Question: "What is the significance of David saying, "You anoint my head with oil" (Psalm 23:5)?"
Answer: King David loved being in the presence of the Lord. In Psalm 23, David celebrated the intimate relationship he shared with God. The passage begins with a metaphor of the Shepherd (the Lord) leading His lamb (David), illustrating God’s close attention, guidance, and protection. The imagery deepens as David portrays himself as an honored guest and permanent resident in God’s house: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:5–6).
An ancient custom of hospitality and respect shown to esteemed dinner guests was for the host to anoint his invitee’s head with oil. The oil was mixed with fragrant perfumes to refresh and soothe weary travelers (see Jesus’ rebuke of a dinner host in Luke 7:46). Since the custom and its significance are unknown today, some modern translations replace the phrase with “you welcome me as an honored guest by rubbing my head with oil” (TEV) and “you honor me by anointing my head with oil” (NLT).
In Psalm 23:5, David said to the Lord, “You anoint my head with oil” because he regarded himself as the Lord’s special guest. David had been invited to dine now and forever at the Lord’s table and to receive His favorable anointing.
David recognized that his standing was not merely that of a short-term visitor who would be entertained once and then sent on his way. Nor would he be invited to return for a meal only occasionally. David rejoiced that he had been granted the high honor of a perpetual place setting at the Lord’s supper table.
The statement “You anoint my head with oil” also symbolized David’s gladness of heart. Oil is elsewhere associated in the Bible with joy (Isaiah 61:3; Hebrews 1:9). David felt so blessed by his Host’s gracious abundance, always providing more than he needed, that his cup of joy was at the spilling point. Another psalmist expressed similar satisfaction in the Lord’s favor: “God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy” (Psalm 45:7).
You anoint my head with oil speaks of the Lord’s ministry to refresh David’s heart, particularly in light of the immediate threat of enemies. David imagines himself sitting at the Lord’s banquet table while his adversaries gather all around. Being in God’s presence rejuvenated David, giving him the strength to face all the challenges and pressures of life. His enemies could snarl and roar all they wanted, but in the shelter of God’s presence, David would feast and be refreshed.
With his head anointed and his cup overflowing, David spoke what might be the equivalent to the apostle Paul’s declaration in Romans 8:31–39: “If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life . . . neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As Christians, we enjoy an intimate relationship with the Lord. We, too, can delight in the comfort of His presence, protection, and care (John 14:23). God has invited us to be honored guests in His eternal home with a permanent place at His banquet table (Isaiah 25; Matthew 22:1–14; Luke 13:29–30; Revelation 19:9; 21:2–4). Like David, we can say, “You anoint my head with oil” because Jesus Christ fills us with joy overflowing, and His joy is the strength of our lives (John 15:11; Psalm 16:11; Nehemiah 8:10).