Psalm 23: The Shepherd Psalm
No Psalm is better loved or read more than the 23rd Psalm. Charles Spurgeon calls it the “pearl of psalms.”
The author is believed to be David, the shepherd boy David who grew up to be a king. It is filled with imagery that could only have come from one who was a shepherd himself and expresses the richness of God’s love and care in ways that only a shepherd who loved and cared for his sheep would know. For the people of the Old Testament it spoke in ways that encouraged them and reminded them that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the personal God who met their individual needs. Once we come to the New Testament, we see all that love and care taken over by the One who called Himself the Good Shepherd.
V.1 The LORD is my shepherd: What a marvelous way to begin. David combined two extraordinary descriptions of God. God is the “Lord” and He is a “shepherd.” The word David used for “Lord” is the one that is first given Moses in Exodus 3 where God declared He is, “I am that I am.” The Lord, who is a shepherd, is the eternal and all-sufficient one. He is the One whose resources are inexhaustible and, therefore, able to supply whatever His love seeks to give. The blessing of the Psalm lies not in the promises made but in the one who made them. He is the great “I am that I am.”
He is also a shepherd. Consider for a moment what a shepherd was in the Old Testament. A shepherd was the lowliest of all jobs. In a family the role of being a shepherd was relegated to the youngest son, which is why David was out caring for the family sheep when Samuel came to anoint a son of Jesse as king and why no one in the family ever considered one doing the work of a shepherd as worthy of even being considered for such an important position. In any family where it was possible, they hired outsiders to do this job. Such individuals were generally considered the failures of society who could not get a real job. Shepherds were nobodies, but God was willing to compare Himself to one because they were perfect examples of those who cared for and provided for those who were otherwise helpless. Imagine, the great God of the universe the great “I am that I am” has chosen to stoop to the role of a shepherd of His people here on earth.
Remember the role of a shepherd. Sheep are without a doubt the dumbest and most helpless of all animals. Left to themselves they will die very quickly. Left to themselves they cannot find food and if they stumble upon it, they will quickly wander away and forget how to get back. They are the easiest of prey for any wild animal as they have no way to protect themselves, no speed to escape, and no camouflage in which to hide. In this Psalm David spoke of the God “restoring the soul” which literally in the Hebrew is “restoring life.” Phillip Keller, in his marvelous book “A Shepherd Looks that the 23rd Psalm,” relates this to what he called a sheep being cast down. He described how a sheep will lay down on its side, then roll over on its back and get to the place where it cannot roll over further and is stuck there. Only an alert shepherd can turn the sheep over and literally restore life to it.
The job of a shepherd was to live with the sheep 24/7. Sheep need constant care throughout every day and throughout the whole year. There were times when that care was more urgent, such as times of drought or storm, but even in the best of times a shepherd had to be there to protect, guide, feed, and care for the sheep. God chose the metaphor of a shepherd to describe how He cares for us. That picture is enriched in the New Testament where we see Jesus as our Good Shepherd who searches for lost sheep, knows His sheep by name, leads them constantly and lies over the entrance of the sheepfold to ensure that they are protected and secure.
David wrote that the Lord is “MY” shepherd. The personalization of the role is significant. Most often in the Old Testament God is seen as the Shepherd of the nation and in the New Testament Jesus is seen as the Good Shepherd of the flock, but He is also a personal Shepherd to those who view Him as such.
I shall not be in want. The second half of the first verse is as far-reaching as the first. If David could say the eternal creator God is a personal shepherd, he could also declare “I shall lack nothing.” God is able to provide absolutely everything we will ever need, be it material or spiritual possessions, be it right now or for eternity, be it in times of calm and rest or in times of difficulty. Regardless of the circumstance, “I shall lack nothing.”
V.2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. Phillip Keller wrote it is almost impossible to get sheep to lie down. Before they will do so he wrote 4 things need to be present. First, they must be free from all fear. Sheep are very timid animals and if they have any sense of fear they will refuse to lie down. Second, they are a social animal and must have a sense of no friction within the herd. Third, if there are any insects, especially flies, evident they will not lie down. Finally, they will not lie down when hungry. To get sheep to lie down they must free of fear, free of friction, free of annoying intruders and filled physically. It is the responsibility of the shepherd to provide all of that. God provides the setting in which we can find true rest.
Green pastures are a picture of that which is fresh, satisfying and more than adequate for all needs. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry, he who believes in me will never thirst.” Jesus promised in the Sermon on the Mount it is foolish to worry and asked those present to consider the way God cares for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. He then asks them to consider the fact that God provides for them and we are so much more valuable to Him, so how much more will He give to us.
The Shepherd provides rest. The Christian life is resting in Jesus. There is much to do in the Christian life but the success of doing it is dependent on being able to rest in Him. We need to rest in Him who will provide our needs. Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
The Psalm goes on, “He leads me beside quiet waters.” Quite waters represent both a place of calmness and a place where one can take advantage of what is there. A stream that is flowing quickly has plenty of water in it but getting a drink from it for an animal is difficult. God’s provision is such that one may easily partake of it. Note that He leads us there. He does not drive us but leads us, leads us by example and by love. He leads because we would never find those still waters by ourselves. And “waters” is plural. The blessings are many.
Verse 3 declares, “He restores my soul.” The word translated “soul” can also mean life and in light of the metaphor of a shepherd it seems more likely that David was telling us that our Shepherd renews life within us. Too often we are like sheep, laying helplessly on our backs, knowing we are slowly dying but unable to roll over. Along comes our Good Shepherd and rolls us back with a word of forgiveness, a word of encouragement, a word of challenge, a word of hope. Read II Corinthians 4:16.
The Psalm goes on, “He guides me in paths of righteousness.” Put sheep in the middle of a green pasture and they will wander away into the barren countryside where there is neither food nor water. If you leave sheep in a field too long, they will eat every blade of grass and leave the field a barren wilderness unable to return to green grass again. A smart shepherd leads them to the right field, ensures that they enjoy the fullness of it without straying off. God knows where and when to lead us so that we are always near fresh grass and water.
He leads us into righteousness. For us, the straying away from the good life in Jesus is the straying into the areas of barrenness known as sin. If we allow our Shepherd to lead, we will avoid such places. We need to be led away from sin, sin on the tube, sin on the internet, sin in the activities around us that that only destroy us. God desires that we walk in the ways that are good and acceptable and perfect, as Paul puts it in Romans 12:2.
It is all “for his name’s sake.” God’s children in green pastures, beside still waters and living righteous lives are a testimony to God’s love and provision. God is glorified when we allow Him to lead us. God is honored when we are a holy people, so He seeks to lead us there.
What a glorious Shepherd our God is to us!