The familiarity of Psalm 23 is probably the greatest impediment to us hearing the psalm afresh. Somehow the psalm came to be associated with both children and funerals. Much of that is due to the pastoral imagery. The early verses bring to mind the images of the mild and gentle Jesus holding a lamb that many of us saw on the walls of our Sunday School classrooms as children.
However, the shepherd imagery would probably not have conjured such tranquil imagery for the original audience. Shepherds were not thought of as meek and mild, but rather necessarily rugged and tough to handle the difficulties of wilderness life and the demands of protecting the flock. Recall that even the young David had on his resume the defeat of a lion and a bear.
Furthermore, there is a tendency in the Old Testament to use the shepherd motif with reference to the king and other leaders (Ps. 77:20; Num. 27:17). The king is presented as the ultimate shepherd of his flock, the people (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7). David is depicted as God’s chosen shepherd for Israel in Psalm 78:70-72. The shepherds of Israel, her spiritual and political leaders, are rebuked by Yahweh in Ezekiel 34.
In fact, it is probably such kingly imagery that holds the psalm together, since there is a clear shift away from the shepherd-sheep imagery in vv. 1-4 to royal host imagery in vv. 5-6. One hint is in the word usually translated “rod” in v. 4 and which calls to mind the shepherd’s cudgel. But the same word can be translated “scepter.”
So the psalm is probably intended to have a strong royal flavor to it. First, King Yahweh is presented using shepherd imagery as the one who provides for and protects his flock (1-4). Then the imagery becomes slightly more ‘literal’ and the King is presented as gracious host who invites his people to dwell with him and feast with him (5-6).
Of course, this makes connecting the psalm to Christ as the Good Shepherd-King very clear. But it should also protect us against sentimentalizing the psalm into a soft and fuzzy story for children or merely offering comfort for the bereaved. It is a strong statement of God’s rightful Lordship in our lives.