Psalm 23 would have to be one of the best-known, best-loved and most often-recited passages in the Bible. Charles Haddon Spurgeon called it “the pearl of psalms whose soft and pure radiance delights every eye”. Henry Ward Beecher, likened it to a nightingale whose voice is heard in almost every language and every corner of the globe.
Why is it do you think, that this Psalm is so loved? What is it about it that draws people to it again and again and again? I think it’s all tied up in the very first line – “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Just think upon those words for a moment.
The LORD God – the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who governs all situations, all conditions and all events, whose power and authority is unrivalled and unsurpassed – is my shepherd.
That’s intensely personal isn’t it? The most powerful being in the universe, to those under his care, is also their life-long leader, provider, protector and friend.
Christianity isn’t so much about religion as it is a relationship. Becoming a Christian means entering into a personal relationship with God through his Son Jesus. In fact Jesus referred to himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11). For the Christian, the Psalm takes on even more meaning. The Christian can read Psalm 23 and say, “The Lord Jesus is my Shepherd; I have all that I need.” Whether I’m in good pasture or the dark valley, He is always at my side. In the rest of the Psalm, David explains and expands this truth. What makes life with the good Shepherd so good?
1. He provides for us
“He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He renews my life” (Psalm 23:2)
The basic needs of sheep are food and water. Every sheep farmer worth his salt knows that. The emphasis here however is not on the eating and drinking. It’s on the lying down. When you see sheep lying down in green pastures instead of grazing, you know they are content. They are happy. They feel safe and secure. They are at rest.
Phillip Keller, a pastor and author, was himself a Shepherd for many years and provides some very helpful insights on this particular verse. He writes,
“The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behaviour within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger”.
So before sheep will lie down there must be freedom from fear, friction (with other sheep), tension and aggravation, and famine. Keller adds,
“The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the sheepman himself who can provide release from these anxieties.”
OK – so let’s make the connection here. What is David saying? David recognizes that his soul is often not at rest. It is agitated, troubled and distressed. The Good Shepherd knows how to lead that soul to rest. He has the skill to bring rest, refreshment and renewal to weary, thirsty and troubled heart. There is a beautiful scene that Matthew describes in his gospel the end of chapter 9. It gives us wonderful insight into the heart of God:
“Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like (what?) sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt 9:35–36)
Sheep without a Shepherd – tired, weary and sad people. People who are burdened with the cares of this world, anxious as to the future, longing for a better life, a better world. What do they crave? Rest.
Rest from their busy schedules.
Rest from relational conflict, rest from worry and anxiety.
Rest from their fears.
There is someone who can provide that rest. He’s called the Good Shepherd. Perhaps you are one who has found that rest. Your saw your need. You heard the good news. You cried out to God for help. You said, “Jesus, come and be my Shepherd. Lead me, teach me, guide and protect me from the harm others cause me and I cause myself.” And He answered. It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to you. But it didn’t take long, did it, before you slipped back into a frantic pace of life. You traded your business with the things of the world for business in the Lord’s work. You forgot how the Christian life was supposed to be lived.
We begin by resting in God.
He provides refreshment and renewal.
Out of this comes the energy for work and activity.
Unfortunately many of us get it the wrong way around. We work and work and work – attending church meetings and running church programs until we become so exhausted we have to quit. Jesus has called you first to worship, and secondly to work. We must never reverse the order. You need time with the Shepherd – daily. You need those green pastures and quiet waters. Just you and your Saviour. No one else. He wants you to enjoy him – to bask in his presence. He wants you to come to the place where you say, “Jesus is my Shepherd. HE is all that I need.”
What makes life with the Good Shepherd so good? He provides rest for his sheep. And secondly –
2. He leads and guides us
“He leads me along the right paths for His name’s sake. Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff —they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:3-4)
Sheep can’t find food or water on their own. This is because, unlike most animals, sheep have no keen sense of smell. In fact, if left on their own, sheep tend to wander into running creeks and then their wool grows heavy and they drown: hence their need for someone to guide them to the still waters. Sheep have no natural defence mechanisms. They have no claws, no horns, no fangs, not even a stink bag like a skunk. So, they are basically helpless. So, as David says in verse 4, they need a guiding and protecting. The Shepherd carries a rod and a staff to protect them.
When it comes sheep on the whole are pretty DUMB animals. If left to themselves, they will eat poisonous weeds, wander off and fall down steep banks and get themselves stuck in fences. And what’s worse is whatever one dumb sheep does the others tend to follow.
How many times have you said, “If I only knew what I know now?” How many times have you said, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time?” How many times have you seen something that looked so good going and ending so badly? How many times have we followed the stupid mistakes of our peers – or sometimes followed the foolish advice of a complete stranger? David says God leads him on right paths.
Paths that will be for our good.
The Lord is leading us on these paths. He is not above us, barking out commands. He is not behind us, prodding us forward with a stick. He is in front of us, leading us onward. The rod that David refers to was a heavy club the shepherd used to beat off predators and to protect the sheep. He never used the rod on the sheep; only on the enemies of the sheep. The shepherd’s staff was used on the sheep, to pull them to safety or to keep them from walking off a ledge.
The Lord may have to lead you on some dark paths – paths of grief and sorrow, paths of trouble and difficulty, paths of loss. I used to think that the Christian life was lived mostly in green pastures, with an occasional wilderness and dark valley along way. I realize now it’s the other way around. There are days of surprising joy, but much of life is a vale of tears.
The Lord is my Shepherd, David says, there is nothing I lack. He provides us with rest, he leads and guides us, and finally,
3. He gets us safely home
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live.” (Psalm 23:5-6)
The Psalm began with David in green pastures and beside quiet waters. Then he was led into a dark valley. And now we find in him in the presence of his enemies. And where is the Shepherd at this point? HE IS RIGHT THERE WITH HIM.
There is only one constant in this Psalm. It’s not the green pastures – they are temporary. It is not the dark valley – David walks through that. The one constant in Psalm 23 is the presence of God. Here is David now, surrounded by his enemies. Here he is, vulnerable and exposed. And God says, “There is nothing you need to worry about – nothing at all. Come, let us sit down and dine together.”
The blessing of the Shepherd is not an elimination of our problems. The blessing of the Shepherd is not removal of our enemies. The blessing of the Shepherd is a table for two prepared in the presence of our enemies. And the table, of course, is symbolic of our fellowship with him.
In the midst of our trials, our source of joy is our fellowship with the Shepherd. He prepares a table for us. He anoints our head with oil, our cup overflows.
Some time ago I came across a reverse paraphrase of Psalm 23. It is written from a 15 year old girl:
I have no shepherd, I need a shepherd.
I am caught in the desert.
I am thirsty and no one is telling me where to go.
I am lost and no one cares.
I am scared of evil, because I am alone.
I am the strongest thing in my life.
There is no greater or more powerful Being to comfort or protect me.
I must be alone with my enemies, with no one to help me.
The cup of my life and my soul are empty and dry.
I seek after goodness and mercy but never find it.
I have no home; nothing is certain.
It’s very poignant isn’t it? Perhaps this is speaking to you today. You have no shepherd – no one who is always there for you and who truly cares for you, who can lead you through life’s difficulties or comfort you in life’s trials. You are alone. You look for goodness and mercy, but never find it. You have no eternal home. Nothing in your life is certain.
Let me tell you: it doesn’t have to be that way. There is someone who does truly care for you and wants to look after you. Even now he stands at the door of your life; he is gently knocking, asking to come in. He says,
“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves.” (Matthew 11:28–29)
He won’t force his way in. You must invite him in. When you open the door, he will come in and eat with you. He wants to be part of your life. He wants to fill you with peace and joy and assurance of living one day in his eternal home.
 Phiip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (emphasis added)
(Note: this is based on a message I preached from Psalm 23 earlier this year. You can access the full sermon here)