Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm

Think of Psalm 23 as the “John 3:16” of the Old Testament. When David wrote this Psalm, he set it to music. Although his original melody has been lost, we still have the lyrics. There is an old chorus that has been sung by millions of Christians, based on the 23rd Psalm:

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days, all the days of my life
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days, all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever, and I shall feast at the table set for me,
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days, all the days of my life.”

Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the concept of God as our Shepherd is common.  (See Jeremiah 31:10, Ezekiel 34:6-31, I Peter 2:25, and Revelation 7:17.) Psalm 23 makes my relationship to God a personal one. This is a Psalm of a Shepherd and His sheep, not a Little Bo Peep fairy-tale. It is a Psalm unsurpassed for its sweetness and has an atmosphere more fitted for heaven than earth. If an unbeliever knows any of the Psalms, it’s usually this one. It is taught to children, memorized as poetry and read at funerals. Jesus’ submissiveness to the Father, as the Lamb of God, is the perfect example of submission for us. We may know Jesus as Savior but we also need to know Him as our Shepherd.

As a lark singing loftily above all other birds, so is Psalm 23 among all the rest of the Psalms. We find that many of the analogies in the Word are steeped in rural, countryside terminology. Moses was a shepherd and make use of such comparisons in the Pentateuch (Exodus 3:1).  Jesus made use of this in the Sermon on the Mount and in His Good Shepherd message in John 10. City folks need to consider this. The author, David, was a Shepherd and it bears the stamp of the memories of David’s youth before he went to kill the giant. But the concept of submission and obedience in Psalm 23 is essential to giant-killing. David’s eldest brother, Eliab, accused David of being irresponsible when David left his sheep to come to Shochoh to see the battle (I Samuel 17:28-29).  David may have begun life as a simple shepherd, but his destiny was to cut off a giant’s head and move on to become King of Israel. This is why David is known as the Shepherd King.

A Good Shepherd spares no pains for His sheep and can instantly tell if a sheep needs special attention day or night. It was typical in Israel for the shepherd to put a special mark on the ear of every sheep. The Good Shepherd knows who belongs to Him and who does not. God has placed these shepherd analogies in His Word because we are much like sheep in many ways. We tend to move in groups, are mostly timid by nature, we are often stubborn and we tend to form bad habits which must be broken. Psalm 23 has a universal appeal to all races, genders and age-groups, for it brings out the character of God in relation to each person individually. Read it again…slowly…and reflect on it.

The Good Shepherd will take care of all your needs. You will always have enough. Consider the simple outline of Psalm 23:

Verse 1: We are the object of His care
Verse 2-6: The grounds for our confidence in Him

Now let’s take it a verse at a time:

Verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”

Have I allowed myself to be under His direct control? The life of any lamb totally depends on its Owner. Do I really understand that I belong to Him? He has the right to claim me for His own, for He is my personal Shepherd. As my absolute Master, I can be assured He will not beat me, fleece me, skin me, nor intimidate me. He is walking at the head of His flock and He knows our desires as surely as we know His voice. Jesus told us that He is the Good Shepherd and that His true sheep listen for His voice and recognizes it.

He knows us our desires and He carefully selects the pastures we graze in. We often hear the old maxim “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” But is it? Would you really be happier by divorcing your spouse and marrying another? Would that promotion and relocation in another city bring you contentment? Have you considered asking the Good Shepherd about it?

“I shall not want.”

A Sunday School child once misquoted this verse and said, “The Lord is my Shepherd, He’s all I want.” But he got to the heart of the Psalm.

Verse 2:  “He makes me to lie down”

This means “I shall not want or lack rest.”  How many people do you know that are truly at peace with themselves and live stress-free lives? How many “soccer moms” or Starbuck yuppies have true peace within themselves? Jesus told us in Luke 12:32, “Fear not little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God has promised His children that “You shall lie down and your sleep shall be sweet” (Proverbs 3:24). But you cannot have sweet sleep with mental and emotional pressures. Are you allowing your Shepherd to lead you into restfulness?

“In green pastures” 

Sheep are not known for their high intelligence. We cannot find greener pastures by ourselves. This verse gives a picture of abundant lush, supply and provision. Left to myself, I might overeat, eat poorly or eat what is not good for me. You are always safe as you follow His leading.

Consider the four basic freedoms for sheep when they lay down:

1. Freedom from enemies

Nothing so calms the sheep like seeing the Shepherd in the field with them. When Jesus was born, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks that night. Many Christians, like sheep, run from danger, real or imaginary. It is the fear of the unknown or unexpected that hinders many Christians from lying down peacefully. A stray rabbit can make an entire flock stampede. Some sheep will self-abort a ewe, just from fear, when chased by predators. But “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7).

2. Freedom from tension

This often comes from competition within the flock, for there is an order of dominance in any sheepfold. In most animal societies there is a “butting order.” Among chickens, it’s called a “pecking order.” Who have you butted heads with lately? Do you know any jittery Christians?  This is why Paul admonishes us not to compete among ourselves as Christians (II Corinthians 10:12). An arrogant, cunning, self-centered, domineering female sheep will often butt and drive all others away from the best grazing and sleeping places. All others tend to follow her example and attempt to do the same.

It is amazing how people will adopt these tactics in a congregation. Due to this, there is always tension of some sort in the flock. There is a feeling that they must always “defend their turf.” And some sheep are butted unmercifully if they don’t give ground to the dominate personality. Continual conflict makes sheep edgy, tense, stressed, restless and discontented. It is interesting that, in a flock of sheep, the less aggressive sheep are often the most contented. Our Good Shepherd knows that the weaker sheep need protection from the domineering ones.

However, when they all see the Shepherd, they forget their rivalries and differences! When I look at Jesus, I take my eyes off others around me. What He thinks of me is all that matters.

3. Freedom from parasites

So what is bugging you? What has attached itself to you that hinders your peace? What little things have entered into sensitive areas of your life that drive you crazy? Only as we allow Jesus to anoint us with the oil of the Spirit can we be content.

4. Freedom from hunger

Hungry sheep cannot rest. Sometimes, sheep crawl under fences to try to find some tidbit that they imagine is better than what the wise shepherd has led them into. Some are never satisfied and never learn until they eat that poison herb, the one the Shepherd never gave them. Unfortunately, they teach their little sheep the same bad habits. Sometimes a good shepherd has to just kill that sheep that will not learn. Some want the best of both worlds, but that is not the leading of the Good Shepherd. Be content to be fed where He has your best interest in mind.

“He leads me beside still waters”

This means “I shall not lack for refreshment.” Our soul needs renewal as surely as our physical body. Sheep are restless when they are thirsty. The Shepherd seeks a constant supply of good water for His sheep. The physical body of a sheep is about 70% water. If the sheep drinks bad water, he will have internal problems. Weakness and diseases result when a sheep lacks good water. Some sheep will drink from polluted potholes on the way to the good waters the Shepherd is leading them to. Often, Christians settle for stagnate water along the way, instead of trusting the Shepherd to lead them into pure refreshment.

Thirst indicates a physical need. In the analogy of thirst, to drink means to take or accept something into yourself. “If any man thirsts,” Jesus said, “let him come to Me and drink.” The woman at the well said. “Give me this living water!” We need that pure, crystal clear water that only the Shepherd can provide.

Sheep can go for months without drinking at a stream, for they get up early and graze on the grass wet with dew. It is too late to get this refreshment after the sun comes up. Consider rising early to feed on God’s Word for spiritual refreshment. Then you won’t have to worry about your need for spiritual water later, in the heat of the day. A sheep that does this, which gets up early, has earned the right to sleep in the shade. And the Shepherd is pleased to see His sheep resting content. But what do people tend to do? They often try to satisfy thirst in other ways, by travel, sports, hobbies, friends, academics, parties, jobs, vehicles, homes, drug, sex and alcohol. They are always left thirsty and dissatisfied with their thirst unquenched.

Some sheep will drink from polluted potholes on the way to the good waters the Shepherd is leading them to. Often, Christians settle for stagnate water along the way, instead of trusting the Shepherd to lead them into pure refreshment.

“Beside still waters”

Sheep don’t tend to drink from flowing, moving water, for it makes them nervous. It is nearly impossible to get sheep to go near flowing water, for sheep can’t swim. Their heavy coats will weigh them down and act like sponges and they will drown. If there are no still pools, sometimes the Shepherd will divert a flowing stream and make a quiet pool for His sheep to drink from. The rush and noise of the world should cause us to turn to Jesus to satisfy our perpetual spiritual thirst. We must trust Him to find for us His “still waters.”

Verse 3:  “He restoreth my soul”

This means I shall not lack restoration. Souls collectively and souls individually need reviving. The spiritual refreshment every child of God needs is available only through the Spirit of God. Consider asking God to baptize you in the Holy Ghost.

“He leadeth me in paths of righteousness”
This means I shall not lack for guidance. The New Age Movement claims that there are many paths to God. But Psalm 23 informs us that God Himself will lead us into true righteousness, if we will allow Him to. Jesus said that the road to eternal life is indeed narrow but it is a safe road. We are not to walk where the Shepherd does not lead. The children of Israel wandered for 40 years because of their disobedience to God’s voice.

Shepherds say that there are several types of sheep:

1. Solitary or hermit sheep
These sheep tend to stray and not mingle with other sheep.
Remember that you need the fellowship of other saints.

2. Cast sheep
This type is restless and discontented.
They often have trouble getting up, for they are too fat and have too much wool. They are like Sunday Christians.

3. Wandering sheep
These sheep are never satisfied. They amble off, easily distracted by some tender morsel. They are like those who change churches for petty reasons.

Sheep that don’t stay close to the Shepherd are easy prey for wolves. As you let Him lead you, He ensures that there are no wild beasts in the path He has made for you. Don’t worry about where He led you yesterday, follow Him today.

Shepherds also say that, if a baby lamb tends to wander, they may break one of its little legs then carry the ewe until its leg heals. After spending so much time close to the heart of the Shepherd, that little lamb will forever stay close to Him. Will God have to break your leg to get your attention?

“For His name’s sake”

A good Shepherd has a good reputation and seeks to keep it untarnished. If the lambs are well fed and content, it is a complement to the Shepherd. Psalm 23 depicts a state of mind: cool streams, fresh meadows, protection from enemies, provision and freedom from fear.

The primary theme of this Psalm is God’s watchful, perpetual care. “I shall not want” is the leading thought but what shall I not want or lack?

I shall not want for:

Provision – verse 1
Peace – verse 2
Renewal and guidance – verse 3
Courage and comfort – verse 4
Security, joy and blessing – verse 5
Favor and an eternal home – verse 6

Neither the twisted theology of the New Age Movement nor the boredom of main-line denominationalism can provide the peace of mind depicted in Psalm 23.

Verse 4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”

Psalm 48:14 tells us that God “will be our guide even unto death.” But we will never learn to really trust Him without following Him, even through seemingly dangerous places and often sorrowful places. He is the man of sorrows and His path led Him to Calvary. As His sheep, we must walk through this valley. But because He has abolished death, we don’t have to stay there. He has experienced death for everyone who puts their trust in Him.

“I will fear no evil”

This means I shall not want for courage. Sheep are among the most defenseless of all animals. They have neither sharp teeth nor claws. By nature, they are not aggressive. They have no courage to face nor fight the wolves. Their only defense is the Shepherd Himself. They must trust the Shepherd wholeheartedly, for He must do their fighting for them.

Many Christians think they can fight the devil himself, but without Christ as their Champion, they will be eaten alive. David didn’t rely on his own skill to kill Goliath. He told the giant that God would be his strength. When we return with Jesus on white horses, we carry no weapons. He is leading us, the One who has conquered sin and death.

What is your greatest fear? What are you afraid of? If you fear:
Losing your way? Jesus said, “I am the way.”

The dark?  The unknown?  Jesus said, “I am the light.”
Death? Jesus said, “I am the life.”
Hell? Jesus said, “I have the keys of hell.”

“For thou art with me”

This is a picture of intimacy. Jesus, as our Shepherd is a living Presence, not a theory, a myth or a philosophy. He will never leave us nor forsake us.

“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”

Many Shepherds carry this combination rod and staff. Shepherds use both ends of this instrument, but only as the need arises. It depends what a particular situation may require. The rod and staff were not two individual sticks, but one. This is cut from a young sapling to suit the Shepherd, for the larger end near the root is carved to fit His own hand.

This was a very personal item carried by shepherds, for it identified him as a shepherd and could be thrown at amazing speed, as a defensive weapon to ward off predators. The rod was also used as a disciplinary tool, to tap the sheep as hard as was necessary, to warn and to guide. The rod of correction or discipline (Hebrews 12:6) is part of the Christian life. We will spoil our children if we do not discipline them. Spare the rod and you will spoil the child.

The Shepherd’s rod was hooked at the end to gently hook a sheep under the neck if they get too close to dangerous cliffs. It was an instrument used to guide His sheep, to lean on for support for long vigils and to pull sheep from danger. It was also used to motivate newborn lambs who strayed from their moms too often and to draw the shy sheep close to Him for inspection.

Every Christian has felt the comfort of the rod. Trusting the one who uses it is the key to our obedience. It lightens the stroke to draw near to the One who handles the rod. It is never a lonely journey with the Shepherd close to you, prompting us to obedience.

Verse 5: “Thou preparest a table before me”

On good forage, a lamb can grow to weigh over 100 pounds in just 100 days. “Preparing a table” refers to the rich, grazing lands called “table lands.” The high summer ranges are hard to reach, but the Good Shepherd will lead his flock there. The picture here is one of perfect provision and refers to the fact that we shall never lack for anything. The great sheep countries of the world are mostly desert areas and rich, green pastures are usually scarce. Often, the Shepherd must create this environment. It is hard work for Him, for He must clear out rocks and brush, fill in gullies, remove poisonous plants and plant nourishing ones and dig irrigation trenches. Although lambs cannot create these table-lands, they can enjoy them.

The Bible is full of joyous, festive occasions and bespeaks an inheritance too wonderful to imagine. The Communion Service is also called “The Lord’s Table.” One day we will eat the Marriage Supper at His table. Because of what our Great Shepherd did on the cross, all of His sheep will enjoy the benefits.

“In the presence of mine enemies”
This means I shall not want for protection. Food means little to a hungry sheep if he is fearful and unprotected while he eats. Though predators watch us, our Shepherd is always ready to fend off our enemies and to “lay down His life for His sheep” (John 10:11). Though Satan comes in like a roaring lion, he cannot disturb our feasting. When the sheep look up and see a predator, they look to see where their Shepherd is. When they spot Him, they do not worry; they just go on eating, confident the Shepherd will take care of the threat. The Shepherd not only provides the rich pastures for us, He protects us while we enjoy it.

“Thou anointest my head with oil”

This tells us that we shall not lack God’s healing power. The oil, which represents the Holy Spirit, is essential for survival. Anointing protects the sheep from insects and parasites which infect their nose, eyes and ears. It is not unusual for a lamb to kill itself by butting its head against a rock, trying to rid itself of insects. Only the preventive medicine of the Shepherd can remedy this. When His healing oil is applied, aggravation is gone.

“My cup runneth over”

Note that sheep don’t drink from cups; this must refer to human beings. David begins to make his Psalm very personal.

Verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy”

“Goodness” refers to that which is freely bestowed. Mercy is getting what you do not deserve. God is good, therefore He will be sought. God is merciful, therefore He will be found.

“Shall follow me”

This means that goodness and mercy shall be surrounding me always and shall dominate my life…the end result of a life lived to please the Shepherd.

“All the days of my life”

What a blessing to have His holy Presence throughout one’s entire life. What a thrill to continually enjoy His dependable, consistent care.

“I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

This means we shall not lack an eternal home in heaven. Again, David refers to humans not sheep, for sheep don’t dwell in God’s house. Since there is no “sheep heaven,” David must be talking about you and me.

How are Christians like sheep? They…

1. Can be easily trained.
We are to prepare for a life of discipleship.
2. Are naturally timid because they are naturally defenseless.
We must depend on our Shepherd for protection from predators.
3. Are apt to follow a leader.
We need a good Shepherd. And we have the best.
4. Are absolutely dependent upon their Shepherd.
We must look to Him for all our daily needs.
5. Find safety in numbers.
We need to be in God’s house regularly with God’s Family.
6. Need to be sheared occasionally.
God will prune us as necessary.
7. Need shelter.
We continue to trust Him for His covering.
8. Stray and get lost easily.
We need to stay close to Him.
9. Are found the world over.
Pray for Christians all over the globe.

Psalm 23 assures us of strength for life’s work, support thru life’s journey and satisfaction after life’s end. But only if He is truly your Shepherd, if you are born-again, can you have this assurance. “My sheep know my voice,” said Jesus, “they follow not the voice of strangers.” The Good Shepherd only feeds those whom He owns, those He has purchased, and those who belong to Him.

All throughout the Middle East today, three thousand years after David wrote this Psalm, you will see shepherds and flocks. And all throughout the world, you will find men and women, who, like sheep, have gone astray. We must pray that God will bring more and more sheep into His fold. God chose to relate to us as His personal Shepherd in this Psalm.  He is “the Great Shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). Peter calls Jesus our Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4). With Jesus as our Good Shepherd, we should be totally content!


Maxim of the Moment

Marry for money and you’ll starve for love.