Psalm 23:3 Commentary | Refreshed Soul, Righteous Tracks

Psalm 23:6 Meaning

Psalm 23:3 Text & Translation

נַפְשִׁ֥י יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב יַֽנְחֵ֥נִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶ֝֗דֶק לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמֹֽו׃1

My soul He refreshes. | He leads me in right(eous) tracks | for the sake of His Name (Ps 23:3, AT)

Soul

In Hebrew, a soul (נֶפֶשׁ | nepeš) is not necessarily a disembodied spirit (as in Greek thought) but “breath, life, desire”.2

Sometimes it literally means “breath”,3 and it is related to a word that means “throat”.4 For example:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck [nepeš]. (Ps 69:1, NIV).5

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath [nepeš] of life in it…(Gen 1:29-30a, NIV).6

Yet, in the same context, the word can also refer not only to breath but to anything that has breath (i.e., living, breathing creatures):

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures [nepeš] according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. (Gen 1:24, NIV).7

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being [nepeš]. (Gen 2:7, NIV).8

Soul, in Hebrew, can represent a whole person (physical & nonphysical). We also use the term this way at times in English. For instance, when counting passengers, captains of ships might say, there are 22 souls on board. Or, if someone tells us a secret, they may say, “Don’t tell a single soul!”

Interestingly, in Hebrew, nepeš can even refer to a body that’s not breathing! As we see in Leviticus:

[The high priest] must not enter a place where there is a dead body [nepeš]…(Lev 21:11a, NIV).9

My Soul

More specifically, my soul can also simply mean me or myself or I. 10 For example:

Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I [my nepeš] obey them. (Ps 119:129, NIV)

I spread out my hands to you; I [my nepeš] thirst for you like a parched land. (Ps 143:6, NIV)

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I [my nepeš] know that full well. (Ps 139:14, NIV)

Furthermore, soul can also refer to one’s inner desire, will,11 “appetite, emotion and passion”.12 Perhaps this is because panting breath is related to desire (cf. Ec 6:7).13

For example:

The appetite [nepeš] of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on. (Pr 16:26, NIV)

And in the great Shema of Deuteronomy 6:

5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul [nepeš] and with all your strength.(Dt 6:5, NIV)

We are to exemplify loyal love to the LORD with all of our innermost desires and wills.

He Returns My Soul

Refresh ( שׁוּב | šûb) actually means “repent, turn; return, go back” (qal) and sometimes means “bring back, restore” (polel).14

Sometimes šûb refers to repentance:

“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return [šûb] to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” (Joel 2:12, NIV; cf. Is 49:5; Ps 60:1).15

But here it likely means “to bring back liveliness, vitality”.16 The psalmist is saying, “He causes my [nepeš] to return”.17

This is the meaning of the phrase refresh my soul elsewhere in Scripture:

Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes [šûb] the spirit [nepeš] of his master. (Pr 25:13, NIV cf. Lam 1:11, 16, 19).18

After Boaz married Ruth and they had a son, women told her mother-in-law Naomi:

“He will renew [šûb] your life [nepeš] and sustain you in your old age.” (Ru 4:15a, NIV).19

At least in part, James Brown was likely referring to his liveliness and vitality when he said he had soul.

Refreshment implies there will be times of hardship.20 The psalms are aware that the upright are often  wronged, and that the wicked often seem to prosper (cf. “Righteous Refugees” study on Psalm 37; Jn 15:18-19, 16:33; 2 Tim 3:12; 2 Cor 11:24-28, etc.).

Righteous Tracks

Lead (נָחָה | nāḥâ) is also used in conjunction with nepeš in Isaiah:

The Lord will guide [nāḥâ] you always; he will satisfy your needs [nepeš] in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. (Is 58:11, NIV).21

This word, like other words in verses 1 and 2 (Ps 23:2), recalls the Exodus:

By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide [nāḥâ] them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. (Ex 13:21, NIV cf. Ex 13:17, 15:13, 32:34; Dt 32:12; Neh 9:12; Ps 77:20, 78:14).22

The word translated track (מַעְגָּל | maʿgāl) literally means “wagon track”23 or “course”.24

Metaphorically, this word refers to a “course of action or life” (cf. Pr 4:26, 5:21).25 When we stumble in life, sometimes we might say that we need to get back on track.

For the sheep in the psalm, righteous tracks likely refer to paths to the places of abundance.26 For humans, these likely refer to tracks that are “right with [God]”27 morally28 and the right path for our good (Pr 4:11; Is 26:7 cf. Pr 2:9).29

In other words, righteous tracks entail both right conduct and right consequences.30 The LORD makes it possible for the psalmist to not only walk on the right track, but to walk on the track, rightly.

For the Sake of His Name

We find the leading and guiding language with the sake of the Name of the LORD elsewhere in the Psalms:

Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead [nāḥâ] and guide [nāhal] me. Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. (Ps 31:3-4, NIV).31

Again, this language recalls the Exodus:

Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, to make his mighty power known. He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert. (Ps 106:8-9, NIV).32

A shepherd may guide sheep through potentially dangerous paths to get to more abundant pasture.33 When the path looks treacherous, sheep have to trust their Shepherd.

For His Name’s sake means for the sake of His reputation.34 As Bon Jovi sang, people can “give love a bad name” — a bad reputation. In contrast, shepherding His people brings honor to God’s Name.35

Furthermore, God will be true to His character.36 As His Name implies, the Great I AM is faithful (cf. Ps 138:2)!37

Conclusion

The psalmist sings that the LORD refreshes the soul — our vitality and liveliness. He leads His sheep to walk with right conduct on track to right consequences. And He does this for the sake of His reputation — for His Name that implies unfailing faithfulness.

For more commentary, please see the Psalm 23 Bible Study page. The full bibliography can be found here, and the slideshow for this study can be viewed and downloaded here.

Sources

  1. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: With Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit Morphology; Bible. O.T. Hebrew. Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit. (Logos Bible Software, 2006), Ps 23:3.
  2. NIDOTTE, 133
  3. NIDOTTE, 133
  4. TWOT, 588
  5. TWOT, 588
  6. NIDOTTE, 133
  7. NIDOTTE, 133
  8. NIDOTTE, 133
  9. NIDOTTE, 133
  10. NIDOTTE, 133
  11. NIDOTTE, 133
  12. BDB, 659; cf. TWOT, 587-9; Briggs, 209
  13. cf. Jer 2:24; Prov 23:2, Eccl 6:7; Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5; NIDOTTE, 133
  14. NIDOTTE, 55 cf. BDB, 998
  15. Kidner, 127
  16. HALOT, 1431
  17. UBS, 232
  18. BDB, 661; TWOT, 589; cf. Lam 1:11, 16, 19; Kidner, 127
  19. TDOT, 510; BDB, 661; TLOT, 748
  20. Broyles, 123
  21. NIDOTTE, 76
  22. TWOT, 568-9; cf. Ex 13:17, 15:13, 32:34; Dt 32:12; Neh 9:12; Ps 77:20, 78:14; Goldingay, 350; Waltke, 439
  23. HALOT, 609; cf. Waltke, 439; Briggs, 211
  24. NIDOTTE, 1010
  25. BDB, 722, cf. DCH, 379; Pr 4:26; 5:21; Longman, 135; Jacobson, 242
  26. UBS, 232-3
  27. Motyer, 500
  28. Kidner, 128 cf. Longman, 135; Waltke, 439
  29. Jacobson, 242
  30. Waltke, 440
  31. TWOT, 559; NIDOTTE, 44; TDOT, 260; Jacobson, 242; Goldingay, 349, 350
  32. Broyles, 125; Craigie, 207
  33. Futato, 103; Goldingay, 351
  34. UBS, 233; Waltke, 440
  35. Futato, 103
  36. UBS, 233; Motyer, 500
  37. Jacobson, 242; Goldingay, 350; cf. Ps 138:2; Waltke, 440
About @DannyScottonJr 219 Articles
Imperfect Servant ✝📖⛪ | Husband | Princeton U. Alum | M. Div. | Assistant (to the) Pastor | Sound Doctrine & Apologetics @catchforchrist