The superlatives concerning Psalm 23 are numerous: Spurgeon calls it “the pearl of Psalms.” Alexander Maclaren says we would be better off losing many of the big fat books written than we would losing this single Psalm. James Montgomery Boice calls it the most beloved psalm in the Psalter.
Not only is Psalm 23 the best known & most loved Psalm; it is perhaps the best known & most loved chapter in all of Scripture. Millions of people have memorized it even tho it may be the only text they’ve committed to memory. It has dried the eyes of many brokenhearted saints; it has shaped many hearts; it has brought many peace. It has spawned Christian urban legends like the one about the two men who recite this Psalm – one reading it with great elocution to applause, the other citing it from the heart leaving the crowd in tears. When asked the difference, the first man replied, “I know the Psalm; he knows the Shepherd.”
God is Shepherd of His people. What does it mean for YHWH to be my shepherd? Psalm 23 enables us to come to know the Shepherd.
YHWH My Shepherd (1a)
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Sovereign: YHWH, the “I AM.” He is the infinite God (timeless), the self-sufficient one, lacking nothing & needing nothing. So…the One who needs nothing comes near to help the need. He condescends to be the shepherd of His people.
The Shepherd: As in other ancient societies (e.g. Egypt, Gen 46.34), shepherds were considered the lowest folks in society who engaged in the lowest of all work. Typically, the youngest in the family got the unpleasant assignment (e.g. David). It was unending, thankless work of nourishing, binding, caring, etc. some of the dumbest animals on the planet. No one choose to be a shepherd…no one except YHWH. The cosmic sovereign Ruler of the universe stoops down to care for His people. It was despised work, yet it is divine work.
“I Shall Not Want” (1b-6)
Or I have everything I need or I don’t need a thing. Come what may, I will not lack, not b/c of my skills or ability, not b/c of my wit or wisdom, but b/c YHWH is my shepherd. I shall not want…
2He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
Solace (2): Green pastures & still waters are pictures of peace. Laying down is a picture of rest. So with YHWH as my shepherd I have peaceful rest, solace. But for sheep to lie down, they need to be free from several things (see Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 23) – fear, friction, flies, famine. In similar fashion, for us to rest in God/Christ we must be free from fear (“perfect love drives out fear”), friction (interpersonal conflict, “be at peace with one another”), spiritual “flies” (such as guilt, doubt, shame, bitterness), & famine of the Word. God is the perfect provider of all these so that we might find solace in the Savior.
3He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Salvation (3a): “Restores my soul,” i.e. He saves my life. Keller (51-52) says the parallel is a “cast” sheep. How often do we end up on our back spiritually & yet the shepherd comes & stands us upright? For the purpose of walking in paths of righteousness.
A Standard (3b): He leads me in paths of righteousness. See Isa 53.6, left to our own desires, we end up on the wrong/crooked path. But with YHWH as our shepherd, He keeps us on the straight/right path. “For His Name’s sake” – i.e. to display His glory & grace; because He is good
4Even 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.
Security (4): “Valley of the shadow of death” see Keller 76-77:
It is customary to use this verse as a consolation to those who are passing through the dark valley of death. But even here, for the child of God, death is not an end but merely the door into a higher and more exalted life of intimate contact with Christ…The Good Shepherd knows this. It is one reason why He has told us, “Lo, I am with you alway” – yes, even in the valley of death.
But this also points to the shepherd’s ability to protect his sheep in times of danger. Fearless because He is with me. Note also, the valley is as much the right path as the green pastures & still waters. The rod & staff, one a weapon to fight off predators, the other designed to correct the sheep. Again Keller:
It was the rod of God’s Word that Christ, our Good Shepherd, used in His own encounter with the serpant – Satan – during His desert temptation. It is the same Word of God which we can count on again and again to counter the assaults and attacks of Satan (91-92).
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Supplies (5): A great feast is prepared with oil & wine (“cup”). Some see here a shift in imagery, but Keller sees continuation in the sheep imagery. First, the “table” are the high table lands, a mesa where the good food is. Second the oil would be used during summer time (“fly time”) to ward off bugs & infection. Third, wine would be used during the winter to ward off chill. Point: all year round God is there with exactly what His people need.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Sanctuary (6): Out of God’s mercy comes His goodness. Thru black days & bright days, goodness will supply our needs & mercy will blot out our sins. Dwelling in His house forever. A heavenly home certainly, but in the here & now we have a “household,” that is, we are part of His flock. Why would we leave? We have everything we need. “I shall not want.” He is the good Shepherd.
Tho this imagery of God our shepherd is in the Old Testament, as New Testament Christians we must never forget that the same imagery is applied to Christ.
Jesus My Shepherd
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly...I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” (John 10:10, 14)
The Good Shepherd (Jn 10.11, 14): He promises self-sacrifice. He also promises to “know” us. That is, He is well acquainted with us. Jesus knows you & is always with you (Mt 28.20). So we can say, “You are with me.”
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,” (Hebrews 13:20)
The Great Shepherd (Heb 13.20): He equips us to do His will. Notice what He equips us with – “everything good.” Isn’t that what we have seen in Psa 23- solace, salvation, a standard, security, supplies, sanctuary, & more!
“And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1 Peter 5:4, ESV)
The Chief Shepherd (1 Pt 5.4): He will reward faithful under-shepherds with glory.
“The Lord is MY Shepherd,” but what happens when I am shepherd? Max Lucado helps us understand what that looks like:
I am my own shepherd. I am always in need.
I stumble from mall to mall and shrink to shrink, seeking relief but never finding it.
I creep through the valley of the shadow of death and fall apart.
I fear everything from pesticides to power lines, and I’m starting to act like my mother.
I go down to the weekly staff meeting and am surrounded by enemies. I go home, and even my goldfish scowls at me.
I anoint my headache with extra-strength Tylenol.
My Jack Daniels runneth over.
Surely misery and misfortune will follow me, and I will live in self-doubt for the rest of my lonely life.
Now – which of these would you rather have? God as your shepherd who richly provides you everything good so you say “I shall NOT want” or you as shepherd which only gives you headaches & heartbreak. Kind of a no brainer… Let HIM be YOUR Shepherd.