What is your view of God? What is your concept of him? I think that most people have multiple concepts about God. Some in the world think of God as a genie in a bottle, convenient for me to give me what I want. Some see God like a busy dad — you can be yourself through the week, but you have to shape up on Sunday when he is home and paying attention to you. Even godly people can sometimes only focus on a single dimension on God. Some will focus only on his love. Some will focus on his wrath. Some will focus on his grace. Some will focus on his holiness. Psalm 23 gives us another dimension about God that is easily forgotten. David begins by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Before we read this psalm, I want to consider why David would write this psalm. I believe the point is that it would build our trust in God and remind us of who he is. Further, as you read this psalm, I want you to listen to everything that the shepherd does for the sheep. You will notice that the sheep do not do anything but the shepherd is acting on behalf of the sheep. This whole psalm is about the Lord.
Our Shepherd Lord (23:1)
Shepherd is a royal metaphor. Kings were often portrayed as shepherds (cf. 1 Kings 22:17; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34:1-10; Song of Songs). But this is not only true in the scriptures, but also in ancient Near Eastern literature and writings. Tanner asserts that shepherd is a title that is synonymous for king (Tanner, 272). The Lord is our leader, teacher, and king. The Lord is my shepherd is a confession of faith. The Lord and no one else is my shepherd. No one else leads me. As Psalm 95:7 puts it, we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. If the Lord is our shepherd and we confess this truth, then we are also confessing that we are sheep and not the shepherd. We are not in charge and we are not taking the lead.
But this also speaks to the intimacy of the relationship we have with the Lord. It is so amazing that the God who created the heavens and earth, sea and dry land, who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, this great and awesome God also cares for and shepherds the individual human. David is speaking of himself. The Lord, for all his glory, power, and wonder, is my shepherd.
I Lack Nothing (23:1)
Notice the connection. When we submit our will to the Lord, putting our lives in his hands such that we are now simply the sheep and he is our shepherd, we lack nothing. There is a sufficiency that comes from our relationship with the shepherd. There is no deficiency in the Lord’s provision. David is not saying that he has no desires. Nor can David be saying that there are never difficulties, for we read many in his life. Rather, all his needs are supplied. He has satisfaction in the Lord. The secret to contentment is the Lord himself as your shepherd. What I have in the Lord is greater than what I do not have in life. What you have in your shepherd is greater than what you do not have in life. God is all you need. He provides for his people because he is your shepherd and you need nothing else.
The Quality of the Lord’s Provisions (23:2-3)
David explores this concept further in verse 2 declaring that the quality of the Lord’s provisions are the best. In the scriptures, churning turbulent waters represent distress (Isaiah 43:2; 28:2; 2 Samuel 5:20). But calm waters represent spiritual cleansing (Leviticus 11:32; 16:4; 17:15; Numbers 19:7; Exodus 30:18). The second verse is a picture of safety and renewal. Sheep must be protected from danger and satisfied if they are going to lie down. Therefore, the Lord cleanses his people from sin and provides spiritual refreshment and renewal from the chaos of life. “He restores my soul.” We are wayward sheep (Isaiah 53) but the Lord is returning us to our original state. Our lives are made whole and complete by the shepherd. This is why we lack nothing. This is why we can rest.
Further, consider that it is only the shepherd who can restore our lives. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot restore our broken lives, try as we might by applying the wisdom of the world. We need a shepherd who can heal us and restore us. Your broken life is restored by the shepherd. Knowing that I have a shepherd who is leading me each day gives me relief from anxiety and cares when I feel hopeless.
The qualities of the Lord’s provisions are the best because he leads us in the right paths. His direction is always the best direction. His path is always the best path for us. In Psalm 119:105 the psalmist declares that the paths of righteousness are God’s word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” When the Lord is your shepherd then you will walk the path he is leading you down. You will not question his direction. You will not rebel against his leadership and guidance. You will seek out the path he wants you to walk down. You will not rely upon your own desires or wisdom for life’s guidance. If you do, then the Lord is no longer your shepherd and you will lack in life. You will lack restoration, healing, and refreshing that only can come from the Lord.
Notice why the Lord does this. “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God will often talk about doing things for his name. We have a sense that God is acting for his own reputation. But there is more to this idea. In Hebrew culture, a personal name revealed the character of the individual. We see this many times when God is changing the name of a person. The name represents the person. We see this with the names Jacob and Esau, whose names mean supplanter and hairy, respectively. The reason why God is always concerned about his name and why his name is to be protected as holy and not abused is because the name represents the person. The Lord performs these loving acts because that is his very character. This is who he is. He leads in paths of righteousness because he is holy and right. He loves his sheep and therefore he leads them. Why does God have anything to do with us? He acts for his own name’s sake. All attention and all glory belongs to the Lord. His reputation must be honored. His glory must be revered. His name must be glorified because it is not just a name, but it is his very being and character. We are simply sheep too often acting like glory thieves, detracting from the glory that God rightly deserves.
Leads Through the Shadow of Death (23:4)
“Evil” in this text does not mean moral evil, but disaster and danger. Some translations render it this way (HCSB, NET). Also, the psalms uses the shadow of death as an image to refer to disaster and danger (Psalm 44:19; 107:10,14). The imagery is that of death casting its shadow over the traveler. Now I want you to notice something that David declares. The Lord leads us into the valley of the shadow of death. Back up and read verse 3. The shepherd is leading him in paths of righteousness. Sometimes the path that we are led in is through the valley of the shadow of death. We need to hear this. Too many think that if you are with the Lord, he will lead you away from the valley of the shadow of death. Too many think that that God will lead you around the valley of the shadow of death. The sheep trust the shepherd when walking through this valley.
This is what the psalm says. Even though we are led there, we will not fear disaster and danger because our shepherd is with us. When we are led to walk there, we fear no harm because the Lord’s presence makes all the difference. God is my comfort through the pain of those valleys. We turn to all sorts of other “comforts” but the Lord is the only true comfort that empowers us to say that we fear no harm. I can handle the valley of the shadow of death because the Lord is with me. The rod and staff of the Lord reveal the care and defense of the Lord. These things bring us comfort in difficult times. But more than comfort, the presence of the Lord and his staff and rod give us courage. The Lord’s presence reassures us. The sheep trust the shepherd, even when walking through the shadows of despair. He brought you into the valley of the shadow of death. Stay with him for he will bring you through to the other side.
The Lord Is My Host (23:5-6)
Now we might be inclined to think that the final two verses are out of place. We have gone from a shepherd and sheep to sitting at the table and feasting. But the shift in imagery is not as out of place as we might think. We noted at the beginning of the lesson that the imagery of the shepherd is used of kings. So now we are given a place at the banquet table of the king, enjoying provisions and rest even in the presence of our enemies. The lavish blessings and treatment we receive from God is truly unthinkable. God is the source of our joy, comfort, and refreshment. The refreshing we receive from the Lord is so much and so great that we are well filled and overflowing. The Lord has filled his life. Again, keep in mind that David is extolling these things when David’s life was very painful and difficult. This hope in the Lord is not that life will avoid pain and difficulty. Rather, we will have a full, satisfying life through the pain we experience. Our cup is full. We are completely satisfied, overflowing with the blessings of God that settle our lives. To sit at the banquet table of our shepherd king pictures our ultimate communion and fellowship with God himself.
In verse 6 David continues to describe the constant flow of God’s blessings. Everyday there is God’s goodness and faithfulness to you. Everyday you have God’s unfailing, faithful, covenant love. The word “follow” is not really a strong enough representation of this Hebrew word. The HCSB, NLT, and NET rightly read “pursue.” The goodness and mercy of the Lord is pursuing us. God pursues us with his loyal love and loving acts. The Lord is after you. He is pursuing, just as a shepherd leaves 99 other sheep to pursue one more. This is what our shepherd king. Surely goodness and mercy pursues us, not maybe or possibly. His loyal, faithful love brings us into his house, enjoying God forever, enjoying the table of the Lord all our days. All our desires are fulfilled, dwelling with the Lord forever. Psalm 27:4 states that the one thing David asks of the Lord is to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life. The Lord pursuing us with his steadfast love makes it so that we can dwell in his house.
Jesus, The Good Shepherd
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14–16 ESV)
Jesus is our shepherd king and with him we will not lack anything. Jesus brings us rest. Jesus leads us in the paths of righteousness. Jesus restores and refreshes our souls, bringing the healing that we need. Jesus is with us as he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, giving tranquility and comfort during the journey. Jesus prepares a banqueting table for us where we enjoy the blessings of the Lord overflowing our cup, pursuing us all the days of our lives. Jesus laid down his life to rescue you. Listen to his voice, follow the shepherd, and be satisfied.