Psalm 23:5: Since When do Sheep Sit at a Table?

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.


This is the standard translation of Psalm 23 verse 5. A glance at one of the numerous Bible translation websites that provides lists of all the many translations shows very little difference from this exact version. However, a close and careful reading of the Hebrew original of this verse reveals that not only is this standard translation imprecise; but the deeper meaning of the verse is lost in these translations.


You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.


The Hebrew word NEGED does, in fact, usually mean “in the presence of” it also means “opposite” or “against”. In other words, NEGED often implies a confrontational stance. The fact that this nuance is what is intended in our verse is clear from the phrase before it:


You prepare a table before me


The word for before me – LEFANAI – also means “in front of” – but not ever in a confrontational way. If our verse meant that the Lord provides a table before me, which is also in front of my enemies, the same word should have been used for both. The choice to change from one word to another tells us that the implication and connotation of the two words is different.


Complicated? Let me sum this up and make things simple.


You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; can easily be understood as a kind of peace offering. A table is set before me and my enemies for us to sit together and peacefully resolve our differences. But the change from LEFANAI – before me – to NEGED – opposite / in front of tells us what is really going on. To understand further we must understand what preparing a table means in Scripture.


Here are a few other examples of table-setting in the Bible.


“But you who forsake the Lord, who forget My holy mountain,
Who prepares a table for Gad, and who furnish a drink offering for Meni.” (Isaiah 65:11)


“Yes, they spoke against God: They said, Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” (Psalms 78:19)


Setting a table means to show respect and provide what is needed.  In Isaiah, the setting of table is a way of paying respect to Pagan gods. In Psalm 78 it refers to the Lord providing the needs of Israel in the desert.


Putting this together, when our verse states that You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, what it is saying is, “Lord, you give me all I need to be respected and victorious in the face of my enemies.”


This understanding of the verse is even more evident from the second translation issue. And this time, the translators just got it wrong.


You anoint my head with oil


The problem with this translation is that the Hebrew word for anoint – MASHACH from the Hebrew root MSHCH – does not appear in this verse. That is the word everywhere in the Bible where someone is anointed. And our verse just does not say that. The word in our verse is DISHANTA is from the three-letter root D-SH-N. And guess what? D-SH-N does not mean anoint. Ever.


The root D-SH-N actually means “to fatten”, “make healthy” or “make fresh.” The translators all chose to translate this word as anointed in our verse because, well, what else do you do to someone’s head with oil? But if King David wanted to write anointed in this verse he would have done exactly that! Instead, he chose to use the word D-SH-N.


So what does the verse mean when it writes “You have freshened/fattened my head with oil?”


I’d like to suggest that in our verse the psalmist is praising the Lord for giving him everything he needs to defeat his enemies, including the confidence to be victorious.


In effect, he says to the Lord, “You have anointed me with oil. And through this anointing You have given me the strength, vibrancy, and confidence that I need to defeat my enemies.”


At this point, I’d like to draw our attention to a remarkable transition that took place in our Psalm. And we may not have noticed.


Remember the beginning of the psalm when the Lord was described as a shepherd? Well, if the Lord is a shepherd, then we are sheep. In fact, in verse 2 the psalmist refers to himself grazing in green pastures. This is not exactly something most humans would find too appetizing. The Hebrew word in verse 2 for “He lays me down in green pastures” YARBITZEINI is actually a word that refers throughout Scripture only to animals laying down. (e.g. Genesis 49:9,14; Exodus 23:5)


In other words, in the opening verses of Psalm 23 we are sheep and the Lord is a shepherd.


And then here in verse 5 we are sitting at a table. We are drinking from a cup. What happened to the animal imagery? Since when do sheep sit at tables and drink from cups?


But it is this transition that teaches us deeper lesson of Psalm 23.


At times we are as fully dependent and as clueless as sheep. This is not a very mature relationship with the Lord. We are sheep. We wander. We seek comfort. Our goals are not much beyond food and a comfortable place to lay down or drink. Sheep are not beasts of burden. They do not serve the shepherd or bear any of the burdens of his work. They are selfish beings who are being cared for. The Lord’s relationship to us is focused on keeping us safe and well fed.


But this is not the ideal relationship to God. There is a higher, more meaningful relationship to Him. We are no longer sheep. We are human beings created in His image. We are aware. We battle our enemies. We defeat them with the help of the strength and confidence that God provides for us. He does not do all the work. We are his anointed agents to defeat evil.


Sometimes we are sheep. We stray mindlessly and God needs to shepherd us back to where we are supposed to be. But as we mature in our relationship to Him he empowers us and gives us responsibility. He sets the table. He fills the cup. He gives us anointing, strength, and confidence. But It is our job to defeat our enemies; and His.


Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Associate Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation in Jerusalem He is the author of Cup of Salvation: A Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise and co-Founder of Blessing Bethlehem, a program that assists the struggling Christian community of Bethlehem

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Comments ( 9 )

The comments below do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of The Israel Bible™.

  • Amando Suyod Jr

    Praise God for using people like you in giving us deeper insights to His Word. I am really blessed. I will be teaching this portion of Psalm this Sunday. God bless.

  • Steve

    Satan loses in the end …and now…as God provides…a way a …table …needs met…praise God

  • Mac Adkins

    I have heard that the word for "table" is close to the word for "sword" and perhaps the verse should be that He prepares a sword before me in the presence of my enemies. Could this be the case? If so, it makes more sense.

  • Mairi

    I love that interpretation of ‘you anoint my head with oil’ because so much of the battle is in the mind! Be transformed by the renewing of your mind – when we are ‘fattened’ in our mind, we will be victorious!

  • Daniel Pervorse

    As I am preparing to teach this Psalm, I have struggled with this verse because the modern translations just don't line up with the typical use of the word "DISHANTA." I so appreciate your insight and clarification. You stated that a more correct translation would be “You have freshened/fattened my head with oil?” Your next comment is as follows: "I’d like to suggest that in our verse the psalmist is praising the Lord for giving him everything he needs to defeat his enemies, including the confidence to be victorious." That makes sense to me. Why then in the very next sentecne do you step backwards and say that it means "anointed with oil" when you just clearly stated that David didn't use the Hebrew word for anoint?

  • Henry John P Horrilleno

    Thank you for the clarification on "before" & "in the presence of".

  • Judtih Steury

    I have always longed for this verse to mean that God vindicates me or any human who has been wronged. I hope that I'm not 'reading' into the verse something that isn't there but your rendering of the verse might intimate this.
    Many thanks. This is very comforting to me.

  • John Hardy

    Excellent commentary! Dispels the Pollyanna misconception so popular today.

  • Ismael mesa

    When i don't understand my lord shows me the way to understand him this time was the israel bible thank you my lord jesus. When i lose my way in the dark and cry out his name jesus he comes running to me for his love is a love of a father. a love like no love over flowing.

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