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.
“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 www.CJCUC.com. He is the author of Cup of Salvation: A Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise www.cupofsalvation.com and co-Founder of Blessing Bethlehem, a program that assists the struggling Christian community of Bethlehem www.blessingbethlehem.com.