Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved pieces of poetry in all of Scripture, but mostly we read it as a piece of poetry to aid us when times are tough – after funerals, during great trials like a miscarriage, a job loss, divorce or equally difficult circumstances. But the 23rd Psalm is so much more than just a hard times psalm. It is an advent psalm, it’s an easter psalm, in fact it is an everyday psalm for the believer to meditate upon and claim the promises God has declared to those who are part of the covenant community.
What I mean is this. The opening line of the psalm states YHWH is my shepherd (Psalm 23:1a). YHWH, the one who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. YHWH, the one who revealed himself to Moses and the people of Israel. YHWH, the one who speaks through the prophets, whose spirit empowered the judges, who placed David on the throne, this God, is my God, my shepherd.
David declares an amazing thing in this line, for until this point, God has been spoken of as the shepherd of the nation Israel. (Psa. 77:20) You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron or (Psa. 95:7) for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. But David personalizes this. This God of the nation, is my Shepherd. He is leading me, just as he leads the nation as a whole. And not only that the Hebrew implies that he is continually doing this for me. God is forever shepherding me, that is why he is, not was or will be, but He is my shepherd. Right now, YHWH is shepherding me.
When things are going well – when the money is flowing, when health is superb, children and grandchildren are excelling, business is great, God is there. But also, when things are hard – when disaster strikes, death comes, jobs are lost, food is scarce, kids are in jail, even here God is present with us; and when things are neutral – putzing along as usual, in the normal grind of going hither and yon, lessons, sporting events, church meetings, and the like, God is still there directing my steps and yours. In the words of the Psalmist, (Psa. 139:8-10) If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
Because God is [always] shepherding me! That is the declaration of the psalmist. So what does it mean to the psalmist that God is shepherding him. What concrete realities does the psalmist bring to mind? There are at least 7 concrete things that are implied in God being a shepherd.
1) The first is that I shall not be in want (Psalm 23:1b). I believe David is recalling God’s wonderful shepherding actions during the exodus and wilderness wanderings, where Moses declared (Deut. 2:7) The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything. And God did this in order to bring Israel into (Deut. 8:9) a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. David is saying this same kind of provision will occur in my life. All that I need will be provided. There shall be nothing lacking for me as a sheep in YHWH’s pasture.
Now for the believer, what does this mean? Is this kind of certainty and provision available to us? Absolutely, Jesus tells us, (Matt. 6:33) But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (material needs) will be given to you as well. God knows what we need, he knows that humans require food to eat and places to sleep and we really prefer to walk around in clothing instead of running bareback through the streets. He knows this and as our shepherd he will ensure that we don’t lack food, shelter and clothing, though it may not always be as the rich fare we desire, as the Israelites found out when the manna rain down day after day after day. <mac & cheese illustration>
2) Second, as our shepherd, God leads us to restful, verdant places. When we think of green pastures, we think of lush hills ever full of plenty of grass because we live in a rain forest. The grass is eternally green here, even in December, which incidentally is not how it is in most of the world. In the holy land, the green pastures that David envisions are out on the fringe of the desert and they were only green for part of the year, but they were necessary to the survival of the nomadic people. These green places carried them through the year when all the other grass was gone. Again, we must remember that God is always my shepherd so he is always leading me to these places. Places where I can be at peace, find grace and rest. So where is this place of rest and sustenance that the Lord leads to? Ex. 15:13 declares, “In your unfailing love you [God] will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.”
True rest, true pasture that can sustain us in our good times and hard times is found in the temple of the Lord. In the temple of the Lord, Jesus is the one to give rest – (Matt. 11:28) “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Jesus is our green pasture in the desert of life when the heat and the pressure and the dry wind seek to take our energy and drain our hope. There is a place where we can go to find refreshment, Our Lord leads us to his Son. And since that rest is to be a constant reality for the sheep of God, Christ dwells within us, wherever we go. (1Cor. 6:19) Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? This is the gift of the Shepherd.
3) Third, the green pastures also come with quiet waters, a poetic way of describing safety and peace. These are waters where birds can land and not fight turbulence. These aren’t the falls of the upper Columbia river that Lewis and Clark describe as churning, thrashing and breaking, no, these are the peaceful waters of a bubbling brook that allows opportunity to drink and play, refresh and rest. There aren’t predators waiting under the surface to pull the sheep in and devour them, no there is safety. Our Lord leads his people perpetually into provision, rest and safety. We are safe in the arms of Christ as Jesus promises us, (John 10:28) I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. Furthermore, not only will Christ keep us safe, but he will cause these quiet waters to well up inside us, (John 4:14) but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
4) Fourth, as the Shepherd, God will restore our soul (Psalm 23:3). He will lead us into new life. Isaiah 40:11 tells us [God} He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. The only way we as believers can regain our soul, or literally, “catch our breath” is for the Lord to carry us. He takes us from running and trying, from working to be right in the sight of God and he places us upon his bosom, carrying us into the fullness and newness of life, and a few weeks ago we learned that this was one of the responsibilities of the High Priest. Our Lord restores our soul by having his son carry us into the Holy of Holies where new life once again is breathed into our feeble bodies and we stand as living breathing beings, indwelt by the Spirit of God.
5) Fifth, The shepherd guides. Abraham’s servant recounts to Laban and Bethuel how God had guided him in finding Rebekah in order for her to marry Isaac (Gen 24:27). But David says that God guides us into so much more than finding a spouse half way around the world. God guides us as our shepherd into paths of righteousness (Ps 23:3b). And we know that the paths of righteousness that God ordained for leading the people of Israel in the desert were the Word and the Holy Spirit. He led Israel by his servant Moses and the words he declared and he led the nation by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, the very presence of the Spirit of God. These two methods of guiding Israel were intended to lead the people into right ways of interacting one with another and into right ways of relating to God. That is truly at the core of righteousness – being in a right relationship with God and his world. Isaiah tells us that God’s laws are part of the path of righteousness and so he will be leading us into obedience and conformity to these ways (Isa 26:7-8).
And God still leads his people by the power of the Word and the indwelling presence of the Spirit. For the word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12) and the Spirit of God seals us (Eph 1:13) and empowers us by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ (1Pet 1:2).
But even more than leading us in new life, he guides us through the dangerous places where archers seek to take their shots and robbers seek to take our life. Our God ensures that we make it from the extreme darkness of life and death and end up in the joy of his bountiful presence. Any fear we have at our circumstances need not last, for God is with us. Any danger that comes our way, need not trouble us, for God is with us. In fact, as the psalmist takes his assurance from the ever-present closeness of God, Jesus Christ declares to you and me, Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you (Heb 13:5).
6) Sixth, as our shepherd, Jesus comes to protect us and to direct us. His rod is used to fight against wildlife and ensure that nothing harmful befalls us except what will build up our faith and his staff points the way, nudges us back and keeps us on track. What a comfort knowing that our Lord is watching over us.
7) Finally, all of this exists in order to lead us into the bountiful plenty of God’s kingdom banquet. These last two verses speak about tables overflowing, liberal wealth being poured out. You spread a table before me…This is a picture of plenty and abundance where God leads. But plenty is so much more than just having material necessities. Paul, informs us in the Ephesian letter that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3). Let me read that Ephesians passage to you:
(Eph. 1:3-10) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment — to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Isn’t it amazing? The bounty we experience as believers includes being chosen, being blameless, being holy, being adopted, being forgiven, having wisdom of God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself through Christ or being marked and receiving the Holy Spirit. These are just some of the things that Paul declares are available at the bountiful table of God and even these seem too good to be true. But the Word of God declares it to be true for the believer. Without going to far into all the blessings available to the believer, let me just declare one more to you. Revelation 3:21 declares To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Just picture that for a moment. As a believer, shepherded by God into a true, living and vibrant faith, you are promised the right to sit on the throne of God the Father with Jesus Christ. Is that not a table? Is that not an anointing? Is that not an overflowing cup? Is that not goodness and love leading you all the days of you life in order to dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6)?
O people of God, Christ is you Shepherd, long for his second coming and let him lead you through every aspect of your life. If you already know Jesus Christ as your Lord, I hope you will enjoy this rendering of the psalm which I am about to share; but if you don’t know him personally and enjoy all of his shepherding in your life, then I would invite you to recognize the fact that without Christ you will never find peace, or walk in righteousness, there will always be a fear of evil in you life and the ability to relate to God intimately will be lacking. Would you consider laying aside your own person from the role of shepherd and protector and declaring today
Psa. 23:1 Christ is my shepherd,
For when you do, then you will also be able to say since
Psa. 23:1 Christ is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
Psa. 23:2 Christ makes me lie down in green pastures, Christ leads me beside quiet waters,
Psa. 23:3 Christ restores my soul. Christ guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Psa. 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Christ is with me; Christ’s rod and Christ’s staff, they comfort me.
Psa. 23:5 Christ prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Christ anoints my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Psa. 23:6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.