Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” I like to read this as “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” In a real sense the rest of this Psalm fills out the phrase “I lack nothing.” What follows is a list of what God will do for us because He is our Shepherd.
In the opening verses the Psalmist notes that He has a personal relationship with God, (“The Lord is MY shepherd.”) The Psalmist listed the many things that theologically God will do. He then moved, beginning with verse 4, to fill out the practical, everyday blessings that he could personally attest to as, on the one hand a shepherd, and on the other hand an individual living in a real world with all of the challenges that implies.
V. 4 reads in the NIV, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley.” We are perhaps more familiar with the King James translation that reads “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” While applicable to dying, the imagery is much broader than just death, although death is a legitimate understanding.
First, note that the phrase just before this reads, “He guides me along the right paths.” Too many Christians believe the lie of Satan that if we are truly being led by God and are honestly following Him, we will always be on a “right path,” and we interpret that to mean that everything will go perfectly for us. A little further on the Psalmist wrote, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Do you know how hard it is to have a table in the presence of an enemy if you don’t have any enemies?
If nothing else, this Psalm reminds us that even walking in God’s right path we will still walk through dark valleys and will have enemies. What is important to remember when we are in one of those valleys or confronted by an enemy is that we are not alone in it, our Shepherd is walking through it with us.
Back to the phrase, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley.” When David wrote this, he was undoubtedly thinking about the annual trek that shepherds made each spring from the home area of the sheep to the higher country where the summer grass was perfect for the herd. Phillip Keller describes this trek by noting that it was filled with “the dangers of rampaging rivers in flood, avalanches, rock-slides, poisonous plants, and the ravages of predators that raid the flock.” Keller went on to note that a good shepherd, “handled his sheep and managed them with care under all these adverse conditions. Nothing took him by surprise. He was fully prepared to safeguard his flock and tend them with skill under every circumstance.” (p.65) Traveling to the high country for food involved passing through narrow valleys that wove between high and often jagged cliffs. Other than at noon, the sun would be obstructed from shining into the valley, creating darkness or a shadow. If not cared for and guided through those valleys they could become a place of death for wandering sheep, hence a “shadow of death.”
A shepherd took his sheep on that difficult trip because in the end it was the best place for them during the summer months. The high hills provided the food and water. I am sure we would all like to get to the high country of provision and rest without going through those valleys but that is never the case. We cannot be magically transported to the place of closeness to God and His rest. We must pass through the valleys. Keller went on to write, “As Christians we will sooner or later discover that it is in the valleys of our lives that we find refreshment from God Himself. It is not until we have walked with Him through some very deep troubles that we discover He can lead us to find our refreshment in Him right there in the midst of our difficulty. We are thrilled beyond words when there comes restoration to our souls and spirits from His own gracious Spirit. (p. 72)
A trip like that had to have been scary for the shepherd but not for the sheep because the shepherd took complete care of them. Because of that the Psalmist could add that the sheep can say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Read Matthew 28:20 and Isaiah 40:11.
The Psalmist went on to write, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” dispelling all fear of evil as he led them into paths of righteousness. A shepherd always carried two items with him that were essential to the care of the sheep. The rod was a defensive weapon. A shepherd would dig a root from the ground with a short stem attached to it. He would shape it into a weapon with a round head that he learned to throw with incredible accuracy. One author wrote, “The rod was, in fact, an extension of the owner’s right arm. It stood as a symbol of his strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation. The rod was what he relied on to safeguard both himself and his flock in danger.”
The staff was used to care for the sheep. The staff had a variety of uses but primarily it was used either to draw the sheep back to the fold or to himself. If a sheep began to wander away the shepherd would use the staff to hook it back to safety. At night the shepherd would call the sheep into the sheepfold and one by one they would pass under the staff so the shepherd could examine each one. The staff was vital to the care of the sheep.
Verse 5 reads, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The shepherd was responsible not only to lead the sheep to pastures, protecting them along the way, but he was to ensure that they were properly fed. The imagery used here is that of a table. Flat places along the way were called “tables.” Read Psalm 78:19.
(In the New Testament the table becomes a symbol of our salvation and ultimate victory in Jesus. The communion table speaks of the provision of Jesus for our redemption and at the return of Jesus we will join Him is a great wedding feast. Our Good Shepherd will always have a feast prepared for us.)
The Psalm goes on, “You anoint my head with oil.” Max Lucado summarized the material found in Phillip Keller’s book on anointing with oil by noting, “In ancient Israel shepherds used oil for three purposes: to repel insects, to prevent conflicts, and to heal wounds.” Keller noted that there is a small insect that attaches itself to the head of a sheep, lays larvae and in time infects the ears of the sheep. Oil prevents this painful and annoying bug. Oil also makes the heads of the sheep slippery so when they butt heads, which they often do, they slide off one another without doing harm. And as sheep eat the grass of the fields, they often encounter thistles that cut into the forehead. Oil serves as a medication to prevent infections.
Like sheep we are often irritated by little things that bug us and if not cared for they fester into annoying and painful discomfort. Like sheep we easily get irritated with others as we seemingly butt heads with those who see life differently than we do. And we get wounded by the thorns of life.
David went on to declare, “my cup overflows.” The discussion in society today is if a glass is half full or half empty. For the Christian the issue is not either half full or empty but overflowing with blessings from above. The Psalmist can conclude the Psalm by declaring two precious truths. First, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” With a shepherd who loves us and has all of the attributes our Heavenly Father does, what else would we expect. He who is love has promised to never leave us. Sheep need a caring shepherd to watch over them 24/7/365 and God does just that.
Second, he wrote, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” When we read this, we cannot help but think of the words of Jesus found in John 14:2-3, Read those verses. For David, God dwelt in the Tabernacle and to dwell in that house was to dwell with God.
This week re-read the 23rd Psalm, noting all of the blessings that are ours when we are a part of the family of God and that He is our Shepherd committed to providing for us, leading us daily and healing our hurts and wounds. Then remember that all of the promises of this Psalm will be ours for all eternity as we dwell in His presence in His home that we call heaven. All we can really say is “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord.”