In my last post, we looked at Psalm 22—the psalm by which Jesus framed his own sufferings on the cross. If you keep reading in the Psalter, you’ll next hit Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
The Psalm, we are told, is a psalm of David—the king and the shepherd of Israel. And so Psalm 23 is a meditation of a shepherd, on the Shepherd. David says to Israel, “I am your shepherd, but I have a shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd.”
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
Shepherds care for sheep. And they do that in two basic ways: they protect them, and they feed them. That’s what shepherds do—they take their sheep to where they can eat and drink. And where does the shepherd of Psalm 23 take the sheep? Green pastures; quiet waters.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Shepherds care for sheep. And they do that in two basic ways: they protect them, and they feed them.
For a shepherd in the Middle East, choosing the right path is crucial. Remember, this is Israel, not England. England is wall-to-wall grass, but in Israel, the quiet waters and green pastures are few and far between. So sheep in Israel need a shepherd—someone who can see the green pastures and calm waters on the other side of the valley, and who knows how to get there.
The sheep can’t see the pasture or the water—they’re too short. They need a shepherd to whom they can say, “I can’t see what you can see, but I trust you and I will follow you.”
God is that shepherd.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
Shepherds feed. They also protect. Sometimes, in order to get their sheep to those places of safety and rest, shepherds will sometimes have to lead sheep through the darkest of valleys. Sometimes, you trust the shepherd, and things seem for the moment, to get worse. But what does God promise us?
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
In times of danger and fear, we need to know that God is with us—even in the dark valley. We need to know that he has his weapons ready (his rod and staff) to defend us. A sheep in a dark valley by itself? No chance! When the wolves come, that’s it. But here the sheep is comforted, not by the absence of wolves, but by the presence of the protective shepherd.
In times of danger and fear, we need to know that God is with us—even in the dark valley.
“Enemies” feature much more heavily in the Psalms than in our modern hymnody. And we are poorer for it. We live in a war, not in peacetime. We need protection, not pandering; a defender, not delusions. I delight that in the modern chorus, “Oh Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer” we are invited into this reality:
My song, when enemies surround me,
My hope, when tides of sorrow rise…
God does not keep us safe by creating safe spaces. He keeps us safe by walking us through war zones with superior firepower. He walks us through dangerous places, terrifying places. And his word to us is not “nothing to worry about” but “I know this is scary. Hang in there. I’ve got you.”
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
Here God goes from being a shepherd to a host, preparing a sumptuous table for David in the presence of his enemies. It’s a picture of abundance, of extravagant provision from God.
Perth-based biblical scholar Allan Chapple points out, the words “follow me” are a timid translation of a phrase that elsewhere is translated “pursue me” or “chase me.” When God is your shepherd, says David, he chases you with goodness and love. He mugs you with it, sneaks up on you with it, keeps hitting you with it again and again.
- You meet a new friend. “But God, I’ve already got some of these! What are you doing giving me another one?! This is nuts!”
- Another sunset. “What?! We had one like this last night. How many of these are we going to have?! This is crazy!”
- A new discovery in scripture. “Are you serious?! There’s a whole book of Proverbs?! This is amazing! I’d never read this bit before.”
- Another sin confessed. “You’re forgiving this one too?! Your love is inexhaustible. It just keeps coming at me. Your goodness and love chase me all the time. Every day.”
Perhaps this is a chance to take a moment and reflect on the actual circumstances of your life. Can you recall times the Lord led you beside quiet waters? Those times you lay down in green pastures? I hope you can. Can you recall also the dark valleys—times when following him led you onto paths that seemed too dangerous? Have you had the experience of looking back and realising that his rod and staff protected you?
There is also here a picture of Jesus. Jesus, after all, described himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:1), and this psalm is a brilliant picture of what a Good Shepherd looks like in practice.
The Bible sometimes speaks of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’ But Jesus was the shepherd in sheep’s clothing.
The Bible sometimes speaks of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). But Jesus was the shepherd in sheep’s clothing. As the wolves came for us, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, took the place of the sheep. He protected us by allowing the wolves to tear him apart. “Good” seems like an understatement.
But Jesus is the model for us sheep too. At every point in Jesus’s life, he trusted God. He refused to veer from the right path the Father chose for him—even when that path grew dark under the shadow of death. When arrested, he could have summoned the angels of heaven. But he kept walking, comforted only by the rod and staff of the Father. And even when his Father’s rod seemed not to have scared off his enemies, he continued to trust that the goodness and love of the Father would follow him to death and through death. When he was on the cross, even his enemies said of him, “He trusted in God.” They were right. He did. He took faith as far as it is possible to take it—all the way to the grave. And, on resurrection Sunday, his trust was vindicated.
In the resurrection, we see what happens on the other side of the valley of the shadow of death to the one who has faith in God. In the valley, it may not always be obvious where God is taking us. His purposes may be obscure to us; his game plan unrevealed. That’s okay. In faith, keep putting one foot in front of another. He’s taking you somewhere good. His intentions for you are pure. He can be trusted. What he did for Jesus, he will do for you. He is the Good Shepherd.