Magazine Article

Exegesis for Everyone

Exemplified in Psalm 23

Richard M. Davidson
Exegesis for Everyone
Photo by Morgan Winston on Unsplash

The word “exegesis” may seem to be fancy jargon used by professional biblical scholars, without much relevance to the average Bible student. The word “exegesis,” however, is a biblical term used concerning Jesus Himself! According to John 1:18, Jesus “exegeted” the Father! “God the only Son, who is in the arms of the Father, He has explained [exegeomai, “exegeted”] Him” (NASB). The Greek word exegeomai, from which we get our English word “exegesis,” simply means to “explain.” To “exegete” the Scriptures is to explain their meaning.

The process of biblical exegesis, as it emerges from Scripture’s own testimony, may be outlined in rough comparison with the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20. Just as the first table of four commandments deals with the divine-human (vertical) relationship, four general principles arise out of the divine-human nature of Scripture that form the foundational presuppositions of exegesis. Similarly, just as the second table of six commandments in the Decalogue deals with human (horizontal) relationships, the specific exegetical guidelines for the interpreter may be organized under six basic headings. Unlike the Decalogue of Exodus 20, this outline is not infallible! It represents one way of organizing the fundamental principles of exegesis. This article uses Psalm 23 as a case study illustrating how to apply these principles.

The First Table of the Exegetical “Decalogue”: Foundational Presuppositions

I. The Bible and the Bible Only (Sola Scriptura)

The sola scriptura principle (Isa. 8:20) means that the Bible and the Bible alone is the rule of our faith and practice. Scripture alone is the final authority for truth, by which we judge all other authorities, such as tradition, philosophy, science, reason, and experience (Matt. 15:3, 6; 1 Tim. 6:20; Prov. 14:12). In Scripture we can breathe the “pure oxygen” of truth, and we use our reason, guided by the Spirit, not to critique, but to receive and understand Scripture (Isa. 66:2). 

II. The Totality of Scripture (Tota Scriptura)

All Scripture is inspired by God and trustworthy (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 3:14-16). Hence, we accept all of Scripture, not just the parts that fit our own predetermined worldview. 

III. The Analogy (or Harmony) of Scripture (“Scripture Interprets Scripture”)

If all of Scripture is inspired by the same Spirit, then there is an underlying harmony among the various parts of the Word. The “analogy of Scripture” means that we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture (Luke 24:27; 1 Cor. 2:13). According to the biblical principle of the analogy of Scripture, we accept the consistency and clarity of Scripture (John 10:37; Deut. 30:11-14; Rom. 10:17).

IV. Spiritual Things Are Spiritually Discerned

“The things of the Spirit . . . are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). The Bible cannot be studied as any other book, coming merely “from below” with sharpened tools of exegesis. At every stage of the exegetical process, we need the Holy Spirit “from above,” to help us lay aside our own biased presuppositions, to see ever more the meaning of Scripture through His enlightenment, and to be spiritually transformed by that same Spirit (John 5:46, 47; 7:17; Ps. 119:33).

The Second Table of the Exegetical “Decalogue”: Specific Guidelines

The specific guidelines for exegesis of Scripture arise from and build upon the foundational presuppositions set forth in the “First Table.” This part sets forth practical steps in the exegetical process that emerge from the self-testimony of Scripture, applying them to Psalm 23.

V.  Text and Translation

Since exegesis focuses on the written word of Scripture, it is vitally important that we have access to what are indeed the Holy Scriptures, not adding to or taking away from the inspired Word (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5; Rev. 22:18, 19), and faithfully translating the original languages into our modern languages (Neh. 8:8; Matt. 1:23). For those who cannot read biblical Hebrew or Greek, it is beneficial to read several (I suggest at least five!) translations of a biblical passage, to get an idea of the various possibilities of translating various words and phrases. For free online access to a variety of modern translations, see Bible Gateway ( It is important to note that some modern versions provide a literal, word-for-word translation (e.g., NKJV, ESV, NASB), while others give a thought-for-thought translation (e.g., NIV, NLT) or a paraphrase (The Message). Each is good for its own purpose, but word-for-word translations are best for serious Bible study. To apply this guideline to Psalm 23, read this beautiful psalm over and over, in different versions! 

VI. Historical Context

Scripture is largely a history book. In order to exegete the meaning of a passage of Scripture, we must first seek to grasp the historical context in which the Scripture was written. The superscription of Psalm 23 specifically indicates that it is “A Psalm of David” (Heb. mizmor le David). This phrase clearly indicates that David was the author of the psalm, written sometime during David’s life in the early tenth century B.C.2 In 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 78:70 we find the background of David as a shepherd boy. We can examine the shepherd/sheep imagery of Psalm 23 elsewhere in the Scriptures (using a concordance or Bible with marginal references). We can view the psalm through the eyes of a shepherd to gain a knowledge of the behavior patterns of sheep.3

We can also learn about the geographical location of the areas where David probably led his sheep in the environs of Bethlehem. For example, Psalm 23:4 reads: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Archaeologists and biblical geographers have suggested that this phrase refers to a specific place in Palestine called “the Valley of Death.” It has been identified with the Wadi Qilt, which runs through the Wilderness of Judea from Jerusalem to Jericho. The wadi (a dry ravine except during rainy season) is some 15 miles long in total, and I have hiked (and camped) with my son through the entire gorge. The narrowest part passed through over five miles of cliffs reaching some 1,500 feet on each side, with space to walk at the bottom only 10-12 feet wide. There are numerous caves where wolves and other predators could hide in David’s time. At the end of the wadi, as it opens out, my son and I came upon a whole flock of sheep, lying in the pleasant grass shaded under the tall cliffs.  The meaning of this verse came together in a powerful way!

VII. Literary Analysis

Scripture is also a literary work of art. Many verses, chapters, and even whole books of the Bible are structured in a special literary structure called a chiasm, in which the second half of the passage mirrors the first, and the central part often highlights the main point of the passage.

Psalm 23 has an intricate chiastic structure:

A.  Presence: With God (verse 1)

     B.  Provisions:  Needs Supplied (Food and Drink) (verses 2, 3a)

              C.  Paths:  Righteousness (verse 3b)

              C’. Paths: Shadow of Death (verse 4)

     B’. Provisions: Needs Supplied (Food and Drink) (verse 5)

A’. Presence: With God (verse 6).4

We will return to the significance of this structure (and especially its apex) in the principle of theological analysis.

VIII.  Verse-by-Verse Analysis (Word Studies, Grammar, Syntax)

The Bible comes alive as one looks at the rich meaning of various biblical words, and the grammar and syntax (relationship of words) of sentences. For those who do not read the original language, this becomes accessible by examining a variety of modern translations, or using an interlinear Bible (such as the free online Blue Letter Bible, For example, Psalm 23:2 reads: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” I used to think that this described a verdant place with good-quality grass for the sheep to eat. But a closer look reveals that the Hebrew word used for “pasture” (na’vah) is not the normal word for a sheep’s feeding place; it means “comely, lovely, pleasant place.” The emphasis is upon beauty and pleasantness, not food. What is more, the Hebrew word for “green” (deshe’) is really a noun, not an adjective, referring to “tender, fresh soft grass” (cf. Prov. 27:25; The New Jerusalem Bible and the New English Translation Bible capture this picture). Habits of sheep verify this insight. Sheep do not eat lying down! The verse is not speaking of sheep eating (although this may be secondarily implied). The focus is on their place of comfort after their eating, as they are lying down, chewing their cud (ruminating) in a place of pleasant, fresh, soft grass. To apply this verse to us who are “the sheep of His pasture” (Ps. 100:3), God “causes us to lie down” sometimes, and invites us to “ruminate” over His Word.”5

IX. Theological Analysis

As one thinks of David writing about God as his shepherd, rich theological insights into the character of God emerge from the language he uses. For example, in Psalm 23:3 the shepherd leads the sheep “in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” The phrase “for His name’s sake” indicates that the shepherd’s very name (reputation) is at stake as a good shepherd in making sure the sheep are safe. We see that God’s character is at stake in caring for His people, His sheep. 

The psalm also holds a deeper meaning! Psalm 23 is sandwiched between two messianic psalms—Psalm 22, the Psalm of the Cross, and Psalm 24, the Psalm of the Crown (Christ’s ascension and entrance into heaven), making it likely that these three psalms form a “Messianic Trilogy.”6 The clues in Psalm 23 verify this conclusion.

Note, for example: the Shepherd’s Psalm was sung by a sheep (or lamb)! “The Lord is my shepherd.” On the deepest level, this sheep is none other than “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He trusts His Father, the Shepherd. The messianic import of this psalm is supported by its literary structure highlighting key messianic terminology. As noted in the literary analysis section above, the climactic central verses of Psalm 23’s chiastic structure describe the two fundamental experiences of the Lamb: (1) “He leads me in the paths of righteousness” (verse 3) and (2) “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (verse 4). Ultimately only the Lamb of God was both the Righteous One (Isa. 53:7, 11; cf. 1 Peter 1:19) and the one who passed through the shadow of death (as the sacrificial Paschal Lamb [1 Cor. 5:7]).

Psalm 22 is the Psalm of the Cross. Psalm 24 is the Psalm of the Crown. Psalm 23 is the Psalm of the Paschal Lamb! 

X. Practical Contemporary Application

In light of the messianic interpretation of the psalm, we can “follow His steps” as God’s sheep (1 Peter 2:21, 25). The messianic dimension heightens its practical application to our lives. If Psalm 23 is ultimately about the Lamb of God trusting in His Shepherd, then it has even more precious relevance for us. We can walk in the steps of the Lamb of God (Jesus) and, like Him, trust in the Shepherd (the Father) as He leads us on the paths of righteousness and even through the valley of the shadow of death.


Applying the exegetical principles that emerge from Scripture allow us to plumb the depths of Scripture. In the Shepherd’s Psalm, following the clues of the contents and the contexts, we discover its Christ-centered focus (as with the rest of Scripture: Luke 24:27; John 5:39). The twenty-third psalm invites us to “exegete” the Lamb of God as He “exegeted” the Father (John 1:18), and then, walking in His steps, to “follow the Shepherd.” Exegesis is for everyone!

1 For further study, see Richard Davidson, “Interpreting Scripture: An Hermeneutical ‘Decalogue,’ ” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 4, no. 2 (1993): 95-114, For more detail, see Richard Davidson, “Biblical Interpretation,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen, Commentary Reference Series (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), vol. 12, pp. 58-104,
. For application to Psalm 23, see Richard Davidson, “The Shepherd and the Exegetes: Hermeneutics Through the Lens of Psalm 23,” Current 4 (Fall 2016): 18-21,

2 See Jerome L. Skinner, “The Historical Superscriptions of the Davidic Psalms: An Exegetical, Intertextual, and Methodological Analysis” (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 2016).

3 See, e.g., James K. Wallace, The Basque Sheepherder and the Shepherd Psalm (Vancouver: Graphos Press, 1956, 1970, 1977); W. Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970, 1989).

4 For this basic structure, I am indebted to one of my students, Kevin Neidhardt, who wrote on this psalm for one of my seminary classes many years ago.

5 See Charles Allen, God’s Psychiatry: Healing Your Troubled Heart (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1984), for a powerful application of Psalm 23 to one’s spiritual experience.

6 For more details, see Richard Davidson, “Psalms 22, 23, and 24: A Messianic Trilogy?” in Reading the Psalms, vol. 2 of Songs of Struggle, Promise, and Hope (Berrien Springs, Mich.: ATS Publications, 2023), forthcoming.

Richard M. Davidson

Richard M. Davidson is a senior research professor of Old Testament interpretation at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.