Psalm 23 has been called the “Nightingale” song, because it sings the sweetest at the midnight hour. The “title” suggests it is a “Psalm of David.” These superscriptions (116 of them) are not a part of the original text, but they are very ancient, going back at least to the third century B.C. (in the Greek version).
The Psalm falls into two divisions:
- The LORD (Jehovah, ASV—the covenant God of Israel—Exodus 3:13-15) is portrayed as a “shepherd” (vv. 1-4).
- In verses 5-6, the LORD is represented as a gracious “host.”
Of special interest are the action terms and relationships, either stated explicitly or else implied.
As a “Shepherd,” God provides for our needs, he makes us lie down for necessary rest (sometimes even when we are inclined to resist), and he leads us beside calm waters. He restores (refreshes and sustains) our lives, and guides us in righteous ways. He does not exempt us from dangerous circumstances, but he does calm our fears, for we are confident he is with us, and in that assurance we are comforted.
As our providential “Host,” he prepares a table containing our needs. So confident are we of his care, we can enjoy the sumptuousness even in the intimidating company of enemies. From the background of the ancient world comes the metaphor of anointing our heads with oil (a reviving comfort and/or symbol of honor). Our cup runs over, and “goodness” and “kindness” are faithful traveling companions bestowed for life. In his household the saved abide forever.
The Overflowing Cup
Of special interest is the phrase, “my cup runs over.” The Hebrew term suggests the idea of “saturation.” What a marvelous expression! A “cup” is a drinking vessel, but in Scripture the term frequently is employed figuratively—either for an abundance of blessings, or else the pouring forth of intense wrath (cf. Revelation 14:10).
The former use surely is the significance of “cup” in this psalm. Elsewhere a psalmist asks: “What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD” (116:12-13).
The same sort of symbolism is echoed in the New Testament when Christ described the reward of generosity: “[G]ive, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over” (Luke 6:38; see David’s case in 2 Samuel 17:27-29 for an illustration of providential abundance). The words of the cherished song, “count your blessings; name them one by one,” are sweet indeed, but it underestimates our blessings. The Christian could not completely compute his blessings in an entire lifetime!
Divine prosperity can be measured in at least three ways—physically, materially, and spiritually.
Even those with severe health problems can thank God for the host of maladies they might have, but do not. Under a mountain of suffering, Job still could say: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (13:15).
Contrasted to others, both ancient and modern, Americans are “filthy” rich. In Jesus’ time, the average wage for a laboring man was about 1.5 cents per hour—for a six-day, seventy-two hour workweek; thus a weekly salary of about $1.08 (see Matthew 20:2, 6). In 2005, the annual per capita income in the United States was $41,399, while in Malawi, Africa it was $596.
How could the Christian possibly calculate the value of his spiritual blessings? One’s soul (“life” eternal) alone is worth more than all the world’s real estate combined (Matthew 16:26); yet in billions of instances it is treated as trash.
Jesus declared: “To whom much is given, of him much shall be required” (Luke 12:48b). That is a heavy load in view of our status in this land of “overflowing” prosperity. Far too many have never appreciated the Savior’s admonition that “a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things he owns” (Luke 12:15).
Unfortunately, more often than not, our things possess us, rather than the reverse being true. The good steward (manager), who acknowledges God as the real owner of everything (Psalm 50:10), will serve in happy anticipation of the day when he gives account for his management (Luke 16:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2).
It would be prudent as well to reflect upon what will happen to our resources once we’ve passed from earth’s scenes (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:18-23). Stewardship applies not only to how one uses his affluence while living—but also how he bequeaths it from the grave.