Do you find the idea of God preparing a meal for you puzzling? Let’s take a closer look at the penultimate verse of this beautiful psalm.
Who wrote Psalm 23:5?
The Book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew religious songs, words intended for a musical setting. They were written somewhen between the 9th and 5th centuries BC by a variety of authors. Around half the psalms in the Bible were written by King David and Psalm 23 is almost certainly one of them. As a boy, David had worked as a shepherd, it therefore is natural for him to begin this psalm by characterizing God’s relationship with his people as that of a shepherd and his flock.
What is the meaning of Psalm 23:5?
Psalm 23:5 New International Version.
‘You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.’
For centuries, in all cultures, preparing a meal for someone has been an act of goodwill, the symbolic importance of which is far more important than simply supplying someone with food for their stomach. David uses the metaphor of a host providing a feast as a way to explain the intimacy of his relationship with God, but he doesn’t stop there, he pushes the metaphor even further. This is a meal provided in the ‘presence of my enemies’. It’s a curious image. Can you imagine sitting down to a glorious feast, watched by your enemies? It’s an image which is puzzling. Does it mean that, in heaven, enemies are no longer enemies, that all have been brought into the flock? Does it mean that come Judgment Day, those who have turned their back on God will look on as the righteous take their place with God? Or are the ‘enemies’ David’s personal failings, his sins, his doubts? What do you think?
We no longer anoint the heads of our guests, but in the ancient cultures of the Middle East, aromatic ointments were a common feature at great feasts. This is an image of God as not just a host but the perfect host. David’s cup ‘overflows’. The grace of God is not just sufficient, it is unlimited. Using the customs of his time, David uses this extended metaphor to help us imagine a divine host.
Psalm 23:5 King James Version
‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.’
We can see that the NIV stays very close to the King James Bible of 400 years ago. Many people love this famous edition of the Bible, the most influential and widely read Bible in history. It’s easy to feel that the archaic language is somehow more authentic, more religious, but we must remember that however much we may enjoy the poetry of KJV, it is our sense of understanding that is paramount.
Psalm 23:5 New American Standard Bible
‘You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.’
I always feel that the NASB makes helpful modernizations to the language of KJV without any erosion of meaning, as this version of this verse demonstrates.
Psalm 23:5 The Message
‘You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies
You revive my drooping head
My cup brims with blessing.’
I like the ‘six-course dinner’, I like ‘revive my drooping head’ because both of those phrases seem to me helpful clarifications which do not depart from the sense of the KJV; however ‘my cup brims’ is not the same as ‘overflowing’. God’s love and mercy is endless, not just to the top.
Psalm 23:5 in context
This extraordinary psalm begins with the image ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and describes the care with which God tends to his flock upon this earth. David then passes through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ and we are presented with the image of God as divine host. These are two extended metaphors drawn from everyday life, which after thousands of years have not lost their purchase.
Reflections on Psalm 23:5
Mere language falters and breaks when we try to talk about our relationship with God. I cannot think of a better image to explain the unbounded joy of faith than that of an overflowing cup.
Read Next: The Meaning of Psalm 23:6. The famous Psalm is so familiar, we often become blind to it. Let's reflect on the meaning of the last verse.