Have you ever wondered why Jesus says what He does in His teaching and preaching? Some believe Jesus gets the content for what He taught from His surroundings. For example, we hear Jesus teach about the wheat and the tares, and we hear Jesus teach about the vine and branches. So naturally, one might conclude, that Jesus saw a field being harvested and a vineyard loaded with grapes as He was walking by with His disciples…and from being prompted by seeing these things He than taught His disciples deeper truths they displayed. I don’t doubt that Jesus saw things like this in His 1stcentury context, but I do doubt that seeing these things alone prompted Him to teach what He did. What then gave Jesus the content of His teaching? One thing above all else – the Scriptures.
Take what He taught in John 10 for example, where He calls Himself the Good Shepherd. Do you think Jesus was with His disciples one day and just so happened to see a shepherd leading his sheep as they were walking by and then thought to Himself, ‘That would be a great illustration of what I’m seeking to do with my disciples. I should tell them about this.’ No, I don’t think that’s what happened. How then did Jesus come up with the content of His teaching? One way primarily: Jesus knew who He was and knew the Scriptures. He had come proclaiming Himself to be the Son of God made flesh, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah long anticipated. And Jesus knew the prophets had long foretold not only that the Messiah would come, but that the Messiah would come to be the true Shepherd of God’s people. Jesus knew Micah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah taught this. This is why He not only calls Himself the Good Shepherd in John 10, this is why Hebrews 13 calls Him the “Great Shepherd” (13:20), and why Peter calls Him the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4). Jesus knew these things had been proclaimed long ago and He knew this was His role. That all the shepherds Israel had over the years ultimately found their fulfillment in Him. But of all the places Jesus pulled from in the Scriptures to proclaim who He was and ever more remains to be as the Good Shepherd in John 10, one particular place rises to the top – Psalm 23.
Thus far in our Psalm Summer we’ve lingered over the wisdom of Psalm 1 and the lament of Psalm 13. As we draw near to Psalm 23 we come to a new category of Psalms, the Psalms of confidence. These Psalms of confidence tend to lie somewhere in between the Psalms of lament and the Psalms of thanksgiving. They can’t be classified as either one because while they do lament they lack the full agony of a lament and while they do show a thankfulness to God for His power to save, these particular Psalms reveal the Psalmist hadn’t yet experienced the rescue they longed for. Which reveals the strength of these Psalms. It is one thing to praise and thank God for His deliverance from trial, it’s another thing altogether to express confidence in God’s power to save when His help hasn’t arrived yet.This then gives us defining characteristic for these Psalms, confidence.
And no doubt, Psalm 23 is not only the most famous Psalm of confidence, it is likely the most famous Psalm in general as well. It is not only part of nearly every funeral service, but it has become so woven into the fabric of American culture that it can appear in any genre of literature. For example, it is read aloud by a priest in the movie Titanicas the ship is sinking. Katharine Hepburn recites it in the face of danger in John Wayne’s movie Rooster Cogburn. And it also appears in a variety of hip hop songs from artists such as Tupac, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Eminem, and probably most well known in this category is Gangsta’s Paradiseby Coolio.
Though it is very familiar to many, may it still land on us afresh this morning. Before we get into it notice what comes before and after it. As for Psalm 22, it seems to prepare the way for Psalm 23 in that the Psalmist learns the great lesson of Psalm 23 because he lived through the suffering of Psalm 22. Or to say it in another way, God knows how slow man is to mistrust his own frail ability to provide for himself, and so God wisely leads His people through suffering so that we’ll understand not only our frailty but His abundance and ability to provide well for us. When you read Psalm 22 and continue on in Psalm 23 without stopping it does seem like a song of praise expanding on the gratitude Psalm 22 ended with, recognizing and thanking God for how He leads us well, even when His leading takes us through valleys where death seemingly comes near to us. After seeing the preparation Psalm 22 brings to Psalm 23, Psalm 24 continues to expand the themes of Psalm 23 by giving glory to the Lord our Shepherd by calling Him nothing less than the King of glory and the LORD of Hosts, who is strong and mighty. Psalm 24 functions therefore, as a kind of doxology to the combined experiences and truths laid out by the Psalmist in Psalms 22 and 23. What else can the Psalmist do, and what else can we do after experiencing such lows and abundant care than praise the One who leads us through these things so well?
Every wonderful melody has a certain ebb and flow and movement to it. The Psalms are no different in this regard, they ebb and flow in their own movement as well. Psalm 23 has two movements to it.
The Good Shepherd (v1-4)
“The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.1 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. 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.”
David wastes no time. In v1 we’re introduced to the main image of the text. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” David had been a shepherd himself in his earlier years, he knew the needs and care required to tend sheep, and now that he is a king it is a thing of beauty to see him think of himself as a sheep while calling God his shepherd. And not just ‘a shepherd’ or even ‘the shepherd’ but ‘my shepherd.’ In our culture this doesn’t come across as potently as it did in their own culture. For us today, sheep and other animals are usually cared for by being placed within a fenced in an area where they’re allowed to roam freely. For them in their time, it wasn’t like this. Fences, or walled off areas weren’t as common. Sheep simply knew their shepherd and followed where they were led. Even if they had joined up and mixed in with other flocks from other shepherds when sheep heard the voice of their shepherd they came out and separated themselves from the rest.And this wasn’t just an Israelite reality, it was very common in many cultures around Israel as well. In fact, the image of the shepherd was a central image kings used to describe their leadership over nations and empires. One of Israel’s enemies, the Babylonians, used this image often describing their kings as shepherds who carried a strong staff, wielding it to lead the people to peace by bringing them into safe pasture.So for this culture, the image of a shepherd did have much to do with common agricultural meaning, but it also carried much meaning about the privileges and responsibilities kings had over their people.
It is no surprise then that many biblical authors use this image to speak of the Lord’s care for His own people. Isaiah encourages the exiled people of God with this image in Isaiah 40:10-11 saying, “Behold, the LORD God comes with might and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense is before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” And many other Psalms use it as well. Psalm 100:3 stands out, “Know that the LORD, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.” This image, this metaphor was something they were well aware of, and to see it applied to God in Psalm 23 to unfold and unveil His great care for His people was no doubt, wonderful for David, wonderful for his original readers, and wonderful for us as well!
Before getting into the details of how the Lord shepherds, David gives an introductory implication as v1 ends. “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” Or more literally following the Hebrew, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not lack.” Because God takes such deep care for His own, His own need nothing. Indeed because of God’s loving and caring hands, His sheep have all things and abound not because of their own wealth piled up in a bank and not because of their skill to maneuverer their way through life, but because the Lord is their shepherd.How does David experience this “not lacking” himself? Look at v2-4 and notice how in all of these things David’s role is the receiver while God’s role is the Giver. God gives rest in green pastures. These pastures are green to indicate refreshment and life and vigor, and that God brings us to them to lie down means He gives us rest in them. And more, in these restful green pastures God gives more refreshment to our weariness by giving us rest near still waters. The pleasant image of still waters contrasts with the instable image of turbulent waters, and that water is in view means more imagery to indicate refreshment and replenishment. We then see as v3 begins that from such rich refreshing, the souls of God’s people are restored and revived. Does God stop here? No, He continues leading His people well in paths of righteousness, or right paths, or safe paths. The word for paths doesn’t mean new paths but paths that have been well worn throughout the ages by all those who’ve followed this great Shepherd before us.And if we’re wondering why God would shepherd His people like this we see an answer as v3 ends, that God does all of these things for His name’s sake, or for His glory. And in this we can rejoice. Why? Because “…that which moves God to save, lead, and love His people is found in Him, not in His people.”Or to put it another way, because God values His glory above all things, because God does all things for His glory, and because God brings us good for His glory and will never stop pursuing His glory, God will therefore never stop doing good to His people. Not just ‘good’ in general but this kind of good described in v2-3 here!
Now, all of these things so far make much of God’s competence not our capability.God does all these things as Shepherd because His sheep can’t do these things for themselves.But here’s a question: what about those times in life where it seems like God isn’t leading us well? Times when, for whatever reason, we can’t see the great good our Good Shepherd intends to bring us? v4 answers this question. “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.” Did you notice the shift in v4? In v1-3 David says much about God that is wondrous and true, but it’s here in v4, when David finds himself in the valley surrounded by the darkness of death, where his language moves from being about God to being directed at God.No longer is it ‘God does this…’ or ‘God does that…’ but “You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” How contrary to what we’d normally think, that suffering is the place where the great truths of God and God Himself become intimately personal to us.
Beginning with the words ‘Even though…’ David intends us to understand that everything said in v1-3 remains true regardless what surrounds us. This valley is as much the Shepherd’s right path and loving leading as the green pastures and still waters.That David is ‘walking’ through this valley rather than running through it reminds us how slow and painful difficult seasons of life seem to be. And that it’s the “valley of the shadow of death” leads us to believe this suffering season isn’t actual death but a trial like death or a trial that could very well lead to death. Job also uses this word, here translated as death, in Job 3 as he curses the day of his birth saying that was a day of darkness. So this valley of the shadow of death is a time of great distress, so great the soul is overpowered, thrown into confusion, broken in its purpose, filled with alarm and horror.This valley is something of a ravine like gorge is in view here, where the cliffs on either side rise higher and higher and where grim shadows grow darker the farther you go into it. In this season, dark and dangerous and distressing as it is, see the resolve of David in v4. In a place like this he says, “…I will fear no evil…” (why??) “…for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” It is said that from the bottom of a well one can see stars even in the daytime, and the deeper down the well we go the brighter the stars shine. This is what v4 is speaking of. Because of God’s presence in the valley, the valley has become a place of vision. Where in the depths we see our Shepherd on the heights.Specifically though, what of our Shepherd do we see in the valley? His rod and staff, the tools by which He provides for us and protects us. These tools teach us that the Lord our Shepherd is fully equipped to lead us well throughout all seasons of life.And from seeing His care over us in this dark valley, we are deeply comforted.
We’ve seen the first movement where David speaks of the Lord as the Good Shepherd, now see the second movement where David speaks of the Lord as…
The Gracious Host (v5-6)
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
v5 moves us from the imagery of the flock and the trial to feasting at the Lord’s table as God the Shepherd who leads us well becomes God the Host who lavishes blessings on us. And so mighty and strong is our God as Host that both His and our enemies can only look on while He prepares a rich banquet for us His people. They are forced to watch our enjoyment without being able to disturb it.Around this table nothing is hurried, nothing is disturbed, nothing is troubles the Host or His guests. Even in the midst of those who have brought and perhaps are still bringing conflict to us, all is at a perfect peace. And not only is an abundant peace present, but full refreshment as well. In this kind of a climate dryness was a problem, especially for travelers, and oil was often used as a solution to this reality. So when David says, “You anoint my head with oil…” and “…my cup overflows…” he is using this oily imagery to teach us to how God refreshes the soul, so much so that even though we may come into His presence dry and barren we depart full and overflowing. And not only refreshment but joy in is view here. In these Old Testament times when sin and pain were present men would tear the garments and cover themselves with dust and ash. Afterwards when these times had passed they would rise, wash, an anoint themselves with oil to indicate that joy had returned. Lesson? The weary pilgrim is not only refreshed at the Lord’s table, they’re filled with joy.
What then is David’s response to being a welcome guest at the table of the Lord? v6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” David learns something from v5 and explains it in v6. From being so lavishly blessed and welcomed to the Lord’s table David learns that God will ever and always pursue His people with such blessedness. As king, David’s enemies had pursued him, perhaps even as he’s writing this they’re pursuing him, and he knew they would continue to pursue him until they overcame him. Why doesn’t their pursuit strike fear into David? Because he’s being pursued by One greater than all his enemies combined: God in His goodness and mercy. Therefore, David shall forever return to the house of the Lord to praise the Lord!
So Church, see how God calls Himself our Shepherd to persuade us of His great love. See how from His great love we need nothing but what we find in Him. See how all of life, in delightful ease or distressing angst, He leads us well and brings us to His table to fill our souls with the refreshment and joy. For this, see how He pursues the praise of His name in our hearts evermore. Church, all these things find their fulfillment in Christ, the Good, the Great, the Chief Shepherd.
May those of you who continue to reject this Christ feel the distress and danger of your lost condition and may it move you to run into His strong arms. May those of you who have run into His arms by faith, feel His strength to keep you, love you, and care for you. This Good Shepherd laid down His life for us, has risen from the grave, and has now ascended to reign forever.
May He receive our love and praise ever more!
Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel, 2007) page 160-165.
Van Harn & Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009) page 101
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1998) page 782.
William P. Brown, Psalms (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2010) page 32.
Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, vol. 1 (Mclean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing Company, reprint) page 354.
Bruce Waltke & James Houston, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 210) page 439.
William S. Plumer, Psalms(Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, reprint 2016) page 312.
Waltke and Houston, page 439.
Van Harn & Strawn, page 102.
Ibid., page 103.
Ibid., page 103.
James Johnston, Psalms 1-41: Rejoice the Lord is King – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015) page 249.
Plumer, page 313.
Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 2013 reprint) page xv.
Waltke & Houston, page 441.
Plumer, page 314.