
- George Rochberg
- Miklós Rózsa
- Edmund Rubbra – Three Psalms, op.61 (no.2)
- John Rutter – The Lord is my Shepherd (1978), included in his Requiem (1985)
- Franz Schubert – version by Moses Mendelssohn (German)
- Randall Thompson
- Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Charles Villiers Stanford – "The Lord is my Shepherd" (1886)
- Alexander Zemlinsky Op. 14, (1910) for chorus and orchestra
- Antonín Dvořák, verses 1–4, No. 4 of his Biblical Songs (1894)
- Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – Gam Ki Elech b'Gey Tzalmavet Lo Irah Rah Ki Atah Imadi. גם כי אלך 
- 1958: Duke Ellington – "Part VI" from Black, Brown and Beige with Mahalia Jackson
- 1966: The Moody Blues – "23rd Psalm" from the album The Magnificent Moodies deLuxe Edition (not released until 2014)
- 1966: Ed Ames – "My Cup Runneth Over RCA Victor single from the Musical Production "I Do!, I Do!"
- 1972: Dave Cousins – "Lay Down" from the album Bursting at the Seams
- 1977: Dennis Brown – "Here I Come" from the album Wolf & Leopards
- 1977: Peter Tosh – "Jah Guide" from the album Equal Rights
- 1977: Pink Floyd – "Sheep" from the album Animals
- 1978: Patti Smith Group – "Privilege (Set Me Free)" from the album Easter
- 1980: The Grateful Dead – "Alabama Getaway" from the album Go to Heaven
- 1981: Venom – "Welcome To Hell" from the album Welcome To Hell
- 1982: Keith Green – "The Lord is My Shepherd" from the album Songs for the Shepherd
- 1983: Marillion – "Forgotten Sons" from the album Script for a Jester's Tear
- 1985: Judy Collins – "The Lord is my Shepherd" from the album Amazing Grace
- 1988: Diamanda Galás – "The Lord is my Shepherd" from the album You Must Be Certain of the Devil
- 1988: U2 – "Love Rescue Me" from the album Rattle and Hum
- 1989: Lil' Louis – "Blackout" from the album From The Mind Of Lil Louis
- 1990: Bobby McFerrin – "The 23rd Psalm" from the album Medicine Music
- 1993: Alpha Blondy – "Psaume 23" from the album Jerusalem
- 1993: Christian Death – Psalm (Maggot's Lair) from album Path of Sorrows
- 1993: Midnight Oil – "In the Valley" from album Earth and Sun and Moon
- 1994: Howard Goodall – theme to The Vicar of Dibley, later covered by Katherine Jenkins and The Choirboys
- 1995: Coolio feat. L.V. – "Gangsta's Paradise"
- 1995: Michael W. Smith - "As It Is In Heaven" from I'll Lead You Home
- 1995: Tupac Shakur – "So Many Tears" from the album Me Against The World
- 1996: Cissy Houston, (Whitney Houston's mother) – "The Lord is My Shepherd" from The Preacher's Wife: Original Soundtrack Album
- 1997: Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.) – "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)" from the album Life After Death
- 1998: Colin Mawby – recording with Charlotte Church
- 1998: Kathy Troccoli - "Psalm 23" from Corner of Eden
- 1999: E Nomine – "Psalm 23" from the album Das Testament
- 1999: Jonathan Elias – "Forgiveness" from the album The Prayer Cycle
- 1999: Ky-mani Marley – "Lord is My Shepherd" from the album The Journey
- 2000: Marilyn Manson – "In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death" from the album Holy Wood
- 2001: Dan Nichols – "Psalm 23" from the album Be Strong
- 2002: Boards of Canada – "From One Source All Things" from the album Geogaddi
- 2003: Lucinda Williams – "Atonement" from the album World Without Tears
- 2004: Kanye West – "Jesus Walks" from the album The College Dropout
- 2004: Megadeth – "Shadow of Deth" from the album The System Has Failed
- 2004: OverClocked Remix – "Beneath the Surface (Aquatic Ambiance)" from Kong in Concert
- 2005: Ministry (band) - "No W (Redux)" from Rantology
- 2007: Group 1 Crew – "Forgive Me" from the album Group 1 Crew
- 2007: Dream Theater – "In The Presence Of Enemies Part 2" from the album Systematic Chaos
- 2008: Jon Foreman – "The House of God, Forever" from the EP, Summer
- 2008: The Offspring – "Hammerhead" from the album Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace
- 2009: India.Arie, MC Lyte – "Psalms 23" from the album Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics
- 2009: Rick Ross – "Valley of Death" from the album Deeper Than Rap
- 2010: Nas & Damian Marley – "Strong Will Continue" from the album Distant Relatives
- 2011: Hollywood Undead – "Hear Me Now" from the album American Tragedy
- 2013: The Black Dahlia Murder – "In Hell Is Where She Waits for Me" from the album Everblack
- 2013: Jay-Z – "Holy Grail" from the album Magna Carta Holy Grail
- 2013: Fall Out Boy – "Death Valley" from "Save Rock and Roll"
- 2013: Audrey Assad - "Good to Me" from Fortunate Fall
- 2016: Shane & Shane - "Psalm 23 (Surely Goodness, Surely Mercy)" from Psalms II
- 2016: Crowder – "Shepherd" from the album "American Prodigal"
- 2013: Australian singer songwriter Paul Kelly from the album Poems For Funerals