God often describes us has His sheep in the Bible, and that is more than a little accurate. We tend to herd (some call them packs, but we have no real teeth for anyone than other sheep), we are very panicky, very easily injured, and sometimes we smell terrible. And yet, God describes Himself as a shepherd (John 10:11) to us – the good shepherd that lays down His life for the sheep. Psalm 23 is written from the sheep’s perspective, and it says some very encouraging things that can help us as we walk through life.
The first thing to notice is that the Lord is MY shepherd. This is about a personal relationship with the shepherd, not a religious or intellectual assent of ideas in a book, not even the Bible. Is the Lord your shepherd? He can be, and I would love to help that happen.
The next thing to notice is the name of the Shepherd: YHVH. The name that God chose to reveal to us. The one that ancient Israel felt was so holy that they omitted the vowels so that no profane thing could speak His name and dirty it. The one that created everything we know. That Lord. God Himself. So this is really about having a relationship with God.
Since we can look relationally to God, we shall not want. That word means you shall not lack. I can speak from experience as one of His sheep here. I have no money. You’ve heard of the poorhouse? That’s a rich neighbourhood for me and my family. And yet my kids always manage to go on the school trips they need to, no one has ever missed a meal, we have a house that keeps us warm in the winter and dry and cool in the summer, my wife and I (God help us) own the house, and there always seems to be enough at present to pay for the home and the power to run things, and the gas to heat the water. No one has ever had a cold shower in my house (although it’s been close with five of us, but that’s a different problem). We have always had enough. I can remember one day when we had two babies that needed formula, and I had no idea how to go and get it because yet another employer had not paid me properly. My wife and I were in the middle of despairing about it when the mail came through the slot in our front door. There was a money order that was made out anonymously for enough to get formula for a month and diapers besides. We have never had to beg for our food. We have always had clean water to drink. We haven’t always had what we have wanted – but we have always had what we needed, when we needed it. We do not lack.
Verse 2 says that God makes us to lie down in green pastures. “He lays me down” is an alternate way of translating that part of v.2. He does it. He brings us to the place of rest, He lies us down to rest, He gives us that rest that we need, and that rest is in a place where we can stretch out and be comfortable. The next part of the verse is “in green pastures.” The words here suggest that it is a place of rich resources. The grass is young (green), meaning fresh and refreshing. It gives more nutrients than old and dry grass. We are given fresh resources every day. and that is in a pasture, or sheepfold, a place of safety and shelter from the dangers of the wild. In Him, we have such security as we obey his voice and grow on the resources He provides.
The second half of v.2 tells us that he leads us beside quiet waters, or waters where we can rest. It is a known fact that sheep are frightened by rapid waters and will not drink from them. This knowing and caring shepherd brings us to a place where we may drink from calm waters and feed ourselves in roomy pastures. The gentle shepherd brings us to a place of care where we may be restored.
Verse 3 tells us the wonderful news – He restores our souls. The word for soul expresses not just our life, but our emotions, our very beings. The idea of this restoration is meant to paint a word picture of emotional balance and well being, of being refreshed and renewed by the One who restores us. After a breath, it continues that this loving shepherd, our Lord, leads us in paths of righteousness. He leads us, that is, he does not leave us to our own devices but instead leads us in the tracks that go the right way for us. God always leads us the way we need to go, whether we like it or not. We need it for our spiritual well being, for our very survival. Why? For the sake of His own name and reputation.
Verse 4 is where people will start to stop reading, because the subject matter darkens considerably – it should be no surprise to the practicing Christian though – God brings us to some very dark places in our travels. He leads us through valleys, defined as low places, or depressions in the earth. Every one of us goes through low periods in our lives, some more than others. Some of this is medical and clinical, and requires the help of a doctor. Some of this is different, having a spiritual quality to it. Many of God’s servants over the millennia have suffered from depression, most famously Elijah. God Himself helped Elijah through his depression – and Elijah did not die like most people – he was taken straight up into Heaven alive, just like Enoch in Genesis 4. Depressions are never meant to be final destinations. The particular valley that our shepherd must lead us through is the valley of the “shadow of death.” The word used for our English phrase is one word that means “deep darkness.” Something that has helped me in my own times of depression is to know that it is God who is leading us through the valley. If we follow Him, we will arrive safe on the other side.
This is why we can say with the Psalmist, “I will fear no evil.” This does not mean that the evil (calamity or harm) will not happen, just that we will not fear it. It will not make us change our course. We will follow our shepherd. Why? Because He is there with us. He is leading us to our destination, and we must follow Him. And if we will not follow for whatever reason, He will comfort us with his rod and staff. The rod is for tapping the side of the sheep to remind it which way to go if its feet should err in the way. It has been called “the rod of correction” by some. The staff is for pulling us out of those precarious places we can get ourselves into when we do not accept the correction of our shepherd. Some have called it the staff of rescue, but I prefer to think of it as the staff of comfort. I find the idea that my shepherd is well equipped for the task He is doing. The phrase literally means they will console me.
Verse 5 is where things get interesting! (Aren’t you glad you made it through verse 4?) The next phrase is that He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. The implication of the table is that our shepherd prepares us a meal. That meal is prepared and served to us, His sheep, right in front of those who would vex us or are hostile to us. Like all things that are Christian, it is to be done to proclaim the glory of God publicly. A larger application of this verse would be that we are to live our lives like we are on display to the world in general. As Paul told King Agrippa, “These things have not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). We should not feel awkward or ashamed at partaking of our shepherd’s provision for us.
“You have anointed my head with oil.” It was the practice in the day to anoint the head of royalty. The oil was representative of the Holy Spirit. In the days of King David, the sheep who wrote the Psalm, Kings cared for the temporal kingdom and the people materially, and the priesthood cared for the people spiritually, making sure that their sins were cleansed by the sacrifices that spoke of the coming Messiah who would sacrifice Himself for everyone. They were separate entities. David learned the hard way (when a non-priest tried to put his hand on the Ark of the Covenant) that kings were not to look after the spiritual needs of the people. And yet, Peter tells us that we are in fact a royal priesthood, to be both kings and priests of a different order (1 Pet. 2:9, see Heb. 5-7 for details) than the Levitical priests. His sheep that He is leading are to have royal position in both spiritual and material matters. This deserves more meditation than I will give it here.
“My cup overflows.” The Lord has more provision than we will ever need if we will simply follow Him. In Hebrew, the word for overflows implies abundance and saturation. There is simply too much to contain, but it must be poured out. Consider this verse: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;” (2 Cor. 4:7). The phrase “earthen vessels,” I am informed, may also be translated as cracked (therefore leaking) pots. (Ever been called a cracked pot? How about that, brother or sister – they were right! Just not the way they meant.) The pots are meant to be filled with a continuous stream of spiritual provision for us, but because we are cracked, that blessing leaks out to everyone around us! My cup overflows indeed!
Upon seeing and experiencing all of these things, the sheep begins to realize verse 6. What I once heard a brother call “the shepherd’s two sheepdogs,” Goodness and Lovingkindness (KJV, Mercy) will follow, in the sense of pursue or chase, me for the rest of my life. Regardless of trouble that may come, regardless of poor health, poverty, hostility from others, or deep depression, these two sheepdogs are riding herd, helping keep us on the path, and where we stray, tracking us down and bring us to the loving attention of the Great Shepherd. Why? So that we may return to Him and live with Him in His house for all the ages. Praise our Lord God!
Pause and calmly meditate on that. (This is the meaning of “Selah” in the Psalms – a reflective interlude for clear and directed thought on the given subject matter.)