Our Shepherd

| Psalm 23:1-6

Week of April 8, 2018

The Point:  God guides us as He walks with us.

The Good Shepherd:  Psalm 23:1-6.

[1] A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. [2] He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. [3] He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. [4] 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. [5] You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. [6] Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.   [ESV]

“I.  The Faithful Provisions of the Lord [23:1-4].  A. The Lord provides spiritual nourishment [1-2a].  The first line of poetry focuses on the feeding that a shepherd provides for the sheep. Shepherd is an active participle used substantively, stressing the meaning of the word: my shepherd. This word is used of the spiritual relationship between God and His people: we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand [Ps. 95:7]. Of course, the people are not sheep, and the Lord is not literally a shepherd. The metaphorical usage of a shepherd feeding the flock presents the Lord as a spiritual leader and teacher. As a shepherd feeds the sheep, so the Lord, provides spiritual food for the spiritual growth of His people, often through His servants who are also called shepherds. The meaning of the metaphor finds support throughout Scripture [e.g., John 21:16; 1 Peter 5:1-4]. Immediately following this introductory metaphor the psalmist announces the quantity of this provision: I shall not want. The verb means “lack, need, be lacking, decrease”. Here David affirms that there is no lack or deficiency in the Lord’s provision. The verb indicates that this is a continual state: there is never anything lacking when the Lord is the shepherd. And not only is the quantity of God’s provision without lack, but the quality is the best. The parallel he makes me lie down in green pastures provides the image for the first half of the verse. Therefore, the entire verse 2 could be explained as a continuation of the metaphor, or an implied comparison. The term pasture indicates the rich, abundant grass of springtime. The verb, lie down, describes how a shepherd regularly leads the sheep to lie down in such grassy meadows. This image underscores the truth that God was at work in David’s life, leading him to the best provisions where he can feed to his heart’s content. Since the line is parallel to the first line in verse 1, the psalmist is saying that the Lord meets his spiritual needs – and in the process gives him the very best. As grass would be food for the sheep, the word of the Lord and all its provisions would be provision for the hungry spirit. This feeding could come through personal meditation, but it would regularly be done through the ministry of the priests, the “under-shepherds,” who were to teach people the word of the Lord [see Mal. 2:1-9]. The Lord could provide the psalmist with spiritual food at anytime, anywhere; but it would be a regular provision in the sanctuary.

B.  The Lord provides spiritual refreshment [2b-3a]. The second line of the psalm draws upon the care of the shepherd refreshing the sheep with cleansing and rest. The verb, leads, means “lead, guide to a watering place or station, refresh”; it is normally used with reference to guidance to water [see Isa. 49:10]. The waters to which the Lord leads are “restful,” meaning places of complete rest and refreshment. The word describes the kind of waters in view. The sheep are not taken to a rushing stream, but to still, calm lagoons. Flocks in the ancient Near East were watered at least once a day, usually around noon; but this leading was not limited to finding water to drink. It included finding a place for cleansing and refreshment. Here the placid waters could wash the wounds and cleanse the soiled spots. The point is that the Lord cleanses people from sin and provides spiritual refreshment and renewal from the chaos of life. That this is the point can be seen from the parallel clause that gives the reality behind the image: He restores my soul. The verb, restores, means “cause to turn back, restore” and is a common verb with a wide range of uses. It is used in 1 Kings 13:6 for the “restoring” of a withered hand; it is used in Isaiah 52:8 for the “restoring” of the captives to their land; in Isaiah 58:12 it refers to the “repairing” of the walls, and in Daniel 9:25 for the “rebuilding” of a ruined city. It therefore bears the idea of returning something to its original state. David’s words are general enough to mean that the Lord restores him to his proper spiritual and physical condition by forgiving him and renewing him [see Pss. 32 and 51].

C.  The Lord provides guidance in the right way [3b]. The third line of the poem affirms that the Lord leads in the right paths. The verb he leads me continues with the imagery of the shepherd. This leading could also have been effected through circumstances caused by the Lord directly, or through the written and spoken word for general guidance, or through spiritual guides and counselors in the sanctuary. The point is that ultimately God has sovereign control over David’s life to direct him where he should go. The leading is in the paths of righteousness. The paths lead directly and safely to the destination, as distinguished from wrong paths that would lead astray. The qualifying word righteousness in the psalm would indicate that the path chosen is the right one, but if God was leading it was also the righteous one. There is a double meaning to the expression. The point is that God never leads anyone in an unrighteous way; He always leads in the righteous way, which is the way home. He leads in the right way because His reputation is at stake. The term name is used frequently in the Bible for the idea of “reputation.” In the ancient world a shepherd’s reputation depended on his ability to lead the sheep in the right direction. If he lost the sheep, or lost the way home, he would gain a bad reputation and be a worthless shepherd. David affirms that the Lord’s reputation depends upon His ability to guide the sheep safely home, which He does. The Lord’s ministry of leading is confirmed in the New Testament as an evidence of salvation. Jesus says that His sheep follow Him, and He could declare that of all that the Father had given to Him He should lose none [John 6:39]. The Lord leads His people in the right path and will bring them safely home to the Father. Note the progression of ideas for the spiritual meaning: the psalmist receives the teaching of the Lord, and this teaching leads to spiritual renewal, and the spiritual renewal ensures that he will follow the Lord in righteousness.

D.  The Lord defends his people in times of danger [4]. Verse 4 states that even in the most dangerous situations the Lord protects His people. The verse begins with the concessive clause, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The idiom of walking through a valley signifies the dangerous way that his course of life might take him, including the possibility of actually walking in a deep valley. Here it is likely that the psalmist had a number of such gorges in mind from his time in the wilderness, but he was using the idea of such a valley as an image for life-threatening experiences, or difficult places. That this is the point is suggested by the following genitive, shadow of death. This term would be a figure describing terrors in the valleys. The shadow of death darkness is therefore a vivid depiction of the dangerous places where life is threatened, as if death casts its shadow over the traveler. David had often found himself in such dangerous places, perhaps even retrieving sheep; the places were so dangerous that he might not have gotten out alive if God had not been with him. Even though he walked there, he would fear no harm. The reason that David would not fear was because the Lord was with him. Here the focus of the psalm changes from talking about the Lord to talking directly to the Lord. And the affirmation of the Lord’s presence is what makes all the difference in his outlook in dangerous places. Just as a shepherd abides with his sheep always, so the Lord is with His people, even in the dangerous places. Since the Lord is always present everywhere [cf. Ps. 139:7-12], the special statement you are with me means something more specific. It means that the Lord intervenes in his life for protection as well as provision. This is one of the major themes of the Bible. The psalm continues the shepherding image by associating God’s protection with your rod and your staff. The rod is used in Leviticus 27:32 as a rod for counting sheep, and figuratively in Ezekiel 20:37 for a chastening rod. The staff was for support as well as protection. The rod and staff are figures here of course for there is no actual rod and staff that God will use. Accordingly, these words refer to the care and the defense of the Lord. They bring the psalmist comfort in difficult times.

II.  The Lord provides for his people’s spiritual and physical needs as a gracious host [5]. In verse 5 the scene changes from the pasture to the banquet hall, and the image of the Lord from shepherd to host. Here David reflects on the provisions of a host to his honored guest. He begins: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The idea is another implied comparison; the Lord provides for His guests the way a banquet host would provide. And to prepare a table means to lay out food and drink on a table. The setting and circumstances that the psalmist intended are not immediately obvious. The verse probably refers to the provision of actual food, for the Lord provides all good gifts. It would still be considered a spiritual provision here, especially if it were a thanksgiving feast eaten in the sanctuary, the house where the Lord welcomed His guests. That food would be most clearly a divine provision, but the image of the host may not carry such specific attachments. The qualifying phrase supports the idea that it is physical food – in the presence of my enemies. The prepositional phrase (literally “in the face of”) introduces the enemies, those who oppose and harass him. According to customs, the honored guest was safe because the host was obliged to protect a guest at all costs. Sitting down to eat and drink in the midst of danger from enemies is a marvelous picture of safety and security. David is saying that God provides food and safety for His people. The second half of the verse continues the image of the host, now with the anointing oil. It was the duty and delight of the gracious host to give the guest scented, perfumed oil to freshen up (especially after being in the sun and sand). The word oil is common. It signified wealth, prosperity, happiness, and honor. Here it is a pleasing provision of hospitality for an honored guest. By ascribing such lavish treatment to God as a host, David is saying that God is the source of his joy, in that He welcomes him and provides for his comfort and refreshment. Finally, David exclaims, my cup overflows. The cup in the Bible is a symbol of one’s portion or lot in life. It may be bad, such as a “cup of his fury” that would forewarn judgment [Isa. 51:17], or of fire and brimstone [Ps. 11:6]. The judgment motif is also present in such uses. The Father gave Jesus such a cup to drink, the crucifixion, from which He prayed to be delivered [Matt. 26:39]. But the cup may also be good, as here in Psalm 23 (and in Ps. 16:5; 116:13). In a banquet hall the cup would be filled with choice wine, so David is saying that the Lord has filled his life with good things. In a way this line summarizes all that has gone before in this meditation on the provisions from the Lord; but specifically it highlights the physical provisions of the Lord in this life.

III.  Those who enjoy the provisions of the Lord desire continued communion with him [6].  Verse 6 provides the conclusion of the psalm; surely marks the change from what has gone before. The change will be twofold. First, he changes from meditating about the Lord with images of a shepherd and a host to focusing directly on the Lord in his holy house. And second, he will now draw the conclusion from his meditations that he desires more communion with the Lord. The critical word in David’s concluding observation is “loyal love” (often translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness”). The addition of the word goodness probably forms a hendiadys with the word: “Surely, goodness and loyal love will follow me” would then be translated as “good loyal love will follow me.” It is a way of emphasizing the value of the loyal love and focusing all attention on it. The two words work well together. Goodness or “good” refers to that which promotes, protects, produces, and enhances life. And mercy (“loyal love”) is the well-known covenant word (“hesed”) that describes God’s faithful love to keep His covenant promises. No other term could more adequately summarize the provisions of the Lord enumerated in Psalm 23. It is significant that the psalmist uses the verb follow (“pursue”) in this line. It is God who will pursue him and extend His loyal love to him every step of the way. He will not let David out of His faithful loving care. Why does this love “pursue” him? Was he trying to escape? [cf. Ps. 139:7]. No matter where he went, or why, David knew that God would follow him with His love. He had been pursued often in his life; but no man chased him as persistently and effectively as the Lord. And so David’s conclusion is that he would return to the house of the Lord for the length of days. The word used here, dwell, is the same word that was used earlier to say he restores my soul [3] Was David in need of spiritual renewal? Or was he simply separated from the place of formal worship by circumstances? Whatever David’s spiritual condition was, God’s loyal love followed him and seemed to draw him back to the place where all God’s provisions could be fully realized, the sanctuary. As he meditated on all the provisions of the Lord for his spiritual and physical well-being, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to be in the best place to avail himself of those divine provisions. That place was the house of the Lord. The title refers to any place God revealed Himself and was worshiped, whether a place in the country where the Lord appeared [see Gen. 28:17] or the tent of meeting [1 Sam. 1:7]. It is a place of fellowship with and worship of the Lord. There the faithful would be taught God’s word; they would find forgiveness and restoration; they would learn of His righteous guidance; they would pray and praise for His protection and provision; and they would be welcomed into His house where they would find provisions in abundance [see Ps. 36:6-8]. It is there that the presence of God would be realized. And so David desires to be there, to come into close communion with the Lord for the rest of his days. Christians now focus on the heavenly temple, the eternal dwelling place of the Lord, and so the words of this psalm are often taken to refer to the place where there is unbroken fellowship with the Lord.

Message and Application.  The psalm is primarily a meditation on the spiritual and physical provisions of the Lord. Through the example of David the psalm invites believers to meditate on the many manifestations of the loyal love of the Lord and thereby renew their communion with Him in His sanctuary. We could write a full exposition idea in this way: The righteous desire to be in the presence of the Lord where they will feed on His Word, find spiritual restoration, be guided into righteousness, be reminded of His protective presence, receive provisions from His bounty, and be joyfully welcomed by Him. There is a very practical sequence here: people first need to be taught the Word of God; and when they are, they will see that there are areas of their lives that need cleansing and restoration; and when they are cleansed, they will discover God’s guidance in righteousness; and as they follow His guidance, they will find protection; and that protection will be sensed the most in the provisions of His house. There is another very important meaning of the psalm today. It is clear from the Bible that the Lord Jesus Christ is the shepherd in fulfillment of prophecy [Isa. 40:10-11]. While on earth He demonstrated these provisions for people who followed Him, teaching them, renewing them, guiding them, protecting them, and providing for them. And He fulfills these ministries even now as the Great Shepherd. He does this through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the agency of under-shepherds, just as He did in the Old Testament through the service of the priests, Israel’s shepherds. The message of this psalm is also instructive for these spiritual leaders. As they minister in the house of the Lord on His behalf, they are reminded that their ministry must include teaching the Word, restoring people spiritually, guiding them into righteousness, defending the flock from physical and spiritual danger, and providing for all the needs, physical as well as spiritual, of those who are given to them.”  [Ross, pp. 553-572].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What was the responsibility of the shepherd in Biblical times? What does the metaphorical usage of a shepherd teach us about God? In what sense is God a shepherd and His people sheep? How are our church leaders meant to be “under-shepherds” of our Lord?
  2. What does it mean for your spiritual life that God is your Shepherd? Look at the seven action verbs that are used with the Lord in this psalm: makes, leads, restores, leads, comfort, prepare, and anoint. Read John 10:1-18. What does Jesus, the Good Shepherd, do for His sheep?
  3. What are six things God’s children do not lack because God is our Shepherd? Think about the comfort and assurance these six promises bring to your Christian walk. When attacked by fears and doubts, learn to trust in these promises. What does it mean to you personally that God promises to be with His people [4]?

References:

Psalms, volume 1, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, volume 1, John Goldingay, Baker.

A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, Allen Ross, Kregel.