I said to myself I will not write about Psalm 23 but as I look at our purpose for reading through the Bible this year…that everything in the Old Testament points forward to Jesus and the cross, and everything in the New Testament points back at the cross, Psalm 23 is a prime example of scripture pointing at Jesus. So, here goes. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust and confidence in the Lord. It has been a favorite of people in many generations and for many of us, it was some of the first scripture we committed to memory. This psalm expresses assurance of God’s presence in the midst of adversity. We see pictures of The Good Shepherd (John 10:11) and of the Messianic banquet. (Revelation 19:9.)
Psalm 23 is the psalm of the Great Shepherd who cares for His sheep and equips them for ministry. Hebrews 13:20-21. This is the psalm of the Great High Priest who lives forever to make intercession for us. Hebrews 4:14, 7:25. Many associate this psalm with funerals and memorial services, and it does bring comfort but that is not why this psalm was written. This psalm really focuses on what Jesus does for us all the days of our lives, and not just at death. Another thing about this psalm…many picture a young David as a shepherd boy writing this psalm but in reality, this psalm was written when David was late in his life, perhaps when Absalom was rebelling and trying to take the kingdom from David. This psalm is probably a reflection of many things David learned in his long walk with the Lord. This psalm is written by and for one who has fought battles and carried burdens and still sees the Lord in their lives.
In many psalms the enemies of God’s people are pictures as vicious animals. Psalm 22 speaks of lions, bears, leopards, wild dogs, and more. But here in Psalm 23 David speaks of lowly sheep. He sees God’s people as lowly sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are lowly sheep. Sheep are not the smartest animals in the animal kingdom. They are defenseless, prone to getting lost, and they need almost constant care. You cannot drive sheep like you would cattle because they would scatter all over the place. Sheep have to be led. Shepherds in the east know all their sheep by name and they call them, like you would a pet. When the shepherds call, the sheep come. John 10:1-5. In this psalm David explains that if we follow the Lord and trust Him, He will meet every need we have.
The Lord David refers to here is Yahweh, the covenant making God of Israel. There are many names for the Lord in scripture and we see several of them here in this psalm. When David writes ‘I shall not want’ we see God who provides. Still waters remind us the Lord is our peace. Restoring our souls is the Lord who heals. Paths of righteousness shows us that the Lord is our righteousness. Being with us in the presence of our enemies reminds us that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us. Having our heads anointed with oil is a reminder of the Lord who sanctifies us.
Shepherds in David’s day were fiercely protective of their sheep. They served as guards for them. They led them, made sure they had food and water, took care of them when they were tired, hurt, or sick. Shepherds rescued the sheep when they were lost or strayed. The shepherds assisted when the sheep gave birth and perhaps most important, they loved them. There were rainy and dry seasons, and the shepherds were responsible for making sure the sheep had everything they needed to survive. There were no fences, and the ground was rough and uneven. In addition, there were many wild animals who wanted to make sheep a tasty meal. Many times, the shepherds did not own the sheep in their care, they were working for someone else. But they were still responsible, and it was in the shepherd’s best interest to do all they could to protect and tend the sheep. They had to give an accounting to the owners for every sheep in their care. Jesus called us His sheep because He died for us, because the Father gave us to Him, and mostly because He loves us.
Shepherd was a widely used metaphor for kings both in Israel and other countries in the Middle East. The Lord is often called the Shepherd of Israel and in this psalm, David acknowledges the Lord as His shepherd-king. In the first three verses David tells us that the Lord, Jesus for us, is adequate for every need the sheep have. Sheep mostly need grass to eat, water to drink, a safe place to rest, and a shepherd who knows how to lead and take care of them. When we, as God’s people follow Him, we too have what we need. Here are a couple more things about sheep. They will not lie down when they are hungry, and they will not drink from fast moving water. The shepherds either had to find lakes, ponds, or an oasis…or they used rocks to dam up a stream so the water barely trickled. Then the sheep would drink. In Revelation 7:17 we are told that in heaven we will drink from fountains of living water.
If a sheep from the flock goes astray, the shepherd will leave the other sheep with their fellow shepherds and search for the lost sheep until it is found. Jesus does that with us as well. Luke 15:3-7. David speaks of the shepherd leading us along paths of righteousness. The Hebrew for paths here means well-worn paths or ruts. These are paths that are familiar. For sheep, new paths are unfamiliar and may well cause them to scatter as they explore. Again, see Hebrews, this time 13:9.
When we reach verse 4 in this psalm everything changes. Up to this point the shepherd has been talking about God but now things change, and he is talking TO God. When we find ourselves in the dark valleys the Shepherd does not lead us. He walks beside us. He leads us from that place and calms our fears. Sheep do not have good vision either, especially in the dark. The shepherd calms them. The shepherd had two tools, three if you count their sling. They had a rod and a staff. The rod was like a heavy stick that could be used to stun or kill wild animals to protect the sheep, and the staff was the shepherd’s crook. He would use this to lean on when he was weary. He could use the hook to pull sheep towards him and away from trouble, and at night as the sheep entered the pen, he held the staff out and the sheep passed under it. Here the shepherd counted the sheep and checked them for injuries and other issues. This brought the sheep a measure of peace. The walls of the sheep pen were stone and not all that tall. The shepherd slept in the doorway, keeping the sheep in and the other animals and would be thieves out. We see Jesus refer to Himself as The Door, or gate. John 10:7. Keep in mind Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. And He is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep. Shepherds often put oil on the heads and horns of the sheep to keep the flies and other insects away from them and the sheep could sleep, knowing they were safe, secure, and well taken care of.
We also see God’s provision here. Preparing a table does not necessarily mean a piece of furniture. In many cases mesas or flat places were considered tables. Sheep may gave eaten there as well as the shepherds. The point is, God will provide what we need. Not only do we see God’s provision, but we get a look into the future. Every night the shepherd slept in the door of the sheep pen. He could lay there, look up at the sky, and review the day. This is the time to give thanks for the day, for God’s mercy and His goodness. David knew well how God had been with him as he fled from Saul time and time again. God had given David protection, provision, and peace. He found strength to trust and to be obedient even if he didn’t want to be.
Writing this psalm as he was older gave David a chance to look back over not just the previous day but his life. He had been a shepherd for his father. He had been a shepherd for the band of men who followed him as he tried to keep one step ahead of Saul. And God had been with him as he shepherded God’s people Israel. He hadn’t always been perfect, sometimes far from it…just like us. But God had always been with him. This is where the psalm comes from. Despite his humanness, failures and sins, God’s mercy and goodness went with him. The word surely here means only. Because of God, his shepherd, only goodness and mercy went with him all the days of his life. Looking ahead, David knew he would end up in heaven with the Lord…forever. And he knew it was heaven because kings didn’t live in the temple. And besides, no one could live there forever anyway.
Like David, we do not understand everything that happens in our lives. But we can be certain that the Good Shepherd will be with us every step of the way. Things that do not make sense here and now, will make sense then. Like many points in our lives, when we look back, we will see only goodness and mercy. The pain and trouble fades away.
Think about this. Under the old covenant the sheep died for the shepherd, making the atonement for sins. It was the blood of the sheep that paid the ransom for the sins of the people. But in Jesus Christ, the Shepherd died for the sheep, shedding His blood to pay the ransom for our sins. For thousands of years, God has been a shepherd to His sheep. And we have been the unruly sheep who have strayed. He has pursued us to bring us back into the fold. And when that happens, there is great rejoicing.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W