August 2, 2009

Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

No one knows just when David wrote Psalm 23. There is a tradition he wrote it after his own son, Absalom, rebelled against him. David fled to the wilderness and Absalom hunted for him until Absalom was killed.

Another tradition holds that David wrote the psalm toward the end of his life, as he reminisced about all he had been through and how God had led him and protected him.

Psalm 23 is perhaps the most familiar passage in the Bible. Orthodox Jews sing it every Sabboth at the start of the evening meal. It is a metaphor about the character and characteristics of God.

David gives us his picture of God in verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For the Christian, there are two options. One is that if the Lord is my shepherd, then I shall not want. (“Shall not want” means I am not covetous or unsatisfied.) The second option is that if I as a Christian am covetous, then something or someone other than the Lord is shepherding me. If the Lord is my shepherd, I am satisfied with His provision: materially, spiritually, and in my relationships.

To understand the psalm a little better, we need to understand sheep and shepherds.

Sheep require more attention than any other livestock. They just can’t take care of themselves. Unless the shepherd makes them move on, sheep will actually ruin a pasture, eating every blade of grass, until finally a fertile pasture is nothing but barren soil. Sheep are very stubborn and easily frightened. An entire flock can be stampeded by a rabbit or a squirrel. Sheep have little means of defense. They’re timid and feeble. Their only defense is to run if no shepherd is there to protect them. And when the run or wander off, the can’t find their way back. A dog, horse, cat, or a bird can find its way home, but when a sheep gets lost, it will stay lost until someone finds it and brings it back.

The metaphor of the shepherd and sheep tells us that we are like that. On our own, we lack the wisdom and strength that a relationship with God gives us. As Isaiah said of the people of Judah, “We are all like sheep who have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” Once we admit the need a shepherd we discover the truth of what David is saying. We shall not be unsatisfied.

In v. 2, David tells us what a shepherd does: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.” If a sheep is hungry or afraid, it will not bed down for the night. And sheep are scared easily. They can’t swim and are afraid of a rushing stream or river. So in order to satisfy their thirst, the shepherd needs to find a quiet pool for them to drink out of.

The metaphor is pretty clear. Our Lord is like a shepherd to us. He meets all of our needs. We turn to Him and we are satisfied. Our soul is restored. As Jesus tells us in John 6:35: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”

Our Lord also gives us direction in life: “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (verse 3). The term “paths” means a well-traveled or well-worn trail. Interestingly, sheep do not follow the trail without a shepherd to guide them. They wander away no matter how obvious the path is in front of them.

And, as verse 4 points out, the Good Shepherd provides protection and comfort in the face of adversity: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Verse 4 is picturesque. The shepherd leads the sheep back home at evening. As they go across the meadow or through the brush, long shadows lie across the trail. The sheep, because they are so timid and defenseless, are frightened by the shadows. But they trust the shepherd, and therefore they follow him. They will fear no evil, because the shepherd is with them. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us in Hebrews 13:5-6: “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say, ‘The Lord is my Helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’”

And then David writes, “Your rod and staff comfort me” (verse 4). The rod is a club which was used to drive off wild animals. It was never used on the sheep but was a heavy instrument used to protect the sheep from marauding predators. The staff was a slender pole with a little crook on the end. It was used to aid the sheep. The crook could be hooked around the leg of a sheep to pull it from harm. Or it could be used as an instrument to direct, and occasionally to discipline the sheep, with gentle taps on the side of the body.

Understanding how the shepherd tends his sheep helps us me to understand the character of God and His relationship to me.

In verse 5, David changes the metaphor from the good shepherd to the gracious host: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.” Hospitality was very important in David’s culture. At the end of the day, the traveler would stop at a house for the night, if he was near a farm or village. Hospitality was expected of the host, and the traveler was provided food, wine, and a warm place to sleep.

David pictures the Lord as the perfect host, with plenty of food and drink to offer.
It is interesting that David actually experienced this kind of hospitality in the presence of his enemies. When David was driven into the wilderness by Absalom’s rebellion he found himself out in the desert, hungry and weary, his army in disarray. In 2 Samuel 27-29, we read that three men who were not even Israelites brought beds, wash basins, and food to David and his men as they made camp. The passage says they “brought beds and basins, earthen vessels and wheat, barley, and flour, parched grain and beans, lentils, and parched seeds, honey and curds, sheep and cheese of the heard, for David and the people who were with him to eat.” Perhaps David is remembering this hospitality and care, even when his enemies were nearby, as he wrote this psalm.

Verse 6 tells us: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

God is good and merciful in His relationship to us. In fact, the term “follow” literally means to pursue. David is reminding us that our relationship with God is not a one-way street. God takes an active role in our relationship with Him. He pursues us in His goodness and his mercy.

Because of His goodness, He meets our needs and leads us down the righteous path.

Because of His mercy, he forgives our faults.

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