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A Study in Psalms - Psalm 23

Psalm 23


A psalm of David.
1The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 
2He makes me lie down in green pastures, 
    He leads me beside quiet waters, 
3He restores my soul. 
    He guides me in paths of righteousness 
        for His name's sake. 
4Even 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. 
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. 
    You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 
6Surely goodness and love will follow me 
    all the days of my life, 
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.


Psalm 23 is the most beloved of psalms, and for good reason. It is a beautiful picture of the providence of the Lord, who showers upon us "every good and perfect gift" (James 1:17). This psalm is well worth committing to memory (as many have): it engenders peace of mind as we are reminded of the rest we can have in the Lord, it engenders comfort through affliction as we are reminded of God's presence, it engenders love for God as we are reminded of His providence.

The psalm begins: "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want." This psalm is placed in a perfect place in the book of Psalms, for we first read "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1), before we read "The LORD is my shepherd." The cross comes before the blessings of redemption. Christ must die for us before we can be His sheep. We must accept the gift of His death before we can say, "The LORD is my shepherd." In the Bible, "sheep"hood is reserved for the regenerate; those who do not know God's salvation are described as wolves or goats. Once we do know the salvation of the Lord, we can say with David: "The LORD is my shepherd." Note with what unqualified confidence David states this (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit).

Sheep obey, follow, trust, love, and depend upon their shepherd. Sheep are not wild (like goats and wolves), but are owned by their masters. So too, we have been bought by our Shepherd. And then, just as a proud servant says, "My lord and master", so David says, "The LORD is my shepherd." "If divine promises are to help us, we must embrace them. The faith which can truly say, My Shepherd! My Lord! My God! My Rock! turns prophecies into history, promises into deliverances, sorrows into joys, prisons into palaces, perils into victories, death into life."[Footnote #14]

David, of course, was a shepherd, and so knew from experience the care a shepherd must give to his flock. The shepherd rules, guides, and protects his flock. Good shepherds show great care for their sheep. Christ Himself proclaims: "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:14). By condescending to declare Himself to be our shepherd, our Lord shows great love for us: "He tends His flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young" (Isa. 40:11).

David also knew of the humbling, degrading tasks that a shepherd must do, as he cares for his helpless, stupid sheep. A shepherd (one of the lowest professions) is in effect a servant of sheep (one of the lowest of animals). It is because of our weaknesses that the Lord has to condescend to be a shepherd, rather than some more noble profession. How the Lord has humbled Himself for our sakes by taking on the name of our shepherd! Nevertheless, the Lord describes Himself many times in the Bible as our shepherd (see Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Ps. 78:52; 80:1; 95:7; Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:12; Zech. 13:7 John 10:14; Heb. 13:20; I Pet. 2:25; 5:4). This is a great reason to worship the Lord, as David says elsewhere: "Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care" (Ps. 95:5-7).

The result of the Lord being my shepherd is: "I shall not be in want." What else could be the result? This statement follows from the first. Good shepherds provide everything in their power for their sheep; the Lord is all-powerful and all-loving, so "I shall not be in want" (not now, nor anytime in the future) for blessings of all types, everything for my good and my growth. "The Lord will give [us] every good thing, every good cross, every good comfort, every needed chastisement, every needed supply, all timely lessons, all good deliverances."[Footnote #15] David is very emphatic in his statement: "I shall not be in want." There is absolutely nothing good that I shall lack, for body, soul or spirit.

Not that I will have all of my foolish desires fulfilled, but that I shall not be in want for anything necessary and good. Such satisfaction is the lot of sheep of the Good Shepherd. Isn't this what everyone is seeking? True happiness, full satisfaction, all good things. The problem is that the world seeks these things in the wrong place. "He who has not the Lord for his Shepherd, may seek and obtain everything catalogued by the wise of earth, and he is still a poor creature. Riches take wings and fly away. The greatest heroes often die unwept. The greatest favorites of the mighty are often the first to feel the weight of their displeasure. Nothing created or liable to change can do us permanent good."[Footnote #16] But if "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want."

David goes on to enumerate some of the blessings that the Good Shepherd lavishes upon His flock. The first blessing is that of healthy, sustaining rest: "He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters" (vs. 2). Note first the verbs used: "He makes me. . . He leads me. . ." We resist even His rest, so our Shepherd must "make" us lie down and rest in Him. He brings us to that place where we will rest in Him. Often, we try to rest in other things: our lusts, our hobbies, our lot in life, but these are not the "green pastures" in which He wants us to rest. So, He finds it necessary, at times, to take these things from us (for a time), so that we will rest in His "green pastures".

For David, "green pastures" and "quiet waters" had great value, for in his land, they were not readily available. The pastures are "green", suggesting the best and freshest repast. Many commentators see the "green pastures" as the Word of God, which gives us the best, most-needed nourishment. As Christ cited: "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 6:16). The "waters" are seen by many as the refreshment of the Holy Spirit. The phrase "beside quiet waters" suggests, not a quick break, but long-term repose.

The second blessing of the Good Shepherd enumerated by David is justification: "He restores my soul." Justification, the restoration of the soul to righteousness, is arguably the greatest of all blessings, and the one from which all others emanate. We in our sin cannot have fellowship and friendship with our Holy God, and so we must be justified, our souls must be "restored", to receive the full blessings of God. Those of the world do not yet know the value of justification. Justification has far greater value than providence. Those of the world look for health from God and wealth from God, but they ignore what they need most: The restoration of their souls.

The third blessing enumerated by David is sanctification: "He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake" (vs. 3). After we are justified, and our souls are restored, our Good Shepherd, through His Spirit, sets to sanctifying us, guiding us "in paths of righteousness". When we first turned to Christ, we may have thought that we were pretty decent, not needing much improvement as far as righteousness goes. But, as we walk with our Good Shepherd, and in His example, we realize how far we are from the paths of righteousness, and how much we need Him to "guide [us] in paths of righteousness". Many Christians do not recognize what a great blessing sanctification is. We overlook the greatness of this blessing because the process of sanctification in our lives is subtle and works slowly. Though we used to be "slaves to sin", we "have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, [and] the benefit [we] reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life" (Rom. 6:20,22). We have no longer the lusts that once controlled us; we get no joy from the sin that once entertained us; we find ourselves delighting in right behavior, in service to God, in studying His word, in fellowship with the saints. These things, we find, give us much more joy and satisfaction than our life in sin. As Paul asks rhetorically: "When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!" (Rom. 6:20-21).

Though we benefit greatly from sanctification, our Good Shepherd's guidance in paths of righteousness is "for His name's sake." Though we should be grateful that we are being sanctified, we should recognize that we deserve no credit for it. We are sancitified through the work of our Shepherd's Spirit in our lives "for His name's sake", in order that He may be glorified through our lives.

The fourth blessing enumerated by David is courage, comfort, and strength through affliction: "Even 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (vs. 4). Notice that implicit in this blessing is the fact that we will "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." None of us are immune to trials and troubles. The best of saints will endure the worst of afflictions, and it is the worst of afflictions that is implied by the phrase "the valley of the shadow of death." Despite the worst of afflictions, we can say: "I will fear no evil". Why can we say this? "For You are with me." The worst of afflictions are mitigated by the presence of the Good Shepherd. We can face them with courage, and even praise the Lord for them for the blessings we glean from going through trials. Matthew Henry comments: "Here is one word which sounds terrible; it is death, . . . but there are four words which lessen the terror. 1. It is but the shadow of death, there is no substantial evil in it; the shadow of a serpent will not sting, nor the shadow of a sword kill. 2. It is the valley of the shadow, deep indeed, and dark, and dirty; but the valleys are fruitful, and so is death itself fruitful of comforts to God's people. 3. It is but a walk in this valley, a gentle pleasant walk: the wicked are chased out of the world, and their souls are required; but the saints take a walk to another world as cheerfully as they take their leave of this. 4. It is a walk through it; they shall not be lost in it, but get safe to the mountain of spices on the other side of it."[Footnote #17]

David, as we have seen in the Psalms, surely walked many times through this valley. He knew from experience the value of the Good Shepherd's rod and staff during times of trouble. His staff: guiding, nudging, at times hooking the stray sheep, towards the correct path, the path of His will. His rod: protecting by striking the enemies, and at times, chastening by striking the sheep. Both the rod and staff, as the Shepherd wields them, "they comfort me", even in the greatest of afflictions.

And through afflictions, the Shepherd lavishes an abundance of blessings so that we may face them with strength. "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies" (vs. 5). He blesses us with physical and spiritual sustenance, enabling us to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Some see affliction as a sign of God's disfavor. They say when they see someone experience affliction, "What did he do to make God mad?" No, affliction is by no means a sign that God is angry. And He shows His great love for us, not by removing affliction, but by laying out a banquet so that we may face affliction, and so receive the benefits that come through endurance.

The fifth blessing enumerated by David is the anointing: "You anoint my head with oil" (vs. 5). Many see this as being symbolic of our anointing by the Holy Spirit (see I John 2:20). What a great blessing the gift of the Holy Spirit is! Giving us wisdom and understanding concerning the things of God; working in our lives so that we may follow Christ's example; filling our hearts so that they overflow with worship and praise for God. Such an anointing is so important. The Holy Spirit changes everything. When filled with the Spirit, our whole outlook on life is changed, because we see things as God sees them.

The sixth blessing enumerated by David is an abundance of blessings: "My cup overflows" (vs. 5). It is as if David is speechless here, not able to specifically enumerate all of the great blessings the Good Shepherd has lavished upon him, but instead, saying simply: "My cup overflows." I know how David feels, don't you? The blessings of the Good Shepherd just keep on flowing, filling every part of my life, filling my spirit, filling my soul, filling my body, all to overflowing: total fulfillment.

The seventh blessing enumerated by David is eternal blessedness in the presence of the Lord: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (vs. 6). What more could we want but that "goodness and love. . . follow me all the days of my life"? To look over our shoulders, and always and only see "goodness and love" following. This is the lot of the flock of the Good Shepherd, and those who "dwell in the house of the LORD forever". This is truly a great blessing: to dwell with the Lord, knowing Him better and better, being in His presence, witnessing His works firsthand. This was David's greatest desire. He said elsewhere: "One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek Him in his temple" (Ps. 27:4). Oh, that we all would have this as our greatest desire!

Lord, give us this desire. By Your Spirit, cause us to seek You more than anything else. We praise You for all the blessings that You have lavished upon us through Your Son, the Good Shepherd. We praise You that You use the analogy of a loving Shepherd to describe the care that You give us. Help us, by Your Spirit, to live lives worthy of all of the blessings we have received. May You be glorified in our lives. In the name of our Good Shepherd, Your Son Jesus Christ, we pray these things, Amen.



(Our study in the Psalms will continue in the next issue)



14. William Plumer. Studies in the Book of Psalms. pg. 317.

15. Ibid., pg. 309.

16. Ibid., pg. 317.

17. Matthew Henry, cited in Plumer, op. cit., pg. 317.

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