Why Is Psalm 23 Read at Funerals or Memorial Services?

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The 23rd chapter of Psalms is one of the most well-known and often memorized portions of the Bible. It’s read during challenging times by religious and non-religious people alike because of its comforting message of hope and peace. 

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The popularity and content of this Psalm are two reasons why it’s an ideal Psalm for funerals or memorial services. If you’re thinking of reading this Psalm at a loved one’s funeral or having it read at your own funeral, read on for everything you need to know about this lovely piece of poetry.

What Is Psalm 23 About?

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." 

These inspiring words have become incredibly popular for Christian funeral services and Jewish funeral services. The famous Psalm uses a shepherd's care for his sheep as a metaphor to describe the wisdom, strength, and kindness of God. For many, the words serve as a reminder that God is faithful and can be trusted in life or death, good times or bad.

When it comes to portions of scripture, Psalm 23 is the most popular chapter out of all the Psalms and might be the most well-known piece of scripture from the Bible after John 3:16. In this short piece of poetry, an anonymous speaker confidently boasts about their confidence in God. 

Throughout the chapter, God is referred to as a good shepherd who keeps his flock safe even when they must travel through the "valley of the shadow of death." God is also depicted as a heavenly father who provides unending love, comfort, joy, protection, hope, strength, assurance, and peace to his children.

Who wrote Psalm 23?

Psalm 23 is an ancient hymn written by the legendary biblical hero King David.

According to biblical history, David was the youngest son of Jesse, a farmer, and shepherd from the Israelite tribe of Judah. Young David spent most of his childhood tending to his family’s flock until he first gained recognition for killing Goliath, a giant and an enemy of his people. 

Eventually, he was told by a prophet named Samuel that he would be king of Israel. It wasn’t until David was thirty years old that he officially became king after the death of King Saul, who was killed in battle. 

David is a prominent figure in the Old Testament and was depicted as God's anointed king. The 12 tribes of Israel were united under his rule, and Israel experienced a time of prosperity during his reign. In addition to his accomplishments on the throne, King David is responsible for writing about half the book of Psalms and preparing his son, Solomon, to rule in his place. 

To this day, King David is an important figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

What Does Psalm 23 Mean?

In the 23rd chapter of Psalms, David imagines God as a "shepherd" with himself and God’s people as the "sheep." 

According to the writer, God is a protector who watches over his children. Because of his protection and care, they will never lack or be left alone. In the same way that a herdsman tends to his sheep, David writes, God also tends to his children, the flock.

Shepherding imagery can be seen throughout the chapter as David references the places where a shepherd would normally take a flock of sheep for their good and well-being. Areas with "still waters and green pastures" would have been familiar to David from his own shepherding days, so the imagery was natural to draw from as he wrote about his relationship with God. 

Ultimately, Psalm 23 presents a general idea of how a loving God (the good shepherd) cares for his children (the sheep or flock). The main literary device used in the chapter is a metaphor, as God is directly compared to a shepherd.

Verse 1

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

This verse metaphorically refers to God as a "shepherd.” A shepherd tends to his sheep daily by ensuring each sheep is fed and cared for. David affirms that God is the shepherd who is committed to taking care of him at all times. He is confident that God will provide for all of his needs. 

Verse 2

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

Here, David says that God's children can trust that his leading will always bring them peace and satisfaction. Just as a shepherd leads his sheep through green pastures and still waters to be refreshed, in the same vein, God will do similar things for his sheep.

Verse 3

"He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

David emphasizes his trust and faith in God as the one who leads his children on the right path, glorifying his name and reputation as the creator. Even when there are times of despair, the writer of this verse affirms that God will always bring restoration to his troubled soul.

Verse 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."

Again, David confidently talks of God’s ability to protect him. Even in the face of seemingly helpless situations, David’s faith in God is powerful enough to kill the fear he may feel.

Verse 5

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

In verse 5, David continues to affirm God's ability to provide for him even with his enemies present. The "anointing of his head" symbolizes that God has chosen him as His son. As a son, David can rest content knowing that his heavenly father will supply every need he has. 

Verse 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."

Finally, David speaks a blessing over himself. He is confident of who he is as an anointed child of God, and he declares his place of remaining under the protection of God.

"The house of the Lord" symbolizes God's presence where David is confident he will dwell after death because God's presence is eternal. "The house of the Lord" also symbolizes heaven where children of God go to meet with God after they have passed on from this life.  

Why Is Psalm 23 Appropriate for a Funeral?

Psalm 23 is read at funerals and memorial services because the content is comforting to many Christians, Jewish people, and religious individuals. Since the themes of eternal rest, peace, and comfort are so dominant throughout the six short verses, the poem provides hope and encouragement to those left behind. 

Psalm 23 is often quoted, recited, and read during times of distress and uncertainty, from natural disasters to losing a loved one. If you’re organizing a Christian or Jewish funeral or memorial service, you can be confident in choosing Psalm 23. This selection is one of the most meaningful and appropriate chapters to read during a funeral service.

This well-known portion of scripture can be read, sung, or recited. If the attendees are familiar with the chapter, you might consider asking them to join you in reciting it. You can also provide printouts of the passage so they can read along or read every other verse to make it a communal reading.

What Religions Use Psalm 23 at Funerals?

Psalm 23 is primarily read at funerals or memorials for those in the Jewish and Christian communities. Jews and Christians both know this Psalm since the book of Psalms can be found in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah. Though other religious and non-religious individuals recognize the famous Psalm, it doesn’t often get read or recited as part of a funeral service. 

When and How Is Psalm 23 Typically Read at a Funeral?

The iconic words of Psalm 23 have become an inextricable part of many Christian and Jewish funeral services around the world. Not only is it recited and read, but it’s also often used in the message or sermon spoken by religious figures during a funeral. 

At a Christian funeral

A member of the clergy, such as a priest or pastor, typically reads or recites Psalm 23 as part of a sermon or as a prayer during the funeral service. Some clergy members will encourage the attendees to recite or read the portion together or read it in response by reading every other verse.

While loved ones offer their condolences to the deceased’s family after the funeral service, the Psalm is read during the service to provide encouragement and comfort prior to burial and encourages the hurting to trust in God, the good and faithful shepherd. 

At Jewish shiva

Along with several other Psalms, Psalm 23 has become a staple at Shiva. During Shiva, friends and loved ones of the deceased will visit the grieving family to mourn with them and provide them comfort. A Jewish Rabbi recites Psalm 23 and other Psalms, including Psalm 16, 49, 90, and 103, every morning and evening in the Shiva house of mourning. 

A Psalm of Comfort

Psalm 23 has long been an important and highly influential text, offering peace and comfort to the hurting for hundreds of years. Choosing to read this poem that speaks about God as a good shepherd is a message that will encourage, build faith, and bring comfort to anyone who has lost a loved one.


Sources:
  1. Guzik, David. "Psalm 23 – The Lord is My Shepherd and My Host.” Psalms, Enduring Word, 2020. Enduringword.com
  2. Emberley, Robert. "Psalm 23: The message of the shepherd." Life and Faith, Greenfield Recorder, 5 February 2021. Recorder.com
  3. The Bible. "Psalm 23 Summary & Analysis." Poetry, Litchart, 2022. Litcharts.com
  4. Nelson, Ryan. "16 Facts About King David." Bible Characters, Overviewbible, 27 July 2020. Overviewbible.com
  5. "The Ritual of Reciting Psalms at Shiva." Shiva, Jewish Funerals, 28 February 2020. Jewishfuneralsusa.com

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