The Bible


Psalms 23 : The 23rd Psalm



1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

    Study the Inner Meaning



The 23rd Psalm


By Mr. Brian P. David

The Lord as Shepherd, by Nana Schnarr

The 23rd Psalm is one of the best-known and most-loved literary works in the world, and it may well be the best poem ever written. It is also a fine example of the power of figurative language: We read deep things into the vision of ourselves as sheep, led to green pastures and good water by a kind shepherd. It’s empowering to feel the confidence to go fearlessly into the valley of the shadow of death, and to feel the love and caring of a table prepared by the Lord and a cup so full it overflows.

What people don’t know, however, is that this language actually has precise internal meanings, and that when we see them there is an even deeper beauty in the poem. That’s because what it actually describes is the path to heaven, and the fierce desire the Lord has to lead us there.

The first step is to let the Lord be our shepherd – to accept His teaching and His leadership. The green pastures and the still waters represent the things He will teach us for the journey. Then He begins working inside is, setting our spiritual lives in order, so that we desire to do what’s good and to love one another. That’s represented by restoring our souls and leading us in the paths of righteousness.

But we will still face challenges. We still live external lives, out in the world, and we are subject to desires that arise in those externals, in our bodily lives. That’s the valley of the shadow of death. But the rod and staff represent truth from the Lord on both external and internal levels, ideas that can defend us against those desires.

And if we keep following, the Lord will prepare a table for us – a place inside us that he can fill with love (the anointing oil) and wisdom (the overflowing cup). Thus transformed, we can enter heaven, with love for others (“goodness”) and love from the Lord (“mercy”) and can love and be loved to eternity.

One of many beautiful things about this is the fact that it is the Lord who really does all the work. In the whole text, the only action taken by the sheep is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Other than that, they follow the Lord, trust the Lord, accept the blessings of the Lord. And that is really true! In external states (in the valley) we might seem to be doing the work ourselves, but internally, spiritually, we simply need to give ourselves to the Lord and let Him bless us.

The underlying idea here is that the Lord created us so that He could love us, in loving us wants us to be happy, knows that our greatest happiness will come from being conjoined to Him in heaven, and Himself wants nothing more than to be conjoined to us. So everything He does, in every moment of every day for every person on the face of the planet, is centered on the goal of getting that person to heaven. He wants each and every one of us in heaven more than we are capable of imagining. We just need to cooperate.

(References: Apocalypse Explained 375 [34], 727 [2]; The Inner Meaning of the Prophets and Psalms 273)

From Swedenborg's Works


Arcana Coelestia #9780

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9780. 'And let them bring to you olive oil' means the good of charity and faith. This is clear from the meaning of 'olive oil' as the good of celestial love, dealt with in 886, but in the present verse the good of spiritual love, which is the good of charity towards the neighbour and the good of faith. The reason why the good of charity and faith is meant here by 'olive oil' is that it was for the light or lampstand, and 'the lampstand' means the spiritual heaven, 9548, the spiritual heaven on earth being the spiritual Church. 'Oil' and 'the olive tree' mean in the Word both celestial good and spiritual good, celestial good when the celestial kingdom or Church is the subject, and spiritual good when the spiritual kingdom or Church is the subject. What makes these kingdoms or Churches different from each other is the types of good. The celestial kingdom or Church's types of good are the good of love to the Lord and the good of mutual love, and the spiritual kingdom or Church's types of good are the good of charity towards the neighbour and the good of faith, 9741. These types of good and the types of truth that spring from them are the subject throughout the Word; for the Word consists wholly of teachings about good. It does so because it consists wholly of teachings about love to the Lord and love towards the neighbour, Matthew 22:35-40, and all good is an attribute of love, including the good of faith since this comes into being from the good of love and does not exist without it.

(References: Matthew 22:34-40)

[2] Since the Word consists of teachings about good, people need to know what good is if they are to have any understanding of the Word. But no one can know what good is unless he tries to lead a good life in accordance with the Word. For when someone tries to lead a good life in accordance with the Word the Lord instills good into that person's life. The person then comes to perceive that good and has a feeling for it, and as a result recognizes the essential nature of it. In no other circumstances does it appear, because it does not come to be perceived. All this makes clear what the condition is of those who merely know the things contained in the Word, convince themselves that they are true, yet fail to act on them. They are people with no real awareness of good, nor consequently of truth, for truth is known from good, and never exists without good except as some piece of lifeless knowledge which passes away in the next life.

[3] The fact that 'oil' and 'olive' mean good is clear from places in the Word where they are mentioned, as in Zechariah,

I saw a lampstand of gold, two olive trees beside it, one on the right of the bowl and one to the left of it. These are the two sons of oil, standing beside the Lord of the whole earth. Zechariah 4:2-3, 14.

'Two olive trees' and 'the two sons of oil' are the good of love to the Lord, which is on His right, and the good of charity towards the neighbour, which is to His left. Something similar occurs in John,

The two witnesses prophesied one thousand two hundred and sixty days. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the God of the earth. Revelation 11:3-4.

'The two olive trees and the two lampstands' are the same two types of good, which, since they come from the Lord, are called 'the two witnesses'.

(References: Zechariah 4:11)

[4] In the same book,

I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, Do no harm to oil and wine. Revelation 6:6.

'Oil' stands for the good of love and charity, 'wine' for the good and truth of faith. In Isaiah,

I will plant 1 in the wilderness the cedar of shittah, and the myrtle, and the oil tree. 2 Isaiah 41:19.

In Jeremiah,

They will come and sing on the height of Zion, and converge towards the goodness of Jehovah, towards wheat, and towards new wine, and towards oil. Jeremiah 31:12.

In Joel,

The field has been devastated, the land has been mourning because the grain has been laid waste, the new wine has failed, the oil languishes. Joel 1:10.

In the same prophet,

The threshing-floors are full of clean grain, and the presses overflow with new wine and oil. Joel 2:24.

In Moses,

I will give the rain for your land in its season, that you may gather your grain, your new wine, and your oil. Deuteronomy 11:14.

[5] This verse speaks of grain, new wine, and oil, but it becomes clear to anyone who stops to consider the matter that it is not these actual products that are meant. For being Divine the Word is spiritual, not worldly, so that what it says does not have to do with grain, new wine, or oil of the land, inasmuch as they serve the body as forms of food, only inasmuch as they serve the soul. For all forms of food in the world mean, when mentioned in the Word, heavenly kinds of food, as also the bread and wine in the Holy Supper do. What it is that 'grain' and 'new wine' mean in the places quoted above, see 3580, 5295, 5410, 5959, from which it is evident what 'oil' means.

[6] The same applies to all those things spoken by the Lord when He was in the world, such as those regarding the Samaritan - that he went near the one wounded by the robbers, bound his wounds, and poured in oil and wine, Luke 10:33-34. In this instance oil and wine are not what is meant but the good of love and charity, the good of love by 'oil' and the good of charity and faith by 'wine'. For the subject is the neighbour, thus charity towards him. As regards this meaning of 'wine', see 6377.

[7] The same applies to the things spoken by the Lord regarding the ten virgins, five of whom took their lamps without at the same time any oil, and five who took theirs with oil as well - that the latter five were admitted into heaven, whereas the former five were turned away, Matthew 25:3-4ff. 'Oil in the lamps' is the good of love and charity within the truths of faith; 'the virgins who took lamps but no oil' are those who hear the Word, read it, and say that they are believers, yet do not on that account perform any good deed at all, or who if they do, are not moved by a love of good or of truth but by selfish and worldly love.

(References: Matthew 25:3-13)

[8] Since oil was a sign of the good of charity the sick were also anointed with oil and healed, as it says about the Lord's disciples, that when they went out they cast out demons, and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them, Mark 6:13. In David,

You will make my head fat with oil, my cup will overflow. Psalms 23:5.

'Making the head fat with oil' stands for endowing with heavenly good. In Moses,

Jehovah fed [the people] with the produce of the fields; He caused them to suck honey out of the crag and oil out of the stony rock. Deuteronomy 32:13.

This refers to the Ancient Church. 'Sucking oil out of the stony rock' stands for being imbued with good through the truths of faith.

[9] In Habakkuk,

The fig tree will not blossom, neither will there be any produce on the vines; the olive crop will fail, 3 and the fields will not yield food. Habakkuk 3:17.

Neither the fig tree, vines, olives, nor fields should be understood here but the heavenly sources of food to which they correspond. This is also something which all who acknowledge that the Word has to do with such things as belong to heaven and the Church, and so to the soul, can recognize for themselves. But people who have no thought of anything other than worldly, earthly, and bodily things do not see it, indeed have no wish to see it. They say to themselves, What are spiritual things? What are heavenly realities? and so say, What are heavenly sources of food? They indeed know, when they are told, that these are the kinds of things which contribute to intelligence and wisdom, but they have no wish to know that they are what contribute to faith and love. They have no wish to know because they do not let such things enter into their life and as a result do not go far enough to attain intelligence and wisdom in heavenly truths and forms of goodness.

[10] In Ezekiel,

I washed you with water, and washed away the blood 4 from upon you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth. Your garments were fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, and honey, and oil. But you took your embroidered garments and covered the images, and you set My oil and My incense before them. Ezekiel 16:9-10, 13, 18.

Is there anyone who cannot see that garments made of embroidered cloth, fine linen, or silk are not meant here, nor oil, honey, or fine flour, but Divine things belonging to heaven and the Church? For these words refer to Jerusalem, by which the Church is meant, and therefore the matters that are mentioned mean such things as have to do with the Church. Each detail clearly means something specific about the Church, for in the Word, which is Divine, not a single word is devoid of meaning. For the meaning of Jerusalem as the Church, see 3654; and as regards what anything further means, for 'embroidered cloth', 9688; 'fine linen', 5319, 9469; 'fine flour', 2177; 'honey', 5620, 6857; 'washing with water', 3147, 5954 (end), 9088; and 'washing away the blood', 4735, 9127.

[11] In Hosea,

Ephraim feeds the wind; they make a covenant with the Assyrian, and oil is carried down into Egypt. Hosea 12:1.

These words are altogether unintelligible unless one knows what is meant by 'Ephraim', 'the Assyrian', and 'Egypt'. They describe the understanding part in the mind of a member of the Church when that part is perverted by means of mere reasonings based on factual knowledge. For 'Ephraim' is that understanding part, 3969, 5354, 6222, 6238, 6267; 'the Assyrian' reasoning, 1186; and 'Egypt' factual knowledge, 9391. Consequently 'carrying oil down into Egypt' means defiling the Church's good in that manner.

[12] The reason why the Lord went so often up to the Mount of Olives, Luke 21:37; 22:39, was that 'oil' and 'olive' were signs of the good of love, as also was 'a mountain', 6435, 8758. This was so because while the Lord was in the world all things in Him were representative of heaven; through them the whole of heaven was linked to Him. Therefore whatever He did and whatever He spoke was Divine and heavenly, and the last and lowest things were representative. The Mount of Olives represented heaven in respect of the good of love and charity, as also becomes clear in Zechariah,

Jehovah will go out and fight against the nations; His feet will stand on that day upon the Mount of Olives, which faces 5 Jerusalem. And the Mount of Olives will be split, that part of it [may lean] towards the east and towards the sea, 6 with a large valley; and part of the mountain will move away towards the north, and part of it towards the south. Zechariah 14:3-4.

[13] This refers to the Lord and His Coming. 'The Mount of Olives' means the good of love and charity, and so means the Church, for those forms of good make the Church. The fact that the Church would depart from the Jewish nation and be established among gentile nations is meant by the description that this mountain would be split towards the east, towards the sea, and towards the north and south. Something similar is meant by the Lord's words in Luke,

You yourselves will be thrown out of doors. On the other hand people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. Luke 13:28-29.

The overall meaning of the statement that Jehovah will go out and fight against the nations, and His feet will stand upon the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem, is that the Lord would fight from Divine Love against the hells; for evils springing from the hells are meant by 'the nations', 1868, 6306, and Divine Love by 'the Mount of Olives' on which His feet will stand.


1. literally, give

2. literally, the wood of oil

3. literally, the work of the olive will lie (i.e. prove false)

4. literally, your bloods

5. literally, which is before the face of

6. i.e. the west

(References: Exodus 27:20; Matthew 25:3-13; Zechariah 4:11)

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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 9806, 9873, 9954, 10068, 10136, 10137, 10182, 10261, 10402, 10540

References from Swedenborg's drafts, indexes & diaries:

Apocalypse Explained 31, 146, 211, 277

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Thanks to the Swedenborg Society for the permission to use this translation.