Even though Psalm 23 is still a very popular reading, it has been a long time since I have written anything about it so here goes. And I still prefer the old King James Version of this classic.
The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou anoinest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” As someone pointed out, I will not want for anything and so my life will not be controlled by wanting. I want this, I want that. I want to be first. I don’t want to be last. Wanting things can control our lives. But with the Lord as my shepherd I shall not want and my life will not be controlled by wanting.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Obviously, if I have all that I want, if my life is not controlled by wanting, I can lie down and rest. When our lives are controlled by wanting we can never rest because we always want more.
“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Another image of rest that is based on having everything I need.
“He restoreth my soul.” This is the first indication that King David, the author of this psalm, is not talking about physical things here, he is talking about spiritual matters.
It points to one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Why does God allow our souls to need restoration? Why does he allow us to suffer and then restore us? Why doesn’t he just not let us suffer to begin with? I don’t know.
Maybe the only people who can understand this are the people who like to restore things, people who go to auctions and garage sales and flea markets and find junk that other people are trying to get rid of. They look at the junk and see beyond the rust and dirt and brokenness and see potential.
They buy the junk, take it home and spend long hours getting rid of the dirt and grime and rust. They might have to find replacement part or two and surely some fresh paint. Along the way they develop a relationship with their projects. It gets personal.
That is how God works with us. He made us. Then he lost us, and while we were lost we got all kinds of ugly through sin. Then, through the efforts of Jesus the Good Shepherd, he restores us and along the way we develop a relationship with him.
Those who restore things probably have a greater appreciation of the things they restore than the people who made the items originally.
“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The sheep determine the “name” or reputation of the Shepherd. Imagine a group of shepherds getting together. They look over each others’ sheep and, based on how their fellow shepherds’ sheep look, they judge their fellow shepherds. I know it happens with pastors and their flocks.
So then, are we sheep living in such a way that we are most concerned with the Good Shepherd’s reputation or ours?
“Yea though I walk through valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” I will fear no evil in the face of the greatest evil. Death was never part of God’s original creation and yet it has touched every one of us. The image of death can never be rehabilitated into something good. Death is and always will be an enemy.
Yet what does the psalm say? In the face of the greatest evil, I will fear no evil for thou art with me. When we think of God being with us we think of Jesus. He came from heaven fully to be with us. Then he died a forsaken death for us on the cross and rose again so that we would never be alone.
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” The rod and the staff are the shepherd’s tools. Again, don’t think physically, think spiritually. God’s Word is the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd.
At this point, it seems, all correlation between shepherding and the psalm disappears.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Yes, it’s true, sheep have enemies, but preparing a table for sheep? Pastures don’t have tables. The shepherd leads the sheep to the pasture and then they start eating. If you’ve ever watched sheep meander through a pasture it’s clear, they don’t do tables.
But Jesus, the Good Shepherd prepares a table for us, his sheep. The Lord’s table. In other words, there are specific places that the Good Shepherd has designated for us to come and be fed. We are not just to wander through the pasture like sheep and get our food just anywhere.
One of the places we are to go to be fed by the Lord, of course, is the Lord’s Table, Holy Communion. Our faith is also fed and nourished whenever we gather to hear his Word.
And this table is in the presence of my enemies. The world is hostile to our faith in a general sense. But the devil also knows that if he wants to do the most damage to our faith he is going to attack us where we go to eat, to feed our faith. Yet the Good Shepherd will not allow anyone to interfere with our eating at the table he has prepared.
“Thou annoinest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” A respected Christian brother likes to use this passage to help understand the degrees of glory in heaven. Basically it goes like this. Yes, there will be degrees of glory in heaven but we will all have cups that are overflowing up there so what’s the problem?
In addition, the idea of our cup running over reminds us that we will have such an abundance that we can share with others.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Goodness and mercy will follow me. This is a reminder that we will not always think that the things we have to go through are pleasant until later. While a person is going through difficult times is not the time to say, “God is being good and merciful to you.” They don’t appreciate hearing that while they are in distress.
But later, after we have had time to reflect on the things that have happened and get some divine perspective, then we can see how God’s goodness and mercy were there following us all along.
And it is goodness and mercy. We sin and make mistakes. What if mercy did not follow our sins? We would all be in trouble because then we would have to pay for sin ourselves. Instead, we receive mercy because Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. Because of the cross of Christ we know that God’s mercy will follow us wherever we go and whatever sins we commit.
“All the days of my life and…” For so many people there is no, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” But not for David and not for us. God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
We know this because Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us, also rose from the dead to eternal life.
The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. Our lives are not defined by wanting because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, provides all we need for this life and for the life to come.