‘You anoint my head’: what does Psalm 23 tell us about welcome?

Inspired by Psalm 23.5 – ‘You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me’ – Bible Society is encouraging churches to host banquets for those who might have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This is one of a series of articles reflecting on the psalm.

One of the lovely lines of Psalm 23 is in verse 5, which says – depending on your translation – ‘you anoint my head with oil’. In a twenty-first century context this is a rather odd thing to do; we wouldn't normally pour oil over a visitor's head as they walk through our doorway. But it's not hard to understand what's going on here. Anointing someone's head with oil in Bible times was a courtesy, refreshing them after a hot and dusty walk. The oil would have been perfumed with fragrant herbs and spices. It was a sign of welcome and respect. Anointing wouldn't have been a routine thing, practised when a neighbour popped round for a chat or to borrow some flour. It was for formal occasions, like a gathering of elders or teachers – or a banquet. It was a way of saying, ‘We are honoured by your presence here.’ 

So how should it be translated in today's Bible versions, in a way that brings out its full meaning? Most English Bibles go for a literal translation, trusting that readers will understand the custom that lies behind the words. Others are more imaginative: ‘You revive my drooping head’, says The Message, while the Good News Bible says, ‘you welcome me as an honoured guest’.

However we actually translate these words, we can understand the thought behind them. In this part of Psalm 23, the imagery has moved away from God as the shepherd caring for his flock to God as the host welcoming his guest – and dwelling on this idea can help this part of the psalm speak to us very powerfully. 

Today, a host shows respect for a guest at a formal meal by preparing the house for them; providing the best food and drink they can; dressing appropriately; and giving them time and attention. The host deliberately makes the guest feel significant, helping them feel valued and wanted. Perhaps hours of preparation have gone into the visit. Perhaps there's some anxiety about whether things will go well. The host expects to enjoy the guest's company, but worries about whether the guest will feel the same. But the cost – in money, time, convenience and stress – is gladly paid, because the guest is worth it. 

When we think about God as a host in this way, it adds an extraordinary dimension to the psalm. The psalmist has just come through the valley of the shadow of death. Like him, we may be battered, bruised and weary after the battles of life – injured, exhausted, hot and frightened. We are conscious of our weakness and our failure. We may want to hide away and lick our wounds. We are certainly in no fit state for company. 

But God has other plans. He refreshes and restores us. He is glad to see us at his table. Just as we are, he welcomes us.

And so this line in the psalm becomes a picture not just of hospitality but of salvation. As the old hymn says: 

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve
Because Thy promise I believe
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

It's our prayer that the Psalm 23 Banquet will become a movement sweeping England and Wales – for more about this, see our website. We're working with Christians against Poverty and Welcome Churches to embody the psalm in our churches and communities.

You might also be interested in

Articles, resources and more

Want to get articles like this emailed to you? Sign up for our newsletter for weekly news, resources and stories of how we're bringing the Bible to life.

Bringing the Bible to life

Bible Society, Stonehill Green, Westlea, Swindon, SN5 7DG. Registered charity 232759

Read the Bible icon Read Bible
Open full Bible