Psalm 23 The Lord is My Shepherd WC McCarter
The 23rd Psalm is one of the most familiar and famous passages in all of the Bible. Of course, familiarity sometimes gets in the way of true understanding of the text, and sometimes it blinds us from seeing fresh things in the Scripture. While Psalm 23 has become mostly associated with death and funerals (I have read the chapter at several funerals myself), it is actually a song about the here-and-now. It is a declaration of trust from beginning to end.
The Lord Jesus spoke about food, water, and clothing in Matthew 6 by saying, “Therefore do not worry . . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” This psalm is a reflection upon that biblical principle and a declaration of total trust in God’s provision and protection. The main message, therefore, is: there is nothing to fear when God is your Shepherd.
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The Lord is Shepherd (1)
Notice that this is “a psalm of David.” We know from the biblical narrative that David’s family kept sheep and, from a young age, David was himself a shepherd (1 Sam 16:11, 19; 17:15, 34-37; 2 Sam 7:7-8; Ps 78:70-71). We also know that David was a musician. He loved to write songs, play instruments, and sing. This is one of his most famous songs, a song of trust.
What David wants to establish in the first verse is the theme of complete trust and the shepherd image. Knowing how a shepherd views and treats his sheep, David can think of no better illustration for his relationship with God than to say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” That phrase carries several implications. It not only implies how David viewed God but also how he viewed himself (as a sheep). For God to be viewed as a shepherd is not an unusual thing. In fact, this becomes a biblical theme in both the Old and New Testaments.
First of all, what was David asserting about his view of God by calling him a shepherd? (1) A shepherd was seen as a provider and protector. (2) "The image of shepherding is not always a gentle, pastoral one, and it is often a despised occupation. David pointed it out to Saul that shepherds were rough and tough characters who needed to be brave and ruthless killers which is what fitted him to take on Goliath" (Goldingay, 348). (3) We must also say that in the ancient world, the shepherd imagery was often associated with kings.
Let us consider how David viewed himself in relation to God. (1) The first action on David’s part that is stated in this psalm is to “not want.” David reflects on his relationship to God and knows that he will lack no good thing that he needs to make it through this life. (2) A sheep is dependent upon its shepherd for mostly everything: guidance, water, food, protection, and nursing of injuries.
Here is our first application: if you trust in God, you may not have everything that you desire, after all many of our desires are unhealthy, but you will not lack any good thing that you need to survive this life. God does not promise automatic prosperity because you trust Him, but He will take care of you.
The Work of the Shepherd (2-3)
Israel's Exodus from Egypt at God’s leading is an appropriate illustration for this psalm. In the Middle East, sheep usually pasture in the wilderness, but that is not an area that gets enough rain to settle a flock down in one place. The shepherd must keep his flock on the move to find more water and grass. As David’s shepherd, God is seen as providing him a place to lie down in grassy pastures. God leads David to a place where he can stay for a long time, eat his fill, lie down in safety for rest, and get up to eat again whenever he likes. “Still waters” refers to “restful waters” and, thus, is parallel to verse 2a. God leads his people to places of satisfaction and rest just like a shepherd leads his flock to grass and water where they can eat, drink, and rest.
A Second Application: Have you ever felt that there were threats all around you, but there was nothing to worry about? Have you ever felt like things were chaotic and fast-paced around you, but you were able to rest because God provided you that kind of blessing? You see, Christians are not promised to become filthy rich or perfectly healthy. What we are promised is blessings such as this one: faith-rest.
I don’t think that verse three has a meaning much different than verse two, but we may add that God’s leading His people “in the paths of righteousness” basically means that He leads us on the “right paths” that leads in the right direction. Most likely, it also means that He keeps us on the right path morally. Thus, this line refers to sanctification, that is, that life-long process to become more and more holy like our God. God wants to make you holy.
God's namesake refers to His divine attributes. He always upholds His righteous and faithful character. Remember that God revealed His personal name in the Exodus narrative. In fact, that revelation to Moses really kicked-off all of the events to follow. God fulfills the things of verses 2-3 not only to keep a good reputation but also in keeping with His reputation. He must do these things because of who He is. He is leader, provider, and protector.
Valleys, Death, and Evil (4)
There may be some questions that the Bible does not attempt to answer. For example, the Bible never answers the question of evil’s origin, neither does it answer some scientific questions. We cannot impose certain questions on texts which do not attempt to answer those questions. Yet, the Bible makes many things crystal clear. I think we see two of those clear doctrines in verse four: (1) there is such a thing as evil, and (2) believers are not immune to suffering.
Let’s take those two things separately and then give some application. First, the Bible makes crystal clear the existence of evil. There is an entire doctrine on the subject which is found throughout the Scriptures. “The valley of the shadow of death” is a famous phrase from this chapter. It is referenced often even in modern, secular culture. While the doctrines of heaven and hell are not as clear in the OT as they are in the NT, there is no doubt that the OT authors taught that those were realities and that all people will face one of those two destinations after death. Death is something that the Bible talks a lot about. It is the fate of all human beings because of our sinful rebellion.
Second, believers are not immune to evil and suffering simply because they belong to God. If you live long enough, you are going to suffer (and maybe several times over). What the Bible actually teaches is that it is through suffering that we are proven steadfast, that we are made stronger, and that we become witnesses of God to the world around us.
A Third Application: We are those who can fear no evil even in the presence of evil. We are those who can be comforted despite the existence of evil. It is our God, our Shepherd, who makes this kind of life possible. Do you remember Isaiah 40:1? It reads, “’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God.” Now look at verse four to see the reason for that comfort.
A valley or canyon is a great place to find water in the wilderness. It is also a place of danger because wild animals go there for the same reason. There would be many places for them to hide and pounce on sheep. Yet, the sheep are not afraid when walking through a dark canyon because their shepherd is courageous and tough. The Shepherd is willing to take on any threat. The “rod and staff” that comforts David is symbolic of the shepherd’s rod which was basically a club kept on his hip used to fight off attacks. The staff could be used in much the same way but was primary used to guide the flock in the direction that it should go. The shepherd would also use his staff to knock fruit out of the trees for the sheep to eat or he would use it to nudge the sheep to remind them of his presence which would calm their nerves. So, David viewed God as his protector and guide through all of life, and he found great comfort in that understanding. He had no fear because he knew his Shepherd was willing to go with him wherever he went and fight off any attack that may come.
I think of Joseph’s story toward the end of the book of Genesis. He faced evil, suffering, and death on numerous occasions yet was someone who knew his God and trusted Him despite his current circumstances. The famous line that he declares to his brothers who had betrayed him is, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He knew God was with him and was his defender. On every turn he faced threats, yet in the end survived but was greatly blessed.
The Sureness of God’s Blessings (5-6)
We now leave the pasture and turn to another scene. A table with oil and cups is now pictured as well as a house. Although one metaphor is traded for another, the doctrine does not change. Throughout the 23rd Psalm, the idea that God is the one who orchestrates and supplies all things is explicitly stated. Remember the main message: there is nothing to fear when God is your Shepherd. I think the famous phrase Praise God from whom all blessings flow is an appropriate summary of verses five and six.
There was nothing much more significant in the ancient world (and in the Middle East) than to host someone for a meal. It was a sign of hospitality, friendship, and loyalty. Oil was another important sign of hospitality. It was offered to guests for dry and cracked skin and was thought to invigorate a person. For a host to anoint a guest’s head is not some symbolic act but is a gesture which refreshes the person. So, the line could be translated, “You refresh my head with oil.”
The Lord not only gives all of the resources that we need in this life, but He also gives us mercy in our times of need. “Mercy” has been translated in a wide variety of ways such as commitment, faithfulness, love, and lovingkindness. The word “follow” in verse six is a weak translation which consistently means something stronger. That God's goodness and faithfulness chase down the psalmist is an ironic use of the word. While one might expect that his enemies may pursue him God’s goodness and faithfulness are seen as chasing him down. If the wild animals and enemies pursue us, you can be sure that good and mercy also chase us and follow with energy.
Conclusion and Christian Application
The specific historical context cannot be determined, so the application is wide open for how we can put this psalm to use in our lives today. I have given you some applications throughout the sermon, but let me leave you with one more.