What is the background of Psalm 23?
Psalm 23 has been called the psalm of psalms. It is one of the best-known passages in the Bible. David, who was familiar with the role and responsibility of a shepherd, wrote the psalm. Psalm 23 has been called the pearl of the Psalms.
23:1 The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
David acknowledged that the Lord was his shepherd. He confidently stated, “The Lord is my shepherd.” He had no other shepherd. He had no other master. His allegiance was to God alone. Shepherd is an intimate metaphor. A shepherd lives with his flock. He serves as protector, provider, and physician to his flock. The word “want” means “to lack” or “suffer need.” Only the Lord can satisfy the deepest needs in the lives of men. Only the Lord, the Shepherd who is always alert to the needs of His flock, can correctly and adequately shepherd the lives of His own so that they can proclaim, “I shall not want.”
Note: Phillip Keller, in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, comments: “It is a tragic truth that many people who really have never come under His direction or management claim that ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ They seem to hope that by merely admitting that He is their Shepherd somehow they will enjoy the benefits of His care and management without paying the price of forfeiting their own fickle and foolish way of life.”
Practical Consideration: We need the Good Shepherd. We cannot successfully live life and face its many situations without the leadership of the Good Shepherd. We need the wisdom of the Shepherd to guide us, His strength to protect us, His hand to feed us, His presence to assure us, His rod to protect us, His staff to guide us.
23:2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
David also acknowledged the guidance of God. Sheep are known to be among nature’s most helpless (and stupid) animals. Sheep desperately need the guidance, assistance, provision, and protection of the shepherd. God gives His people rest and resources to sustain them.
Note: Phillip Keller comments that it is almost impossible to make sheep lie down until four requirements are met. They must sense a freedom from [A] fear, [B] tension with other sheep, [C] aggravation from flies or parasites, and [D] hunger. Only the Shepherd can see to it that these needs are met. The presence of the Shepherd dispels fear. The Shepherd stops the fighting and rivalry within the flock. The Shepherd administers agents to repel annoying insects and parasites. The Shepherd works to clear land and develop lush pasture for the sheep and knows where water can be obtained. Sheep become restless when they are thirsty and will drink from any polluted hole unless they are led to pure waters.
Practical Consideration: We must look to the Good Shepherd for rest, refreshment, and nourishment. We live lives filled with pressure and pain. We live lives that are so busy that we are kept out of breath by incessant hustling. We live lives that offer little or no rest and escape from the weight of pressures and demands. We have day-timers filled with appointments that leave us with little time for quiet. We have schedules that drain us of the strength to go on. We are surrounded by speed and noise. We cannot survive without rest, refreshment, and nourishment. Only the Good Shepherd can guide us into the rest we need to survive. Only the Good Shepherd can provide us with the peace and resources to go on. We must look to the Good Shepherd for rest, refreshment, and nourishment.
23:3 He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
As the needs of the sheep are satisfied with green pastures and cool waters, so David was refreshed and restored by God’s beneficent provision. The word “restores” may be understood in two senses. First, in the sense of retrieving a straying sheep. Second, in the sense of renewing and reviving those who have grown weary or stumbled. In addition, God guides His own “in the paths of righteousness,” or along right moral/ethical paths, “for His name’s sake” (the Lord’s reputation as a Shepherd is at stake). Phillip Keller comments, “No other class of livestock requires more careful handling, more detailed direction, than do sheep.” God always guides along right paths, whether we realize it or not (refer to Practical Considerations Item 3 on page 40).
Note: Phillip Keller comments on a “cast” or “cast down” sheep. A cast sheep is one that has turned over on its back and is unable to get up again by itself. This condition is not uncommon among pregnant sheep. Unless the shepherd keeps diligent watch over his flock, a cast sheep will die or fall victim to predators. The shepherd must “restore” such sheep. He must help the cast sheep to get back on its feet again and regain its equilibrium.
Practical Consideration: The Good Shepherd can help us get up after we have fallen. We are all subject to stumbling and falling in life. When we are down we are the most vulnerable to the deadly attacks of the enemy. When we are down we are vulnerable to attack from despair and despondency. When we are down we often find it difficult to get back up. That’s why we need the Good Shepherd. He knows when we fall. He knows when we are in danger of attack because of our helpless posture. He can help us to get back on our feet and regain our equilibrium.
23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
Notice that the language changes in verse 4. David now speaks directly to his Shepherd. The Lord guides us through dark valleys of distress and trouble just as through green pastures. His presence with us, through dark valleys where we find ourselves in death’s shadow, helps us to overcome our fear. On these occasions the shepherd serves as our personal escort. David also acknowledged the comfort and protection of God. The shepherd’s rod (a club worn at the belt) was used for beating off animals that threatened the welfare of the sheep. The staff was used to gently guide, and discipline, the sheep along the right path. These implements represent protection and provision. We must remember that the Shepherd knows the path better than we do.
Note: Phillip Keller comments that during the summer months, shepherds lead their sheep up the mountains via deep ravines and valleys to alpine meadows. Then, as autumn approaches, he leads them back into the lower elevations via the same gulches and draws. A shepherd chooses this route for several reasons. First, to lead his flock to adequate meadows for grazing. Second, because it is a well-watered route with rivers, streams, springs, and pools along the way. Third, because the richest feed and best forage is found by the way of the valleys.
Practical Consideration: We do not walk alone. The Good Shepherd leads (verse 2), guides (verse 3), and escorts (verse 4) us through life. When we journey through the valleys He walks beside us. He never leaves nor forsakes us (Hebrews 13:5). He knows the right way whether we realize it or not. He will never lead us wrong.
23:5 Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou hast anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
23:6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
These verses speak of abundant (overflowing) provision and triumph even in the midst of threatening circumstances. David pictured God as the host and himself as a guest. A host was responsible for the welfare of his guests. An intruder had to first deal with the host before he could deal with the guest. The host also anointed his guests with oil, a symbol of great joy and richness. The phrase “my cup overflows” paints a picture of abundance. The word “follow” in verse 6 means to pursue. David was assured (“surely”) that the twin blessings of “goodness and lovingkindness” would pursue him all the days of his life in every varying circumstance of life. David acknowledged the gracious provision of God and looked forward to dwelling with Him forever.
Note: Phillip Keller comments that the “table” referred to here was actually the entire high summer range on the “mesa” or high tablelands. Keller also comments on a practice among shepherds of anointing a sheep’s head and nose with oil as an antidote to the flies and parasites that trouble the sheep.
Practical Consideration: The Good Shepherd is interested in our present as well as our future. The Good Shepherd is interested in our present estate. He meets our needs with abundant provision. He makes it possible for goodness and lovingkindness to follow us as we journey through life. He blesses us with the assurance of a wonderful future with Him forever.