Certain sections of the Bible are like an old friend. They’ve been with us for as long as we can remember. When life had us doubled over with laughter or drenched in tears, they were right there beside us. A constant companion. In fact, they’ve been with us so long we know them inside out. At least we think we do.
Then one day, they tell us a story about themselves that we’ve never heard before. Reveal a secret they’ve never shared. And all of a sudden, we realize that this old friend is also part stranger, someone we’re still in the process of getting to know.
So it is with familiar Scriptures. We know these “old friends” so well we can quote them from memory. If we were raised in church, we probably can’t even remember a time when we didn’t know them. Then one day, a pastor or teacher shows us another side to these Scriptures, something not so easily seen in English, but clearer in Greek or Hebrew. We learn a story or secret these “old friends” never told us heard before.
Here are three such stories from Psalm 23, that lifelong friend to so many of us. These three hidden Hebrew treasures show us that, no matter how well we think we know this poem, there’s always more layers to uncover.
1. Goodness and Mercy Don’t “Follow” Us
In verse 6, we read, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The verb for “follow” is radaph. But the translation of this Hebrew verb as “follow” is far too weak and bloodless.
Goodness and mercy chase us down labyrinthine paths like the Hound of Heaven.
Radaph means to chase after, to pursue. The goodness and mercy of God do not follow us like a good little puppy dog, trailing along behind us. Rather, they gallop after us like a celestial stallion. As in the famous poem by Francis Thompson, the Lord’s goodness and mercy chase us down labyrinthine paths like the Hound of Heaven. They stay hot on our heels. The divine love and grace of our shepherd radaph us all the way to heaven’s gate and into the arms of our waiting Father.
We are pursued by mercy. We are chased by grace. We are not merely followed.
2. The Numerical Heart of the Psalm
Psalm 23 is not the shortest of the psalms, but it is relatively brief. It’s not as short as Psalm 117 (17 Hebrew words) or as long as Psalm 119 (1065 Hebrew words!). Psalm 23 has 55 Hebrew words in it. What’s fascinating, however, is what forms the numerical center of this psalm.
At the heart of Psalm 23 are the words, “For Thou art with me.” There are exactly 26 Hebrew words before that phrase, and exactly 26 words after it. What’s more, in the verses leading up to that phrase, the poet speaks of God in the third person: “he” does this and “he” does that. But when we get to this numerical center, the psalmist transitions into speaking to God directly, in the second person: for “Thou” art with me, “Thy” rod and staff, “Thou” dost prepare.
The abiding presence of the Shepherd with us is the beating heart of the poem.
Psalm 23 opens with the Hebrew word, Yahweh. Then 26 words later, the poet prays directly to the Lord, saying, “Thou [Yahweh] art with me.” Then he follows with 26 more words. We can’t see this in translation, but in Hebrew the message is clear: the abiding presence of the Shepherd with us—whether we’re in the valley of the shadow of death or surrounded by enemies—is the beating heart of the poem.
3. The Shepherd Who Repents Us
In verse 3 we read, “He restoreth my soul.” In this opening part of the psalm, the dominant image is that of a shepherd caring for his sheep. He makes them lie down in green pastures. He leads them besides quiet waters. He guides his flock in righteous paths.
But, as we all know, sheep are prone to stray. As we read elsewhere, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep” (Ps. 119:176). And we’re all familiar with the parable that Jesus tells about the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one, lost lamb (Luke 15:3-7).
The root of the Hebrew verb for “restore” is shuv (pronounced “shoove”). In its basic form, it means to turn, turn back, or return. It’s also the word frequently used for “repent,” as in Jeremiah 3:22, “Return [shuv], O faithless sons; and I will heal your faithlessness.” In fact, in the Jewish tradition, the noun used for repentance is teshuva, from this root.
The Good Shepherd repents us.
In Psalm 23, the Lord is the shepherd who goes after us when we stray and brings us back. He restores us, causes us to return, brings us back to the fold. In other words, this Good Shepherd repents us. In fact, the grammatical form of this Hebrew verb (called Po’el) is also used in Jeremiah 50:19 to describe how God acts as a divine shepherd: “I shall bring back [shuv] Israel to his pasture.” The same verb occurs at the end of Lamentations, “Restore [shuv] us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored [shuv]!” Literally, we might say, “Cause us to be repented to you, O Yahweh, that we may be repented” (Lam. 5:21).
Lost sheep don’t bring them themselves home; their shepherd does. So in Psalm 23, not only does the Lord lead us in green pastures, down righteous paths, and beside quiet waters. When we stray and get lost, he repents us, he restores us. He lays us on his shoulders and carries us home, rejoicing.
So, as you can see, our old friend, Psalm 23, has some new stories to tell us. We’re still in the process of getting to know him. I pray these three Hebrew insights will make this psalm an even closer friend than before.