A Shepherd and His Sheep
The Book of Psalms contains some of the most beautifully written language in all of the Bible. The songs, poems, and truths resonate deeply with humanity and often produce a deep emotional response. All of life--every situation, emotion, and circumstance--seems to be present somewhere in the book.
Both its grittiness and beauty have drawn followers of Christ to this book time and time again. The writers speak with a honesty that is raw, exposing their weaknesses and doubts, but at the same time proclaim the sufficiency of God and his promises. Each Psalm is precious and helpful, but there is one in particular that has seemed to be a source of comfort and strength for every generation of believers.
The twenty-third Psalm may quite possibly be the most well-known in the whole book. Throughout the history of Christianity, this Psalm has been one of the most memorized and quoted portions of Biblical text. Certain phrases of the text have even made their way into our culture through popular songs. For the follower of Christ, this Psalm is a vivid reminder to trust in the Lord, our perfect Shepherd, at all times. Especially in our darkest days.
The History and Style
It was written by David, the shepherd boy who became Israel's most respected and famous king. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location and date the Psalm was written, many Bible scholars agree it was penned during a time of great distress. David's son, Absalom, had gathered a large following and attempted to dethrone his father. He declared himself king, effectively triggering a civil war between himself and his father. At one point, Absalom and his troops were so successful that David had to flee Jerusalem and was forced to wander the countryside. David, full of sorrow and despondency, especially since this is transpiring right after the death of his son Amnon, is believed to have written Psalm 23 as he traveled.
Despite the painful situation David is facing, the character and nature of God provides strength and hope for his soul. Written using two extended metaphors, David
uses simple analogies to describe how the Lord provides for those under in his care. In verses one through four, David writes of God as a Shepherd, while the closing two verses uses the analogy of God as a host. The analogies flow together quite seamlessly because both roles call one to care, provide for, and bring joy to those they are serving.
As a young boy, David spent much of his time as a shepherd. His background makes it easy for him to relate to God as his Shepherd--a concept found in Scripture as early as the Book of Genesis. Knowing how the Lord cares for and guides his people, this title seems appropriate.
David knew God as a shepherd in a personal sense. God wasn't just a shepherd, he was his shepherd. David knew firsthand how God had closely walked with him--guiding, protecting, defending, and caring for his often broken soul. David found great comfort in the fact that God cared for him like a shepherd cares for his sheep. In ancient times, a shepherd would have known and could have individually recognized each sheep in his flock. As a perfect Shepherd, God knows each of his covenant children more than they know themselves. God knows our deepest fears, worries, anxieties, joys, and sorrows. He knows our needs before we ever voice them. And not only does he know everything about us, he cares.
Our souls will have a sense of wandering until we come to know God as a shepherd like David did. The role we fill, a sheep, implies we must humbly come before God and ask him to guide, care for, provide, and restore our souls. When we do so, we will experience the same thing in our souls that David did--we will not be left wanting.
The Provision of a Shepherd
The imagery of being led to green pastures speaks of God's ability and willingness to provide for his sheep. A good shepherd makes sure his flock is safe and well-fed. Finding a large green pasture would ensure a shepherd that he would not have to move his flock from place to place to make sure they are cared for sufficiently.
God as Shepherd promises his sheep that they do not need to wander this world in search of satisfaction and provision. God's care and provision is constant and perfect. Those who do not know God as a Shepherd, often find themselves in a tiring pursuit of satisfaction that never quite gets fulfilled. Searching for something in this world that can provide joy, purpose, forgiveness, and comfort, shepherd-less sheep are left vulnerable to devastation and confusion.
A Place of Peace
For a sheep, there is a vast difference between violent streams and calm, still waters. The former is a source of danger; a place where a flock could easily stumble in and be swept downstream to their death. But still water would provide a place of rest and refreshment. A good shepherd would have led his flock to such a place to keep them satisfied and safe.
Our Heavenly Shepherd provides a place of rest and refreshment for our weary souls. Even when he addresses our sin, brokenness, and selfishness, we can be assured this is never meant to harm or destroy us. In fact, he intends quite the opposite. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, our wandering, broken, and dirty souls are led into the presence of God and we find exactly what we need--a place of peace.
In the midst of all the chaos we see in the world, God's sheep have the promise of peace from their Shepherd. Peace with God through the gospel makes it possible for peace to flow into our relationships with others. Trusting in the Word of God rather than the headlines, brings about peace in our minds. Being full of the Holy Spirit brings peace to our hearts. As we mature and grow closer to our Shepherd, our lives are filled with the hope and peace that comes from being submitted to a sovereign God.
Being Led for the Glory of God
Unable to find the necessary sustenance and safety needed for life, sheep need to be led. But sheep do not need to know where to find the path, green pastures, or still water; all they need to know is where their shepherd is at. The shepherd acted as a guide--leading his flock to everything they needed.
Righteousness, a holy obedience to a loving Father, is what humanity needs the most but often desires the least. As our Shepherd, God changes our hearts, empowers us, and acts as a guide to lead us down a path of holy obedience. We do not need to speculate or guess how to please God and live a holy life. If we desire God and his presence, we will be led down a path that both pleases him and satisfies our souls.
God acts in this way towards his sheep for many reasons. He loves us and desires to care for us well. But there is a reason that Scripture gives repeatedly, including in this Psalm, as the chief reason as to why God does anything. God is concerned about his glory; his true nature, character, and holiness being displayed publicly for all to see. When the sheep of God's flock seek to be lead for God's glory, they align themselves with the main motivation behind God's actions. While some consider this to be selfish of God, and call him a megalomaniac for such statements, it is easy to understand why such claims are not true.
We have been created in such a way that our deepest joy and satisfaction will come from bringing God glory. Humanity can, and does, experience a measure of joy and fulfillment when they choose to worship and serve creation rather than their Creator. But the true depths we were made to experience cannot be known when we exchange the glory of God for the glory of this created world. So when God orients an action or command around himself getting glory, he is guiding us towards behaviors and attitudes that bring eternal joy, hope, and satisfaction. If God were to point our hearts and minds towards anything else, declaring that something other than himself was worthy of all worship and glory, he would be directing us towards something that leaves us unfulfilled and empty. In pointing us to himself as the recipient of all worship and glory, God is seeking to mend our souls and bring joy to our hearts.
Furthermore, for God to exist as God, and be considered good, the Bible states that God cannot lie. God constantly directs our worship to himself because it would be untruthful and unloving of him to point it anywhere else. He cannot lie and say something else is worthy or deserving of our worship. He cannot say anything else will fulfill our deepest soul desires; he knows it won't. God knows he is the most valuable, loving, important, and precious being in the universe. He knows he is the only true God. He knows that when we worship something other than him, it leaves humanity broken. Therefore, out of love and goodness, God's command to worship him and bring him glory is made known.
Walking Through But Not Living In
The first dark note of the psalm comes in verse four. David uses a powerful phrase, the shadow of death, to speak of a danger that seems to surround and encompass him. The preacher in Ecclesiastes might say that all of life is lived under the "shadow of death." David seems to be echoing this sentiment, but does not forget the promises his Shepherd makes.
Belonging to the fold of God does not make anyone exempt from experiencing the pain that is present in our world. Even with God as our shepherd, we will still experience grief, pain, and some degree of suffering. We will still walk through valleys. But the Shepherd of our souls is ever-present. He is capable of using all things for our benefit and correcting us when we wander. With our Shepherd present, we have no need to fear the evil that is all around us.
For the sheep belonging to God, we only walk through these tough times. They are not our destination, dwelling place, or future. All three of those have been secured and are safe through the precious blood of the Good Shepherd--Jesus.
A Gracious and Good Host
The final two verses of Psalm 23 shift the metaphor from God as a shepherd to God as a host. David gives a beautiful picture of God providing a bountiful feast, overflowing with good and precious provision, even in the midst of his enemies. Even as we deal with the enemies of our soul, all that God offers us through the gospel and his written Word can still be experienced. The flesh, the world, and the devil seek to destroy our lives, but we can experience the protection, victory, and goodness that God's presence brings. God's care and concern for us does not totally eliminate the presence of these enemies, but now they do not have to dictate our lives and become what we focus on.
To be a guest of God, entreated by him as your host, is not a offer to be a mere acquaintance. Rather than an invitation that lasts only a day, God offers his mercy, goodness, and steadfast love for an eternity! These promises become bold declarations from David as Psalm 23 comes to a close. If our goal is truly the same, to be in the presence of God forever, then nothing can hinder that from becoming a reality!
Can you truthfully proclaim that the Lord is your Shepherd?
Where do you need to 'lean into' God's promise of provision, guidance, and care? Is there a specific situation or area of your life that seems to have tempted you to forget that God is a perfect Shepherd?
Is there a "valley" in your life that you are presently walking through? How does the promise and security of an eternity with Jesus provide strength to keep walking and trusting in the goodness of God?