A Shepherd for Every Need
Passage: Psalm 23
I doubt this is the first time anyone in this room has read Psalm 23. It is probably the most well known passage in the Bible. Christians have long loved this psalm but so have unbelievers. Psalm 23 is probably the most well known poem in history of mankind. Why do we love Psalm 23 so much? For one, Psalm 23 is a genius combination of profound truth and simple explanation. There are rich truths in this psalm, but the psalmist has described them in picturesque illustrations that bring to life the character of God in a way anyone can understand. The shepherding illustration is significant to children and adults in all cultures and in all times. Second, Psalm 23 is popular because of how it encourages us in times of sorrow. It would be fascinating to know how many millions of funeral programs have been printed that include Psalm 23 and how many times pastors have read it in hospitals or homes during times of terrible tragedy. I’m sure many of us can remember a time when God ministered grace to us through the reading of Psalm 23. The picture of Jehovah God as a caring shepherd is just so powerful when we feel lost and hopeless.
But while Psalm 23 is very well known, I think we often miss the full depth of what it has to say. By God’s grace, I hope to peel back a couple more layers today in your understanding of all that God has said to us in this psalm. I hope we will see is that Psalm 23 is not just for times of trial. In fact, when you really study what it has to say, it’s sort of odd that it has become so closely associated with death and tragedy. It obviously is filled with comfort, but it also has a convicting edge that we ought not miss. And so wherever you are at today and whatever your needs may be, Psalm 23 has something to say to you.
David is the author of this psalm, but he doesn’t give us many clues regarding when he wrote this psalm, though vv. 4–5 with their references to death, fear, and enemies would seem to indicate that he wrote it during a difficult time of life. Based on the mature reflection of the psalm, I think it’s also fair to guess that he wrote this psalm as an older man who could draw confidence in the face of hardship by looking back on the grace he had experienced throughout life. Since we are doing a series on the different types of psalms, I need to note that Psalm 23 is universally recognized as a psalm of confidence. These psalms are similar to hymns of praise and hymns of thanksgiving in that they reflect on the character and deeds of God and worship him in response. But hymns of confidence are distinguishable by their emphasis on God’s protection during hardship. They speak often of God as a “refuge” or “fortress.” They declare again and again that the psalmist will not fear because he trusts the Lord.
Psalm 23 certainly reflects this kind of confidence and rest in the Lord. Specifically, the psalmist rejoices in how God provides for our needs and in how he protects us from every enemy. He makes his point through two illustrations that define the major sections of the psalm. Verses 1–4 describe God as our shepherd, and vv. 5–6 describe him as our host.
Let’s begin by considering vv. 1–4, which describe God as…
The Lord Our Shepherd (vv. 1–4):
Having spent a lot of time as a shepherd, David understood well the life of a shepherd, and in these verses, he notes how the Lord fulfills two roles of a shepherd in the lives of his children. First…
The Lord provides (vv. 1–3).
Verse 1: Verse 1 begins David’s meditation on how the Lord provides, but it also sums up the entire psalm in one brief statement. There is a lot packed into this simple verse. First, David uses the name Jehovah or Yahweh. God revealed this name to Moses at the burning bush, and he consistently used this name to describe his covenant relationship with Israel. God had committed himself to Israel, and this name reminded them of his commitment. The psalm also closes by reflecting on this commitment through noting God’s “goodness and mercy.” Mercy translates the Hebrew term hesed, which I said last week is a significant OT description of God’s covenant, loyal love for Israel. And so Psalm 23 begins and ends by meditating on the fact that God is a covenant keeping God who will be faithful to keep the promises he has made to his people.
Notice as well that v. 1 sets a deeply personal tone for the psalm. David calls the Lord “my” shepherd, and throughout the entire psalm, he continues to speak of God in very personal terms. David emphasizes the fact that God isn’t just generally good; he is good to me. And if you are born again, it is completely appropriate for you to read Psalm 23 just as personally, as describing who God is for you. The Lord is your shepherd.
Because of that, David says, “I shall not want.” David does not mean that God gives us everything we want. He is going to talk about the fact that life is sometimes hard. Rather the idea is, “I lack nothing that I need.” God will fully supply for the needs of his covenant people. He will never leave us wanting anything that is necessary for life. Since David, lived under the Mosaic Covenant, he could legitimately look forward to physical blessing as he obeyed, though this wasn’t always true. David lived in harsh conditions while he ran from Saul. But even when his circumstances were bad, he could always trust in a spiritual supply. And so can we. In this age, we ought to read v. 1 with confidence that God’s grace will always be sufficient to give us joy and contentment no matter what life may bring. All of us have needs. You may feel weighed down by illness or age. Maybe you are anxious about a family trial. Maybe the lust of the world is pulling hard on your heart. Whatever it may be, there is sufficient grace for every need in your Good Shepherd. All of us who are saved should say with the same confidence that David had, “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
David then uses the analogy of shepherding to direct us to two ways that our Shepherd provides.
The Lord sustains us (vv. 2–3a).
To appreciate this verse, you have to realize how dry the regions of Israel are where sheep are kept. Some areas of Israel are well watered, but crops are raised in these areas. Sheep are pastured in wilderness areas that are too dry to sustain agriculture. We got a taste of this during our train ride a couple of weeks ago. As we were going across NM, a park ranger in the lounge car said that there are areas out west where it takes 150 acres to sustain a cow. Those cows have a much harder life than the cows we raised in Illinois where two acres is typically enough to feed a cow. And so the conditions v. 2 describes would have been rare and therefore indicate unusual abundance. The Lord allows his sheep to lie down in green pastures. The picture is of a place with abundant grass where the sheep could eat until they were stuffed, lie down and sleep, and rise again with still plenty to eat. Generally, shepherds and their herds were constantly on the move looking for the most meager pastures, so this would be a special treat. Second, the Lord leads us beside still waters. Again, this is a picture of abundance. Since fast moving, powerful rivers aren’t common in Israel, the point is not so much that the water is calm but that it is abundant. Most likely, David is thinking of a large pool of water fed by a spring or well. Again, the sheep could drink their fill and have a continued abundant supply. In a dry place like Judea, this would have been rare. Therefore, the point of v. 2 is to say that the Lord abundantly supplies for his people. And v. 3a builds on that idea when it says that he “restores my soul.” Imagine a tired, hungry sheep that has been out in the harsh wilderness for weeks coming to the place described in v. 2. He is able eat and drink as much as he wants, and he doesn’t have work hard to get it. He can sleep, rise again, and do it over. What a relaxing relief for the sheep. The psalmist says that this is how God cares for his covenant people. God loves to give to his people, and he gives more than enough grace. What a blessing it is to experience that kind of grace. There are times when everything around you is blowing up and life is filled with uncertainty, but you sit down with your Bible and spend time with God or you come into church and it’s like you are coming into this green pasture. God gives abundant grace and your soul is restored. Praise the Lord that he is a God who loves us and gives abundant grace to sustain us.
Not only does the Lord sustain us…
The Lord directs us (v. 3b).
Most commentators believe that this statement is best translated as “right paths” rather than “righteous paths.” Again, shepherds in Israel had to lead their sheep all over the countryside in order to find pasture. If you have to search for food and water, you want to be on path that will take you where you need to go. Having a trustworthy guide is essential for your life. But what is the spiritual significance of these right paths that lead to food and water? The ultimate significance is that God leads us in paths to grace—grace to sustain us right now and ultimately the grace of eternal life. The way that God leads us to these graces is his Word and especially the commands of Scripture. They direct our lives into God’s blessing. The Spirit also helps us through his conviction and leading. Like sheep, we tend to wander, but God’s Word and the conviction of His Spirit lead us back to the path of grace. This is an encouraging picture because our flesh resists the right paths. Sometimes, we don’t like God’s commands or conviction. But when we think that way, we’ve lost sight of how good our shepherd is and that he is full of grace. The correction of God’s Word is not always pleasant, just like a lasso around a straying cow’s neck can’t feel good. But God’s direction is for our good because the end is grace. We need to see that and rejoice in the goodness of God’s commands even when it is painful.
David then adds that God does all of this “for His name’s sake.” God is glorified by his care of us. Demonstrations of his grace show the world how good he is. I know there are people in this room who were saved by seeing the care of the Good Shepherd in the life of a Christian. They saw supernatural grace at work in someone facing great pain, and they knew they had something real. God glorified himself. Don’t hide your experiences of grace because God isn’t just concerned for you. He wants to the world to see his glory through what he is doing in your life. Going through trials can be awful. Sometime our entire focus is on getting out of the fire, but we need to see how God can use us in those times. God’s grace is ultimately for his glory, and so as you experience grace, glorify God for his grace.
In sum, vv. 2–3 encourage us by reminding us that God abundantly provides for his people. We serve a good God. But David isn’t done. He goes on to note that we can be confident in our shepherd not only in times of abundance but also in times of fear and danger. Not only does the Lord provide…
The Lord protects (v. 4).
We could literally translate the first line as “the valley of death darkness.” It pictures an intimidating, scary place. The area around Bethlehem has some incredibly rough terrain, including deep ravines with steep walls. Climbing in and out of these ravines would be exhausting and dangerous as a wrong steep can lead to a terrible fall. Because of the steep walls, these ravines could potentially be very dark. Because of the darkness and jagged rocks, predators were not always easy to spot. As a result, these ravines posed great danger to sheep. As a result, the walk through this ravine is intended to picture the darkest times of life. Specifically, David is thinking of times when we are spiritually compromised by temptation or circumstances that make us want to lose faith or bail on God. We can include physical death in the picture because death is scary, grief can be overwhelming, and it can tempt us to lose faith. David may have been going through such a dark valley when he wrote this psalm or maybe he had just emerged from one. Life can be brutal. But the psalmist says that our Great Shepherd is with us even in the darkest times of life. It’s interesting that v. 4 shifts from talking about the Lord to talking to the Lord. He says “you are with me.” When you are really scared, it’s helpful to talk to someone, and that’s what David does. He says that “your” rod and staff bring great comfort. The shepherd’s staff was a long walking stick that he used to guide the sheep. It allowed him to reach out and give them a tap when they start to wander. The rod was a shorter club that was used to fight off wild animals. Therefore, the psalmist declares that even in the darkest times of life, we can have confidence in the Great Shepherd because he will guide and protect us through the worries and trials we face.
If you are a believer, the Lord is your shepherd, and he will always supply your every need. He gives joy and a peace that you cannot find anywhere else. May be you are going through a dark valley today. Your mind is filled with fear or sadness. You can trust your shepherd. He will protect and provide for you. I pray that you will find comfort in him. Maybe your life is going okay. You are not facing any great trials, and you are feeling satisfied with life. You are not all that hungry for God and you are feeding on things this world has to offer. You need to recognize that only God can truly satisfy your heart. He alone brings true joy and contentment. He alone is our security. Don’t let yourself look to friends, money, success, or things to do for you what only God can do. Wherever you are, look to the Lord for grace. Obey his Word. Practice the spiritual disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and church attendance. Follow God’s lead. The Lord is your shepherd and as you look to him, you will never want any truly good thing.
David encourages us to be confident in the Lord by describing him as our Good Shepherd. He then offers further encouragement by describing him as a Good Host.
The Lord Our Host (vv. 5–6):
These verses picture the Lord as owning a great home and as being a gracious host.
Notice first that…
The Lord gives honor and abundance (v. 5).
Verse 5 describes a great banquet that the Lord hosts in his lavish home. The psalmist pictures himself as the honored guest at this banquet. The table has been prepared for David, and the host has anointed his head with oil. When I was a kid I could only picture this as a quart of used motor oil, and I didn’t understand how that would be a good thing. But the oil David has in mind is perfumed oil that symbolized honor. It also points to the extravagance of this banquet as does the phrase “my cups runs over.” A full cup at a dinner signifies an abundant portion. There is more than enough food, and the honored guest can eat as much as he wants. Throughout Scripture, a person’s cup is a reference to their lot in life or what God has called them to. It can be good or bad. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “let his cup pass.” Of course in Psalm 23 it is a very good cup. David is saying that God has given him abundant life—a life filled with grace, joy, and contentment.
It’s interesting that v. 5 says he is honored before his enemies. In ANE custom, when someone hosted an honored guest, they became personally responsible for their protection. David had many enemies throughout his life, but he could rest in the presence of God knowing that his life was in God’s hands, and he would protect him. I find David’s acknowledgement of enemies to be encouraging because he doesn’t want us to get the idea that his life with God was just a joy ride. There was real darkness and real enemies. Life was scary and painful. But even through the hard times, God honors and abundantly supplies for his people. The fact that David pictures himself as an honored guest means that God knows us and is committed to us. The abundance of this verse means that God doesn’t just give us the scraps of his goodness. God cares for his children. And I think an appropriate application for us today would be to anticipate the coming day in Christ’s Kingdom when this picture will be a literal reality. We will rule alongside Christ over the earth. We will receive positions of honor in his kingdom and enjoy God’s abundance. But how incredible is it that infinite God would honor us? It’s a humbling idea to think of myself as God’s honored guest. He is incredibly good.
But the psalmist adds that this honor is not only for a moment.
The Lord will bless through all of life and eternity (v. 6).
There is some debate about what house David has in mind and what he means by being a permanent resident. Is the house just a picture of the royal palace? Is it the temple or tabernacle? Is it heaven? The “house of the Lord” is generally a reference to a place of fellowship with God, and of course the primary place of fellowship would be the tabernacle. But David surely didn’t plan to physically stay in the temple all of the time, so it’s best to see this as representing spiritual communion. David looked forward to God’s continued presence with him throughout all of life. God would never abandon him, and his blessings would always be near. Ultimately, he looked forward to being in his presence in heaven for all of eternity. And the first line of v. 6 tells us that in God’s presence he would enjoy God’s goodness and mercy. I already mentioned the significance of hesed, which is translated as “mercy.” God is a covenant-keeping God who will be faithful to his people and shower them with love. David says these blessings “will follow me all the days of my life.” The verb “shall follow me” actually describes a very vigorous pursuit. Therefore the picture is that the Lord actively and aggressively pursues his children with his blessings of goodness and mercy. And these blessings will never end.
Psalm 23 paints a rich, rich picture of our God. He is compassionate, strong, wise, gracious, and generous. And it tells that God’s people enjoy the rich benefits of his character. He abundantly provides for all of our needs, he keeps us on the right path, he corrects us when we need it, he comforts our fears, and he gives us the security of knowing that he is always there and always will be there. What should we do with all of this? My challenge to us is simply this. Lean on the Lord to supply your every need. That’s true no matter your lot in life. Maybe you are not a Christian. God is not your shepherd because you have never turned to him for salvation. I want to urge you to come to Christ today. All of these gifts are ultimately available because David’s descendant Jesus lived a perfect life and died for sin. If you put your faith is his work, your sins can be forgiven and the Lord can become your shepherd. I hope you will believe on him today. Of course all of us need to lean on the Lord to supply our every need. If you are grieving, anxious, or afraid, lean on the Lord. If you are leaning on temporary pleasures, money, or people, recognize that these things will fail, and lean on the Lord. Repent of your sin, obey his Word and trust the wisdom of his will. If you are leaning on the Lord, then stay encouraged. You are on the right path, and rejoice in the grace that God gives. And ultimately, let’s praise the Lord. All of this ultimately “for His name’s sake.” We ought to glorify God today for all that he is and all that he has done.
More in Psalms
March 22, 2020The Shadow the Almighty: Pestilence and Protection in Psalm 91
March 17, 2019Disciples Live in the Word
December 30, 2018Portraits of the King