The twenty-third Psalm is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the entire Bible. It is often recited at the bedside of loved ones who are in their final days of life on this earth, it is typically recited again during the funeral and sometimes it is recited before bedtime with children or memorized during extremely difficult seasons of life.
Some writers believe that this Psalm is an inside look at the intimate relationship between King David and God or maybe even an inside look at the intimate relationship between Jesus and his Father during the crucifixion.2 I don’t think it is impossible to say that both are true. I would agree with some scholars who say that the twenty-third Psalm was written by King David about King Jesus for the benefit of God’s children.3 Take a look at the text with me:
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. 5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The reality here is that when the Israelites would sing this song in their worship gatherings, they would be reminded that because God was watching over their king he was also watching over them; if King David was prosperous as an under-shepherd of the Good shepherd, then Israel would be prosperous too; God himself was the true Shepherd and King over all his people, therefore all of God’s children from those in the highest positions of power down to the poorest members of the community could take comfort in this truth that God was caring for each of them like the precious, redeemed, sheep that they really were.4
#1: GOD IS MY SHEPHERD (V.1)
The image of God as our shepherd is a common image throughout the Scriptures but it is not an image that we immediately connect with here in our western context. It is hard for us in our context to immediately feel the deep sense of care and comfort that comes from recognizing that God is our Good Shepherd and because he is our Good Shepherd we shall not want, or we shall have everything we need.5
The reality though, is that a shepherd is responsible for knowing, leading, feeding and protecting his flock. A good shepherd would labor hard to know the unique needs and wounds of each individual under his care. He would labor for untold amounts of hours to lead his flock in a direction that would maximize their ability to grow into healthy and well nurtured sheep. He would strategically lead his flock into places where they could feed themselves and he would constantly be fighting off predators that would seek to devour those who were under his care.
Shepherding was not a nine-to-five job; it was a 24/7 calling. So, when David proclaims that God is his shepherd and therefore, he has no need, he is simply saying that God is The Good Shepherd who knows his children intimately, he leads his children wisely, he provides spiritual and physical nourishment bountifully and he protects his children through his faithful instructions. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; this is the proclamation of a heart that trusts The Good Shepherd completely. Where are you having trouble trusting the Good Shepherd completely?
#2: GOD MAKES ME REST AND LEADS ME INTO PEACE (V. 2)
When David says that God “makes me lie down in green pastures” and that “He leads me beside still waters” (v. 2), he is proclaiming the sovereign work of God in giving rest and peace to weary souls. A sheep lying down in a green pasture or slowly walking alongside a quiet stream is the picture of a child who is well fed and able to rest peacefully.
I know that it is hard for me to fully rest in peace when I am hungry and experiencing conflict or anxiety. The temptation or the default broken wiring in my soul is to look for peace by maintaining a sense of control over a situation. Likewise, it can be easy to believe that my soul will find rest when I can clear away whatever is causing me to feel uncomfortable or helpless or fearful or unwanted. But the reality is that my stability was never meant to be attached to my ability or my effort.
My ability to rest in peace is meant to be found only in the presence of my crucified, risen and returning King who is also pictured as the sacrificial Lamb, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Good Shepherd who watches over me. The foot of the bloody cross, the doorway of the empty tomb, the promise of Heaven, this is where God the Good Shepherd makes me rest and leads me into peace. What would it look like for you to submit to the Good Shepherd and find rest and peace?
#3: GOD RESTORES ME AND LEADS ME INTO RIGHT LIVING (V. 3)
David literally says that God “restores my soul” and “leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (v. 3). This reminds me that God is the faithful shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine, chases down the one lost sheep, restores that sheep back to the sheep pen and then he continues to lead that flock of sheep in the right direction so that his own name as a shepherd is made famous.
Have you ever stopped and thought about the reputation of God and how his reputation throughout the world is often attached to the lifestyles of those who claim to belong to him? On the one hand, there are many people who claim to follow God and their lives are like a sweet aroma of transformation; people who know them come to trust in God because his reputation precedes him through his restored image-bearers.
On the other hand, there are some people who claim to follow God, but their lives are a nasty stench of rotten attitudes and rotten behaviors that lead others around them to believe that the god they claim to follow is a nasty old grouchy man who tips his hat begrudgingly at their evil lifestyles.
David, who definitely was a broken and sinful man if there ever was one, was able to proclaim that God had restored him from his sinful wandering away and was leading him to live rightly in front of the watching world for the sake of God’s own reputation alone. This truth makes me wonder what my life says about God’s reputation. What thoughts or behaviors is the Good Shepherd wanting to restore in you right now?
#4: GOD REMOVES MY FEAR WITH HIS PRESENCE (V. 4)
David says it this way when he says, “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” (v. 4). The roads of this life are not always smooth sailing. Sometimes there are deep ditches, massive potholes, unforeseen debris in the road, winding twists and turns and sometimes massive storms that make the road hard to see.
In those moments, when the road gets rough, it is easy to wonder where God is at but David claims that God leads us through those valleys, he is with us when death haunts us, his rod of protection and his staff of instruction keep us safe and give us direction when Satan condemns, or sin tempts us again. God’s rod of protection and his staff of instruction are kind of like the tires on our cars: they keep us heading in a certain direction and they protect us from spinning out of control when the road gets rough as Satan, Sin and Death unleash their fury on our lives.
In spiritual terms this is where God’s Word comes into play. God’s Word is meant to be a lamp for our feet on the pathway, it is meant to correct our sinful living, it’s meant to provide boundaries between what is right and what is wrong so that we do not have to face the consequences of driving outside the lines and off the cliff of sinfulness. There is great comfort in knowing that the God who restores me from my sinful wandering also walks with me on this journey called life as he protects and corrects and guides my footsteps. The question is: “Am I actively listening to the Good Shepherd or am I just passively nodding my head?”
#5: GOD PROVIDES ABUNDANTLY DESPITE MY ENEMIES (V. 5)
When David says of God that “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” and that “you anoint my head with oil” and that “my cup overflows” he is simply stating the fact that God provides abundantly despite my enemies. The picture here, is of a child of God, sitting at a fully furnished banquet table in complete comfort and peace with his enemies prowling around the room.
Using the shepherd and the sheep metaphor, the enemies of the sheep were flies and gnats who sought to burrow into the ears and skin of the sheep causing health issues and deadly skin conditions. The shepherd would “anoint” the heads of the sheep with a medicinal kind of essential oils that would keep their enemies away so that the sheep could dine in peace.
Without the use of some kind of bug repellant, it is difficult to eat a meal outdoors when mosquitos are thick. I am constantly waving my arms around and smacking those little blood suckers. After a while I am too anxious or angry to even eat. The same is true of sheep. They do not eat well when their enemies are not being repelled.
Think about the nature of feasting on God’s Word. On the one hand, God’s Word acts like enemy repellant; it holds Satan, Sin and Death at bay while you feast in peace. On the other hand, when you constantly sit down at the table and feast arm in arm with Satan, Sin and Death, you have no desire to feast on God’s Word therefore you have no enemy repellant.
The Psalmist is able to say that God has provided an abundant feast for him in the presence of his enemies, his head (heart and hands) have been anointed by the presence of the Holy Spirit and his cup or his life is overflowing with the presence of God therefore he can feast in peace and be nurtured in the abundance of the presence of the crucified, risen and returning Savior. The question is: What have I been feasting on and what have I done with the repellant that has been provided to me?
#6: GOD PROMISES ME ETERNAL LIFE WITH HIM (V. 6)
Promises are only as good as the promise maker; a check is only as good as the integrity of the check writer. So, when David says that “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6) he is simply referring to the promise of God in 2 Samuel 7:16 where God says to David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever”.
Even though David often made the mistake of chasing his sinful desires, God always brought him around and David continued to walk in repentance as he learned to trust not in the momentary promises of pleasure in this world but to trust instead in the faithful promises of living in God’s good and merciful presence forever.
The reality here is that the promise of eternal life in God’s presence is the inheritance of every believer. The question is: Are we living in light of the hope of heaven or are we living in the darkness of momentary pleasure? Do I know what it means to experience the goodness and the mercy of God on a daily basis? Can I visualize what it will be like to be with God in eternity? God has promised me eternal life with him because of the work of King Jesus at the cross and the empty tomb. Am I living with my eye on the promise of eternity or am I living in the stranglehold of the momentary?
As I stated at the beginning of this message, I am persuaded, along with other commentators, that the 23rd Psalm is a song that was written by King David about King Jesus for God’s children.6 Those who belong to King Jesus are able to say along with King David that God is my shepherd (v. 1), God makes me rest and leads me into peace (v. 2), God restores me and leads me into right living (v. 3), God removes my fear with his presence (v. 4), God provides abundantly despite my enemies (v. 5), and God promises me eternal life with him (v. 6).
Let us also not forget the words of Jesus in John 10:11 – 15, 27: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
These words from Jesus are a reminder that he really is the Good Shepherd who went before us; he gave his life at the cross for us so that we could be rescued from our enemies; everything that he has in terms of spiritual inheritance is ours; and when he speaks, we are to obediently follow him into the presence of the Father.
Jesus is the good shepherd who gives us rest and leads us into peace and restores us from our sinfulness and leads us into right living and removes our fear with his presence and provides abundantly despite our enemies and promises us eternal life with him once we leave this earth. The cross and the empty tomb are the seals of his faithfulness proving over and over again that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 James A. Johnston, The Psalms: Rejoice, the Lord is King (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 244 – 245.
3 Ibid., 243.
4 Ibid., 243 – 244.
5 Ibid., 246.
6 Ibid., 243.