Delivered 5 August 2018.
Note: the Hebrew word translated “LORD” in this psalm refers to the holy Name of God, often translated into English as “YAWHEH.” The Jews consider this name too holy to pronounce.
If you were to take a poll of favorite Scripture passages, you’d most likely find Psalm 23 at or near the top of the list. Most people in our area would recognize the opening lines of this psalm regardless of their church affiliation. It seems that, especially in the English-speaking world, the line “The Lord is my shepherd” will trigger some memory of a church service or a film where people have heard this psalm before.
While this psalm certainly appeals to any of us from a rural background, the sentiments of this psalm speak to even the most urban believer. Everyone needs guidance at times; everyone needs periods of rest; everyone needs protection; and everyone will, inevitably, face death. As he pondered these needs in his life, the psalmist David realized that God Himself had provided these blessings to him.
David knew plenty about sheep. The Scripture passage today tells the story of Samuel’s anointing of David as king over Israel. As you read the passage, you’ll see that Jesse, David’s father, owned sheep. Most likely, all of Jesse’s sons had taken their turns as shepherd of his flocks. As the youngest, David had served his time as the shepherd before the visit that changed his life. David may have arrived late at the party as a shepherd boy, but in spite of his youth, he left that day as the anointed king of Israel.
David opened this psalm with a profound statement: “The LORD is my shepherd.” The shepherd provides guidance for sheep because they really, really need it. Those who know have told me that sheep rank as the most stupid animals humans have ever domesticated. Domestic sheep need someone to help them, to lead them, and protect them. The shepherd must know where to find food, water, and protection for the sheep.
If you’re looking for someone that knows about provision and protection, you’ll find no one who will know more than an omniscient God. As our shepherd, the LORD will lead us because He knows all about us and about the situations we will face in life.
David continued by saying, “I shall not want.” The Hebrew word here means “to lack.” The older English translations translated this phrase as “therefore can I lack nothing.” God had provided water and sustenance for the Hebrews for the duration of their 40-year wandering from Egypt to the land He had promised to their ancestors. God provided water when necessary, and He provided manna for the people to eat on a daily basis.
The book of Deuteronomy includes numerous promises to Israel that God made when they obeyed the Law. In Deuteronomy 11, Moses reminded Israel of God’s promise: “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full” (Deuteronomy 11:13-15). When you read the Old Testament, you find numerous accounts of God’s provision for believers in times of distress.
God still provides for His people in our lives. I’m not saying you’ll always have everything you want, but God makes certain that His people lack for nothing they need as we live in obedience to God’s calling on our lives.
David then said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” According to shepherds, sheep will refuse to lie down until they feel safe, even when surrounded by plenty of food and water. Sheep must feel completely at ease before they will rest.
This certainly applies to humanity, and especially in America, where we enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. We seem to fear losing what we have or that we’ll lack for something in spite of our security. I’ve observed a lot of people who live in anxiety in spite of their financial security. Again, God will provide for His people in times of insecurity and will provide for us in times of distress.
When we learn to trust God, He will “restore” our souls. The Hebrew word we find here means “to return.” Believers often find ourselves lured into the values of those around us. We want to have everything others have and sometimes lose sight of the security we possess as the people of God. When this happens, we lose the peace that comes from recognizing God as our provider. When this happens, we must return to God to find restoration of our unsettled spirits. We will find peace in His care; we will find comfort in times of sorrow. We will realize that nothing can happen to us that God cannot use to prepare us for greater service to Him and those He places in our lives.
David continued by writing, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Again, God uses everything in our lives “for His name’s sake,” not for our own desires. When you read the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ words constantly reminded the Hebrews of the necessity of obedience to God’s law. We must follow God in “paths of righteousness” so that others will see the benefits of living according to God’s desires, not according to the base standards of society or our own fleshly desires.
I’ve long wondered about the difference in pronouns between the first 3 verses and the last 3 verses of this psalm. In the first 3 verses, David refers to God in the third person (“He”). In the last stanzas, David speaks directly to God using the first person (“I”). It seems that as David pondered the protection of God in the midst of the dangers he faced in life, he took more comfort in the fact that he could talk to God and not merely about God.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” When we think of it, we realize we live our entire lives in death’s shadow. At any moment, any one of us could die; none of us really know we’ll live to see the end of this day.
David knew this first-hand. As a soldier, David had fought the enemies of his people for most of his life. David had also seen people succumb to disease and old age. David knew death. Yet, in spite of his familiarity with death, David took comfort in experiencing God’s constant presence in his life. David would “fear no evil” because he knew that God never left him; in the most dangerous situations, or in the most mundane of events, God remained with David.
David knew that God would protect him from evil. Shepherds in David’s time would carry a staff to fight off predators. The famous “shepherd’s crook” was developed to help shepherds corral sheep beyond their immediate reach, but also served to snatch sheep or predators and bring them within reach of the shepherd’s staff. David took comfort in the fact that God’s “rod and staff” provided protection from the worst of enemies.
When we read David’s next words, it helps to remember that he had lived among the Philistines, Israel’s worst enemies in his lifetime. King Saul had tenaciously chased David all over the Judean countryside before David and his followers had settled at Ziklag, a Philistine-controlled city from the tribe of Simeon. David had undoubtedly eaten with Achish of Gath, the Philistine king who protected David and assigned Ziklag to him.
David wrote, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” If someone went to a person’s house and found welcome there, the host would fill the guest’s cup and continue doing so until the host determined the guest should leave. You didn’t stay if the host didn’t refill your cup.
However, this also took on a more serious meaning. Middle Eastern cultures take hospitality extremely seriously, even extending the host’s personal protection to the guest. (See Genesis 19 and Judges 19 for extreme examples of what a host would do to protect his guest. As you read these examples, remember that these passages describe the realities of the culture, not the ideals which God expected from humanity.) If you were in trouble and ran to a friend’s house, and if your enemies chased you there, your friend could use the custom of the filled cup to show your enemies if he would fight for you. If your friend barely poured anything into your cup, you had to finish the cup and then find somewhere else to hide. If, however, your friend filled your cup and continued pouring until the cup overflowed, your enemies knew they had to fight him to get to you.
Think about this. God fills our cups to overflowing. Do you think that anyone can overpower an omnipotent God? In His time, Jesus, the Son of God, told the Jews in Jerusalem, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” When we trust in God for our protection and for our care, we can rest in the hand of an omnipotent God who will preserve us until He takes us through the valley of the shadow of death into a glorious eternity.
David then wrote, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew phrase “goodness and mercy” reminded David’s readers of God’s goodness to Israel in providing them a land they didn’t deserve and protecting them from the enemies that surrounded them. The word for “mercy” is the familiar Hebrew word “hesed,” a word that implies an unconditional, covenantal love that God had promised to His people. God didn’t have to choose Israel as His people, but He did so out of grace. God then promised Abraham that He would preserve his descendants and use them to bless the world (Genesis 12:1-3).
When he thought of the blessings God had given him, and the blessings God had promised him, David could confidently conclude by writing, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” David could think of nowhere he had rather stay than in the “house of the LORD.”
After all these centuries — remember that David lived roughly 3,000 years ago — this psalm still brings comfort to us today.
I believe that Christians can claim even more comfort than anyone else from this psalm. Jesus, David’s descendant through the Virgin Mary and the divine Son of God, has provided us with even more blessings that David could have known. With His death, Jesus demonstrated God’s commitment to deliver us from our enemies. With His resurrection, Jesus overcame the instinctive fear we have of death and demolished death’s hold on all who believe in His name. Through the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus after His ascension, God comforts us in places of green pastures and still waters; through the Holy Spirit, God leads us in paths of righteousness for the sake of His holy name.
God’s goodness and steadfast, covenantal love find their ultimate expression in Jesus, the One who referred to Himself as the “good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). Jesus promised that everyone who believed in Him, confessing Him as Lord, would enjoy an eternal life in His presence (Revelation 21). Today, we can call on the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20), knowing that He continues to protect His people and provide for us. We can call on the “Shepherd and Overseer of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25) and know He will guide us to an eternity in His presence, where we will dwell in His House, the House of the LORD, forever.