Psalm 23

The location of Psalm 23 in book of Psalms is important.  It follows the 22nd Psalm, which is the Psalm of the Cross.  In that psalm, there is no peace, no green pastures and no still waters.  The power of Psalm 22 lies in the first verse—

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

It isn’t until the Cross that the truth becomes reality:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

Rarely in the midst of trial or pain do we fully grasp or even remember the truth.  The Lord is your Shepherd wherever you are in life, but sometimes it takes a Psalm 22 to make the truth of a Psalm 23 real.

Some scholars interpret the Psalm in terms of the relationship of the Shepherd, God, and the sheep, His people.  However, another division seems more natural:  The Shepherd, verses 1—4 and the Host, verses 5—6.

1.  Sojourn with the Shepherd, 23:1—4

The very first word of the very first verse sets the tone for the whole Psalm:  The Lord.  David used the covenant name of God, Yahweh, which suggests the promised provision and protection of the God of the Covenant.  God promised to take care of His people and He revealed that there existed between them a special relationship based on a covenant made by God in love and compassion.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

The word “my” is significant and should be emphasized.  David is writing about HIS God.  In ancient Israel, any time the people spoke of Yahweh, they spoke of “their God.”  But here David acknowledges that the God of Israel is also His personal God; He is the God of individuals who believe in Him.  This is one of the great contributions this Psalm has made to the faith.  Not only is God the God of the universe, He is also MY God and I am able to take all the promises and manifestations of God’s love to His people and make them my own, because He is MY God.

Because God is MY God, David writes, “I shall not be in want.”  Knowing David’s life, we can well understand that he is writing from personal experience.  Not only did David, as a shepherd meet all the needs of his sheep, God as the Great Shepherd met all of David’s needs.  For the sheep of God, there can be no lack.   But David also experienced the gracious provision of the Great Shepherd, for he wasn’t always the king of Israel, living in regal splendor.   Many were times when David found himself on the run for his life, hunkered down in a cave someplace, with nothing but God to rely on for help.

In all, David writes about “seven sufficienies” of the Shepherd for His sheep.

  • I shall not want for complete satisfaction, verse 2a. He makes me lie down in green pastures.  The “green pastures” refers to young, tender grass.  It seems sheep never lie down until they have had their fill of grazing.  As long as the sheep is hungry, it grazes; but when it is fully satisfied, the sheep lies down.  Here is a picture of complete restfulness and peace.  This kind of attitude is possible only when a person realizes that they are under the constant watchfulness and care of the Great Shepherd. 
  • I shall not want for guidance, verse 2bHe leads me beside quiet waters. The important word in this phrase is not “waters” but “leads,” for the child of God has the Lord to guide him through life.  The shepherds of Palestine did not drive their sheep, he led them.  God leads us, says the psalmist, beside “quite waters.”  This illustrates God’s refreshing care.  He leads us to water, which we need to live, but it’s not just any water, it’s “quite” water.  This thought is best expressed in the words to the classic hymn—

He leadeth me! Oh, blessed thought!

Oh, words with heavenly comfort fraught!

Whate’er I do, where’er I be,

Still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.

  • I shall not want for renewal, verse 3aHe restores my soul.  A good shepherd gives his sheep food, water, and protection, but he also provides them times of rest and restoration.  God gives us the ability to rest as we trust in Him and He “restores,” that is, He gives us the ability to enjoy life in Him.  God makes life worth living.  The word “soul” here does not refer to the “spiritual dimension” of a person, but refers to his person; “he restores me.”   It reminds us of 2 Corinthians 4:16—

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

The grace that sustains us comes from the Lord, but we have a part to play in it—

Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.  (Colossians 3:10)

  • I shall not want for instruction in righteousness, verse 3bHe guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  This follows closely the idea of being led, but the believer is not led to righteousness, as some teach.  The idea is that we are led on paths that are “right,” or paths that are straight and true and get us to our destination.  Our Shepherd does not lead us on crooked paths or exhaust us on our journey.  God’s way is always the right way, for He knows what lays ahead, even the path takes us through the “valley of the shadow of death,” it is still the right path.
  • I shall not want for courage, verse 4aEven though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The Hebrew behind the word “shadow” means “deep” or “deadly gloom.”  The imagery is vivid; we can picture a shepherd leading his flock through ravines and wadis where the steep and narrow cliffs block out the sun.  Here the steps are unsure and vision is limited.  What representation of the uncertainty of life!  Sometimes those straight paths to go through places like that, but God is still present, as the next phrase indicates.
  • I shall not want for God’s presence, verse 4bFor you are with me. The presence of God is sufficient ground for all the psalmist confidence.  The shepherd who guides his sheep is always with his sheep; he never leaves.  The presence and guidance of the Lord go hand-in-hand.  In fact, in back of God’s name, Yahweh, is the eternal promise, “I will be with you.” The Lord has promised that He would leave or forsake His own (Exodus 33:14; Deuteronomy 31:6—8; Joshua 1:5—9; etc.).  In His presence we find peace, comfort, hope, strength, and rest.
  • I shall not want for comfort in sorrow, verse 4c Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. The shepherd’s tool, known as a “crook,” actually has a dual purpose.  It is a rod for protection; the shepherd can fight off wolves or other animals that may threaten his flock.  Also as a rod, it could be used to poke and prod the sheep in a certain direction.  It also functions as a staff, which the shepherd would lean on, so he could watch over his flock day and night.  So in the crook, then, we have symbolized the presence, protection, and the guidance of the Great Shepherd.  It summarizes the whole role of the shepherd.

2.  Provision by the host, 23:5—6

The idea of God’s complete provision for our needs continues in these concluding two verses, but now David changes metaphors, from Shepherd to Host, from the field outside to the dining room table inside.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.  (verse 5)

Here, the Lord is the Host of the banquet prepared for His people.  The phrase “in the presence of my enemies” if often misunderstood.  The Host of banquet does not make His people eat and fellowship with the enemy; the idea is one of vindication.  It is a public honor to dine at this Host’s table; not everybody will be invited, but all will know who has been invited.   In eastern tradition, before entering the banquet hall, the host would anoint his honored guests with a mixture of olive oil and perfume.  This is not the anointing oil used on priests and kings; this type of oil was the mark of highest hospitality and favor when a guest visited.   The anointed head of a guest symbolizes not only the favor of God but also joy and gladness.

“My cup overflows” further serves to illustrate the abundant provision made by the Host.  In the presence of God there are fragrant blessings and more than enough of what we need to sustain us.  In such an atmosphere, the banquet quests are able to forget their problems and enjoy peace.

Against such a backdrop, David shows that God’s presence and provision are constant; never changing.

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The phrase “goodness and love” comes from the Hebrew tob and chesed,  the latter describing a “covenant love,” that is, a love not based on fleeting emotions, but based on promise.  The former, “goodness,” describes how God cares for and provides for us, and how that is demonstrated by His abundant blessings.   But notice how the psalmist describes God’s goodness and mercy:  they follow the believer.  The true believer cannot escape God’s goodness and His love.  Even through the valley of the shadow of death, God’s goodness and love pursues us.  Even when we stray from the right path, God’s goodness and love follow.  Isn’t this exactly what Paul meant, when he wrote these words—

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword… neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 38—39)

We are not told that our cup will always be full to overflowing, or that our heads will always be anointed with oil, but we are promised God’s goodness and love all the days of our lives.

Finally, the true position of the believer dawns on David as he writes—

I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

This is the privilege extended to the child of God only.  Many desperate people run into a church to pray a prayer and run back out again.  Many people want what you have but don’t want to dwell in the house of the Lord.  This is the sacrifice of the faithful:  to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  It is a privilege, it is a sacrifice, and it is our heritage as children of God.  We may enjoy the blessings of the Lord and we may dwell in His forever, and forever begins now.  Our Lord put it this way in John 8:35—

And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.  (KJV)

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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