Probably one of the most widely known psalms in the history of ever is Psalm 23. If for no other reason than it’s popularity at funerals the words of this short chapter (only six verses) is easily recognizable to just about anyone and everyone but oddly enough it is a psalm much more about life than death.
It is a rich treasure trove of comfort and encouragement and begins with a most astonishing claim.
The Lord is my shepherd.
David is saying that the God of heaven and earth, indeed the Great I AM, is in fact his shepherd. What would be startling about this to David’s readers was that the job of shepherd was not held in very high regard. It was a task typically given to the youngest member of the family since it was considered to be the lowliest of work. And here he is pointing out that Yahweh Himself is his shepherd.
David had been a shepherd though and he knew better than most just how utterly dependent the sheep were upon the shepherd. He was not only making this statement about who God is he was also making a statement about himself. The Lord is my shepherd. He recognized how foolish and weak he was at times and how much he relied upon God to protect and rescue him.
I shall not want.
David knew that he would lack nothing because of who his shepherd was. The promise here is that all of our needs will be met. If God feeds and clothes the birds of the air than we can trust that our physical needs will be met. His grace is sufficient for all of our circumstances so our spiritual needs will be met.
What is really intriguing to me about this phrase is that not only can it be read as a declarative sentence but also as a decision David has made. I will not want anything…only that which comes from the hand of my shepherd, nothing more and nothing less. It is a decision to be content.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
It is interesting to note the wording here. He makes me lie down ~ we don’t always know what we need but God does. And not only does He give us a place to rest but He also leads us to a place of nourishment. For us we can, I think, make a connection between that place of rest and nourishment with the Scriptures themselves. It is an idea robust with the themes of comfort, care, and rest.
He restores my soul
The Hebrew root word for restore means to turn back or return and is the same root word we find in places like Jeremiah 3:22, “Return (repent) o faithless sons and I will heal your faithlessness.” Literally the Shepherd repents us. What an amazing picture is given to us when we see the green pastures as God’s word and the still waters as the Holy Spirit bringing us to repentance and restoration! The Good Shepherd turns us back from sin and returns us to Him.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake
We do not always know what we need or where we ought to go but we can trust Him to lead us there. We are strengthened by Him so that we can walk in the way of the Lord. We know from other verses in the Bible that the one who follows after the way of God is blessed or happy. And this isn’t done because we are so uber special.
It is common in our world to see a type of affirmation that has just enough objective truth in it to blind us to the danger it actually presents.
You are loved. You are chosen.
These are, in a real sense, true statements. But when the emphasis is on the “you” the focus is shifted away from that which is really the point. Specifically, the One who loves, the actions and redeeming grace of the Shepherd. We are lead in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. His glory…our good.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil
There is no sense of rushing around or running in fear. No standing still in uncertainty or confusion. The psalmist says he walks through the valley knowing that it is not his destination. As Charles Spurgeon puts it, “…death is not the house but the porch.”
Also, what a beautiful comfort in knowing that it is just the shadow of death we face? The shadow cannot hurt us. Spurgeon would also go on to say of this verse, “The shadow of a dog cannot bite; the shadow of a sword cannot kill, and the shadow of death cannot destroy us.” Does Romans 8:31 immediately come to your mind? What about Romans 8:35-39 when you read the last part of that verse?
A beautiful aspect of this Psalm isn’t seen in our English translation but is too beautiful to not note. In the Hebrew text the next line says for you are with me. In the original language this statement is the exact center of the psalm with twenty six words before it and twenty six words after it.
David has moved from green pastures and still waters into the shadow of death and evil and it is in this moment of danger that the “He” in the first three verses becomes “You”.
Perfect safety ~ no matter what comes our way we may have the ultimate comfort of knowing that we are not alone. God is with us. Christ himself says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me..and behold I am with you always…”
Your rod and staff, they comfort me
The rod and the staff were used by shepherds to protect and correct the sheep. We may rest easy knowing that our Shepherd will both protect us as well as discipline us.
Your prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
The word prepare seems to indicate foresight and planning, not some hastily thrown together snack. A table has been prepared…an abundance more than could be held in the hands. A beautiful full table is set before us in the presence of our enemies and we are bid to come eat. The enemy may be near but we are able to feast in perfect peace.
You anoint my head with oil and my cup runs over
Anointing is a sign and symbol of blessing. Even in the midst of struggles and trials God still blesses His people. And it is not a stingy little blessing either like the $5 you scrounge up to put gas in your tank to hopefully get you through until payday. His blessing is so generous that it spills over and out of the cup.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
This verse is another case where knowing what the original text says adds so much to our understanding. Firstly, this can actually be read as only goodness and mercy. Secondly, the word follow used in the Hebrew means to chase after, to pursue.
Quite literally we are pursued by mercy. We are chased down by grace. And it is not only on what we would consider our good days but also on our bad days but also on the easy days and the hard days. Days of victory and days of defeat. Days of feasting and on the days we fast. All the days.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever
This is not a temporary state we find ourselves in either. It is eternally ours.
He pursues us and leads us to green pastures and beside the still waters, down the righteous paths. He repents us and turns us back and restores us. He lays us upon His shoulders and then He carries us home.