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 stupidity.
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.
In Jewish tradition
The first verse of the psalm as well as a long tradition ascribe authorship to King David, said in the Hebrew Scriptures to have been a field shepherd himself as a youth.
Psalm 23 is traditionally sung by Jews in Hebrew at the third Shabbat meal on Saturday afternoon. It is also sung during the Yizkor service. Sephardic and some Hassidic Jews also sing during Friday afternoon services and as part of the Sabbath night and day meals. It is read at a cemetery funeral service instead of the traditional prayer during Jewish holidays.
The standard Hebrew text of the Bible used in Judaism is the Masoretic text standardized between the 7th and 10th centuries CE.
For Christians the image of God as a shepherd evokes connections not only with David but with Jesus, described as "the 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.
A metrical version of the psalm is traditionally sung to the hymn tuneCrimond, 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.
1961: In The Twilight Zone episode The Obsolete Man, the Psalm is recited by an "obsolete" librarian Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), while awaiting capital punishment in his apartment. Having been trapped by Wordsworth in the apartment, in defiance of State law, and before a live television audience, Wordsworth's condemnor begs for mercy "in the name of God." Wordsworth obliges: "Yes, Chancellor, in the name of God, I will let you out."
1973: At the end of the film The Wicker Man, Howie shouts out Psalm 23, as he is being engulfed in flames
1988: Craig Bartlett's clay animation short Arnold Escapes from Church shows how a young boy's imagination might interpret the words of Psalm 23
1988: In the graphic adventure game Gold Rush!, originally released by Sierra Entertainment, the main character Jerrod Wilson is given a clue about his brother's whereabouts in the bible verse Psalm 23
1997: In the film Titanic it is recited while the ship is sinking
1997: In the film Paradise Road, the WWII story of a group of European women held prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp on Sumatra, the missionary Margaret, played by Pauline Collins, recites the King James version as she dies in the arms of Adrienne Pargiter (played by Glenn Close)
1999: In the film Deep Blue Sea, the character Preacher (played by LL Cool J) recites a slightly modified version of this Psalm while attempting a rather risky plan
2006: In the ABC series Lost, in episode 2.10 "The 23rd psalm" Mr. Eko recites the psalm when the plane with the drugs and his brother is burning, and in episode 2.12 "Fire + Water", he recites it while baptizing Claire and her son Aaron
^Together with Psalm 43 and Psalm 150 in an a capella setting for mixed chorus written in 1954. Dixon, Joan (1992). George Rochberg: A Bio-Bibliographic Guide to His Life and Works. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon Press, p. 175.