THE BOOK OF PSALMS
The Shepherd's Psalm
It is refreshing to study Psalm 23 after studying the heart-wrenching cries of Ps. 22. In the previous psalm, we saw David describing the terrible situation he found himself in: he could count all his bones; they pierced his hands and feet; his enemies were like ravenous lions and dogs. On the other hand, Ps. 23 is idyllic, pastoral in tone. David compares his relationship with God with the relationship of the sheep and the shepherd. Surely David is facing a different kind of situation in Ps. 23 than the one he faced in Ps. 22.
The tone of the psalm, though, may be deceptive when it comes to discovering the life context in which David wrote this psalm. Two of the greatest scholars of the OT who also happen to be conservative (Keil and Delitzsch) have studied this psalm extensively and have discovered numerous parallels between this psalm and others which specifically have the context of David’s troubles with Absalom his son when David was older in life. If you recall, Ps. 22 had the context of David being pursued by Saul when David was younger in age. The difference in tone between the 2 psalms is not due to different kinds of situations but to the fact that David’s faith and relationship with God had matured substantially from the time of Saul until the time of Absalom. David wrote the psalm after years of seeing God lead him through the valley of death-shadows.
Before we look at the psalm specifically, let us look more closely at the context. According to our 2 great authorities, David wrote this psalm during his episode with Absalom. During the twilight years of David’s life, one of his sons, Absalom, rebelled against David (probably as a result of God punishing David because of his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah). For some time, Absalom had zeroed in on people who were disgruntled with David. The OT says that Abraham would sit beside the city gate and approach people who had received an unfavorable decision from David in the courts. Absalom promised each one that if he were ever made king, he unlike his father would right their wrongs. Over a period of time, he was able to draw to himself a considerable group of people who were willing to overthrow David in order to make Absalom king.
This incident proved to be one of the saddest episodes in David’s life. David was forced to flee his beloved city of Jerusalem because his capital proved to be the seat of Absalom’s power. He fled east through the Judean wilderness towards the Jordan River Valley, territory with which he was well aware since he had lived in this same area when Saul had pursued him. What cut him the deepest, though, was the fact that his son was now the one pursuing him. This will help us understand the significance of v. 4: “the valley of the shadow of death.” It couldn’t get any darker for David than that.
Finally, we see that David was eminently qualified to write this psalm since he had served as a shepherd during the first part of his life. He saw the shepherd imagery as being an appropriate symbol of the relationship of the believer to God. Although a whole book has been written on different aspects of the life of the shepherd as they relate to his psalm (A Shepherd Looks at Ps. 23), we will look at the main points of each statement and supply only a little additional insight into each of the elements.
At the outset of the psalm David presents the theme of his psalm:
“The Lord is my Shepherd;
I shall not want.”
Another way of stating this would be “because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Note 3 things about this one sentence. First, it is not because he has a shepherd that he does not want; it is because the Lord is his shepherd that he does not want. Each of us follows something or someone; yet whereas others fail to meet our wants, the Lord does not. Jeremiah claims that whenever we turn to anyone or anything other than the Lord, we are turning to broken cisterns which cannot quench our thirst (Jer. 2:13). Second, David claims that because the Lord is my Shepherd, he does not want. Whereas all of us as Christians have a group-type of relationship with God (that’s the reason we go to church), we still need to have an individual personal relationship with God. I would be in serious trouble if I relied solely upon my church relationship with Christ since I can be among God’s people only a limited amount of time. My personal relationship with Christ must be strong if I am going to make it though the valley of the shadow of death. In order for that relationship to be strong, I must first be honest with the Lord. A lot of times we claim that we doing what the Lord wants when actually we are following our own selfish desires. Next, in order to develop that relationship, we need to spend personal time with Him in prayer and individual Bible study. A person will grow only to a limited extent in his/her relationship with the Lord if they neglect these 2 aspects of their relationship with him. Third, David claims that because the Lord is his shepherd, he does not want. By “want,” David is referring to the basic needs of the soul—security and provision. We shouldn’t reduce this, though, just to spiritual needs. This also refers to physical needs—marriage, jobs, finances, etc.
David now will go on to list the most basic needs that God provides for those who follow Him. Note that the next few verses really serve as gauges of our walk with Christ. If we are truly following Him, then the following needs are going to be met. If we are not following Christ as our shepherd, then they will not be met. If you really want to know whether or not you are following Christ, ask yourself the following question: “Am I at rest?” “Do I have a lot of fear?” “Are my physical/spiritual (especially spiritual) needs being met?” If the answer to these is yes, then you are following Christ. If the answer is no, then you are following another shepherd. Jesus our Good Shepherd gives His sheep abundant life (John 10:10).
HIS FIRST PROVISION (23:2-3)
The first need the Lord meets is the need for rest. The Lord considers rest to be important for us. He worked 6 days and then instituted a day of rest on the 7th day. In fact, since Gen. 1 and 2 do not mention an eighth day, it is quite possible that God was intending for us to live always in that 7th day, in a constant state of spiritual rest. Unfortunately, sin destroyed that Sabbath rest. The author of Hebrews claims that Jesus came to reestablish that rest—a rest we will experience fully at His return.
How important is this need for rest? Paul Harvey once claimed that we can go without water longer than we can go without sleep. Vince Lombardi, the great coach of the Green Bay Packers, claimed that lack of rest makes a man cowardly. Now the rest which David describes is not necessarily sleep. A lot of us can attest to the times when we slept a good eight hours and yet did not wake up rested. Maybe a problem at work or at home troubled us during the night and the sleep was then fitful. What David is describing is the rest which can accompany sleep but which can also accompany the waking hours.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters;
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Some OT commentators have zeroed in on the words “pastures” and “waters,” claiming that this section refers to God’s provision of food (either spiritual or physical). The fact is that David does not address this until v. 5—“Thou dost prepare a table before me.” Either David is repeating himself which is unlikely or else vv. 2-3 refer to the idea of “rest.” Since David uses the words “lie down” and “quiet,” he is probably emphasizing the need for rest. He is not referring to the sheep eating since sheep do not gaze lying down but standing up.
The image David uses to describe that rest is the afternoon rest of the sheep. The shepherd doesn’t have them lie down in just any spot but in lush, verdant pastures which serve as a luxuriant cushion for the sheep. When the shepherd leads the sheep, he tries to lead them besides soothing running waters. He doesn’t lead them to the waters to drink but to waters so that the sheep will hear the restful running water as they head for another pasture. The quiet waters have a restful effect upon the sheep. The water is not here for drinking—that is reserved for v. 5 (“my cup overflows”)—but for the soothing effects of the quiet running waters versus turbulent waters.
It has been shown that running waters do have a calming effect upon people. For several years, Nancy and I would take a week off to go to a time-share condo situated by a lake. The developers of the condos has fountains and running brooks throughout the complex so that, no matter where you were in the complex, you heard the sound of running water, not violent, agitated waters but soothing, running waters.
The words “He restores my soul” literally mean that the Lord gives my soul back to me. Because of the troubles of life, “I had almost despaired of living in the land of the living.” This kind of person is not living, just merely existing.
How does He restore my soul? How does He give me rest? One of the ways is by leading me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Some claim that David means that we are always to do the right thing. Well, I’ve seen a lot of people who are always right and yet they don’t really experience the peace David is describing. Our focus should be on following the Lord; when we do, we are doing the right thing. When this occurs, we can have that inner assurance that things are well between us and the Lord who is the source of true rest.
Ultimately, this is the rest that Jesus promises us right now—that things are OK between us and Him. I don’t care what the circumstances are; whenever I feel at peace with the Lord, nothing really bothers me. People may be hurtful, but ultimately things are fine. On the other hand, if I feel like I’m out of fellowship with the Lord, then I live in panic. Even though circumstances are fine, I am not at peace. Ultimately, though, a day is coming when not only will we experience ultimate rest because of our relationship with the Lord but also because of the peaceful circumstances surrounding us.
SECOND PROVISION—PROTECTION FROM DANGER (23:4)
The second need the Lord provides for is that of protection:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
I fear no evil for Thou art with me.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
There are different levels of darkness. There is the darkness of the night when the sky overhead is ablaze with the light of the moon and a multitude of stars. Then there is pitch black, the kind of darkness when it is impossible even to see the hand in front of your face. The darkness David describes is closer to the latter. It is the darkness of night in the valley. The mountains on either side of the sheep block the light of the rising moon and make it difficult even to see the stars overhead. It is the darkest that night can be for a person still out in the open.
Just a side note here. When we were in Israel in 2000, we stopped off at this spot on the Old Jericho Road. Just to the north of it was a steep deadly chasm. At night, it got so dark in that chasm. According to Morganna Harwood, that spot is literally the Valley of the Shadow of Death David refers to in this psalm.
David claims that now at this point in his life, he no longer fears this kind of darkness. David has learned from experience that, though things are dark, the Lord is still with him, and if the Lord is still with him, he has nothing to fear. Just like the shepherd has a rod and staff to protect his sheep, so the Lord has a rod and staff to protect His people. Shepherds are deadly with their rods. Philip Keller claims he once saw a shepherd hurl his staff at a striking cobra, killing it right on the spot. Well, if human shepherds are that deadly in protecting their sheep, how much more so is our Lord. Moreover, if God protects us during the darkest of times, He will protect us and care for us during times that are not as dark.
THIRD PROVISION—NOURISHMENT (23:5)
The third need the Lord meets is our need for nourishment, spiritual and physical. Physical needs do not include sprawling mansions or the latest in designer fashions, but they do include the essentials: food, clothing, shelter. As important as these physical needs are though, even more important are our spiritual needs: the need for intimacy, approval, affirmation, acceptance, love, etc. According to this verse, Christ supplies these abundantly.
At this point in describing how God provides for these needs, David seems to change the imagery. Up to this verse, he has been speaking of our relationship to God in terms of the shepherd/sheep relationship. At this point, though, David seems to compare our relationship with Christ to that of a host and his guest. Jesus our host has prepared a lavish banquet and has invited us to attend. The banquet is a major symbol of life in the kingdom of God (see Matt. 8:11). More than any other image, the image of the banquet conveys the idea of fellowship and joy.
I think that some of the happiest memories I have of growing up center around the dinner table. Throughout most of the day, the 8 in my family were engaged in different activities which separated us; however, around 6:00 each evening, our family assembled together for supper. Very seldom did anybody miss supper. You were expected to be there. I can remember the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, and chocolate pies. (I’m sure my mom served vegetables—it’s just that they don’t make up any part of my memories.) The food seemed to loosen the tongues. Our parents never demanded that we all sat there and kept silent while we ate but actually encouraged conversation—conversation about the affairs of the day, politics, church, etc. I get warm fuzzies when I think about this.
Well, Christ has prepared for us quite a banquet. It’s a lavish feast that can be enjoyed even during the darkest hours because He prepares this feast in the presence of our enemies. Normally when we are attacked, we feel like we need to man the towers and stay ever vigilant. When Christ is our host, we are so secure that we can sit down to a scrumptious meal even with our enemies encircled about us. Moreover, He anoints our head with oil. The modern style is the dry look—“the wet head is dead”—although the wet look seems to be coming back. In David’s day, whenever the men prepared themselves to go to a banquet, they would oil their hair and beards. Well, this banquet is so lavish that Christ is anointing the heads of His guests with oil. Christ lavishes the oil upon them to the extent that it drips off the hair and beards of His people when they attend this banquet.
Neither is He niggardly in His provisions. At this banquet, there is no rationing of the supplies; there are no half cups. The juice is flowing. It’s like the juice is flowing out of barrels and the guests are putting out their cups to get the liquid, with the liquid splashing over the rims of the cups. That’s how God provides for you and me. As His people, as His sons and daughters, we have at our disposal this incredible feast Christ has prepared for us.
The sad thing is that though God offers us this lavish banquet, we’re feasting on cheese and crackers. Once a man purchased a ticket to go on a luxury cruise. He scrimped and saved all he had so that he could get a room on that cruise. Unfortunately, after he bought that ticket, he did not have any more money to buy food on the cruise. So he went and purchased some pre-made cheese and crackers. He enjoyed the cruise until he saw what he was missing at meal time: large tables decked out with every kind of delectable treat imaginable, succulent meats, breads oozing with butter, sweets that would delight any dentist; you name it and it was there to eat.
At the end of the cruise when he was disembarking, a fellow passenger complemented him on his self-control. The other passenger had eaten himself sick and was amazed at how the man would eat daily his cheese and crackers. The man red-faced explained that he had not had enough money to buy the food. The passenger exclaimed: “But the food came with the cost of the ticket! It was totally free!” For several days, the man had eaten cheese and crackers—resenting eating cheese and crackers, when all along he could have eaten at that banquet. Well, the same applies to most Christians. God has prepared for us a lavish spiritual banquet, and yet we subsist on misery, guilt, condemnation, frustration, anxiety instead of the love, joy, peace, patience, etc., that the Spirit gives us if we just follow Jesus.
Finally, David concludes the psalm with the assurance that goodness and mercy will “pursue” him all the days of his life and that he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The word “pursue” reminds us of the historical situation David finds himself in. From a human perspective, David was not being pursued for by lovingkindness and goodness but by his prodigal, rebellious son Absalom. Absalom was not content just to overthrow his father; he was actually intent on killing him. David, though, knew that this was just merely outward appearance. Since the Lord was his shepherd, he knew that goodness and lovingkindness were actually pursuing him. That is the reason he ordered Absalom’s life to be spared in case David defeated him in battle. When we believe that God is really in charge and really caring for us, then our anger dissipates. Instead of seeking to destroy those who would destroy us, we seek to love them.
In spite of what Absalom intended for his father, David loved Absalom. Because David loved Absalom, one of the most heart-wrenching cries in the entire Bible comes out of this episode. Although David had ordered his armies to spare Absalom, Joab—David’s military commander—slew Absalom when he saw Absalom’s hair entangled in a tree. When David receives the news, he cries: “Absalom, Absalom, my son! Would that I had died instead of you!” Although Absalom wanted David dead, David still loved him. In fact, one of the last orders David gave Solomon before dying was that Joab should be put to death. David could respond in love towards Absalom only because the Lord was his shepherd. How could David have felt his way? Because the Lord was his shepherd.