Psalm 22/23 which begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” is probably one of the best known, most often quoted and memorized of all David’s beautiful hymns. It has always occupied an important place in the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, and is one of the Psalms included in the order of preparation for the reception of Holy Communion.
In the early Church the catechumens, especially as the time for their baptism drew near, were made familiar with its contents and were even obliged to learn it by heart. It seems, however, that its meaning was not fully explained to them until after they had received the grace of the All-holy Spirit in the mysteries of baptism, chrismation and the eucharist.
“We gave you the Psalm, beloved children who hurriedly approach the baptism of Christ, so that you might learn it by heart. But, it is necessary, because of its mystical, hidden meaning, that we explain it to you, with the light of divine grace.” (From a sermon attributed to
The Fathers of the Church saw in Psalm 22 both a prophecy and a summary of the mysteries (sacraments) of Christian initiation: “By this Psalm, Christ teaches the Church that, first of all, you must become a sheep of the Good Shepherd: the catechetical instruction guides you to the pastures and fountains of doctrine. Then you must be buried with Him into death by baptism. But this is not death, but a shadow and image of death. Then He prepares the mystical table. Then He anoints you with the oil of the Spirit. And finally He presents the wine that gladdens the heart of man and produces that sober inebriation characteristic of the true Christian” (St.
It is to be noted that then, as now, our Orthodox Church used the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint – it is Psalm 22 in the Greek), and the understanding of its mystical meaning was based on this version. The traditional meaning given the Psalm in our Church is obscured in a few phrases of the most widely known English translations, since they follow the Hebrew rather than the Greek. In the following selection of commentaries on the six verses, we give first the King James translation and in the parentheses a more or less literal translation of the Septuagint.
1. The Lord is my Shepherd (The Lord shepherds me); I shall not want (I shall lack nothing).
“David invites you to be one of the sheep whose Shepherd is Christ and who lack no good thing. The Good Shepherd makes Himself everything for you: pasture, water of rest, food, dwelling place, and the way of righteousness, and He gives you the Comforter, distributing His grace according to your needs” (St.
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures (He has made me to dwell in a place of verdure): He leadeth me beside the still waters (He has nourished me beside the waters of rest).
“The place of verdure (green pastures) means the ever-fresh words of Holy Scripture, which nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength” (St. Cyril of
3. He restoreth my soul (He has converted my soul): He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (He has led me...).
David speaks of his own experience: after having learned of God’s ways he strayed from the paths of righteousness and fell into deadly sin. His experience in this Psalm becomes a prophecy: anyone, no matter how far he may have strayed from God, in Christ may be converted and return to the way of righteousness and learn to do God’s will.
4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil (...though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death...): for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (...they have comforted me).
“It is necessary for you to be buried in death with Him by baptism. But it is not really death, but a shadow and image of death” (St.
5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies (...in the presence of those that afflict me...): thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (...thy cup which inebriates me, how excellent it is).
“What does David mean by this (“Thou hast prepared a table...”) if not the mystical and spiritual table which God has prepared for us?...He anointed thy head on the forehead with the seal of God, which thou didst receive so that thou mightest bear the seal impressed as the sign of consecration to God. And you see that David is speaking of the chalice, over which Christ said after giving thanks, “This is the chalice of my blood” (St. Cyril of
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (...mercy shall pursue me...); and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
“Christ, providing the soul with the wine ‘that maketh glad the heart of men,’ provokes in it that sober intoxication which elevates the dispositions of the heart from transitory to eternal things...He who has tasted, in fact, this inebriation trades the ephemeral for that which has no end and remains in the house of the Lord all the days of his life” (St.