By Mike Willis
Psalm 23 has comforted the hearts of God’s people since it was first written by David. It is read at many funerals, but should not be confined to that period in one’s life for providing the comfort which its words give. Not only is it a poetical masterpiece, it is a divine revelation about God’s superintending care of his children. Many of us committed this psalm to memory as children, and if you have not already done that let me encourage you to do so; committing our life to its teaching may take a lifetime. May God help us to do so.
A Psalm of David. This common superscription in the psalms at-tributes this psalm to David as its author. The psalm was written after David had grown old enough to have enemies (v. 5) and to have experienced the threat of death from his enemies (v. 4).
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Jehovah is David’s shepherd (Qal ptc. of ra’ah, “to pasture, tend, graze. . . ptc. used as a substantive,” BDB 945). The concept of Jehovah as a shepherd is common (see Gen. 49:24; Ps. 80:1; Isa. 40:11; 49:9, 10; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:6-19; etc.) and is used in a special sense to describe Jesus as the “good Shepherd” (John 10:1-19, 26-28; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4; Rev. 7:17). God is not described as a “rancher,” for cows have to be driven whereas sheep are “led.” God does not drive us against our will to force obedience.
The concept of Jehovah as a shepherd is better understood by those who know the work of a shepherd. We can understand this better by reading what the legitimate work of a shepherd is. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet condemned the shepherds of Israel because they were not doing the work of a shepherd. By his criticism, we can learn what the work of a shepherd is. Ezekiel wrote, “Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them” (34:4).
One of the most beautiful pictures of Jesus was that which depicts him as the “Good Shepherd.” In the parable of Luke 15:4-7, the Lord shows God’s loving care for those who are lost.
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). He knows his sheep by name (John 10:3) and they hear (recognize) his voice and follow him (John 10:14). What intimacy exists between God, the Shepherd, and his children. To know that God knows me by name and cares for me as depicted in these verses is very reassuring. It brings peace, serenity, and calmness to my soul to know my God is my Shepherd. Compare Isaiah 40:11 “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”
His primary work of leading is described in this verse. He leads one to places where there is no want, where there is safety and peace (vv. 1-2). I shall not want is translated from chasar, “to lack, need, be lacking, decrease” BDB 341). Compare Ps. 34:9 “O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him.”
As a shepherd, God has provided for every need of his sheep. There is nothing lacking. There should not be interpreted in a materialistic sense to mean that his saints are financially wealthy, never experience sickness or have accidents. Rather, this is saying that the God has provided for every spiritual need of his children. There is no need in God’s children wandering into the barren deserts of the spiritual wastelands of human religions searching the Koran of the Muslims, the Book of Mormon, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Baghavad Ghita, or other “holy” books in search for answers to man’s spiritual needs. God’s provisions for man are sufficient “I shall not want.”
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
The reference is to the custom of shepherds leading their sheep to the shade for repose in the heat of the day. The Lord’s shepherding of David takes him to green (navah: “pasture, meadow. . . grassy pasture,” BDB 627) pastures (dheshe’: “grass,” BDB 206) where he maketh me to lie down (rabats: “stretch oneself out, lie down, lie stretched out. . . Hiph. cause to lie down… [for repose],” BDB 918). His being in green pastures emphasizes the point of v. 1 “I shall not want.” These are places in which his every need is supplied.
Let me pause to state that the first step of human apostasy occurs when man looks at God’s divine provisions with disdain and thinks that “green pastures” are to be found somewhere else. I know little about sheep but considerably more about cows. When I grew up as a lad in East Texas, we raised cows. Cows always think the “grass is greener” on the other side of the fence. Constantly, they poke their heads through the barbed wire fence to look for the green grass on the other side. What usually happens is this: a cow comes to a post that has been eaten by termites or just rotted, pokes her head through the barbed wire fence, the post breaks, and the cow is outside the fence. So long as a per-son thinks the “green pastures” are outside of God’s provisions, so long as he thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, he will constantly be stretching against the boundaries of God’s word until he jumps the fence! The first step of apostasy is the concept that life would be better in disobedience to God than in obedience to him. What a difference in concept is that to the thinking of men such as Daniel who thought death in obedience to God was to be preferred over life in disobedience to him!
The text continues to explain that God makes him lie down in green pastures. This emphasizes the rest, safety, and security of the place in which his needs are met. The Lord’s shepherding care is seen in his leading (nahal: “Pi. lead, guide to a water-place or station, and cause to rest there; bring to a station or place of rest; lead, guide, re-fresh,” BDB 624). Still is from menuchah, “resting-place, rest. . . quietness, refreshment” (BDB 629-630). The waters are calm and peaceful (not raging and life-threatening); they provide a place of solitude and safety.
William S. Plumer wrote, “The world around them is a land of deserts and of drought, which yields nothing to satisfy the longing soul. Sooner shall the body be nourished by whirlwinds and the dust, than the spirit with things of mere time and sense” (310).
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
God restores (Polel imperf. of shub: “turn, return.. . Polel bring back. restore, refresh,” BDB 998) his soul (nephesh). Barnes commented, “It refers to the spirit when exhausted, weary, or sad; and the meaning is, that God quick-ens or vivifies the spirit when thus exhausted” (211). There are times when man is drained and exhausted from the circumstances of life. But, Jehovah our Shepherd recognizes the condition of his sheep and provides time and circumstances to vivify the spirit.
God leads (nachah : “lead, guide,” BDB 634) him in the paths (ma `ghal: “entrenchment… track. . . in a fig. sense course of action, or life,” BDB 722) of righteousness (tsedeq: “rightness, righteousness. . . what is right, just, normal; rightness, justness,” BDB 841). God never leads men into paths of wickedness; only the devil will do that. Our modern concept of situation ethics asserts that some-times the path of wickedness is the path in which it is “right” to walk. This denies that is so. God only leads in the paths of righteousness. He directs us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He leads me in righteousness because of who he is, not because of what I am.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
God’s guidance and direction in “green pastures,” “be-side still waters,” and so that I “shall not want,” does not preclude one walking through the valley of the shadow of death and facing evil. Any interpretation of vv. 1-3 that so concludes is mistaken.
Yea (gam: “an adv. denoting addition, also moreover, yea,” BDB 168) indicates that there is more to his direction than green pastures and still waters. There are times that one must walk (halak) in the valley (ghay’: “valley,” BDB 160) of the shadow of death (tsalmavet: “death-shadow, deep shadow… deep shadow, darkness. . . fig. of distress … of extreme danger,” BDB 853). We would portray a wrong conclusion if we promised that God’s leading protects a person from ever walking in such places.
In the face of such dangers and possibly even death, the psalmist would experience a sense of security. He would fear (yare’) no evil (ra’). His absence of fear is not from exceptional courage. He fears no evil for the same reason that a child does not fear when his father is with him. He has perfect security because of his reliance on a force greater than the evil that he is facing. Thou art with me! God’s presence gives peace and security in the presence of life-threatening evil.
A young child was walking with his father along a dark path. The toddler said, “Daddy, will you hold my hand?” Sensing his son’s insecurity, the father asked, “Why?” He said, “It’s too dark not to have a Daddy!” How true this is in a deeper sense than the toddler meant. It’s too dark, there are far too many dangers and threats to one’s well being, not to have a Father who is with me when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
God’s rod (shebet: “rod, staff, club, scepter. . . rod, staff (evidently common article) for smiting. . . fig. of Yahweh’s chastisement. . . shepherd’s implement, club… used in mustering or counting sheep,” BDB 987) and staff (mish `enet: staff, from sha’an: Niph. lean, support one-self,” BDB 1043-1044) give David comfort (nacham: Niph. “be sorry, console oneself; . . . Piel. comfort, console,” BDB 637). The shepherd used his “rod” to defend himself and his flock from enemies; he used his staff to prod along the sheep and to direct them. Both of these instruments in the hand of God, the Shepherd, give comfort to the one walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
We should give praise to God for his rod. It tells of us divine protection of his children when they walked through the valley of the shadow of death. It protects them from enemies who threaten their lives and souls. How reassuring is the knowledge that I have his divine protection during such crises.
We should also give praise to God for his staff as we walk through the shadow of death. The staff prods us to walk in a certain way and brings us back into the right as we begin to stray. There may be times when we need the Shepherd’s correction. Most of us as adults have grown to realize that we are thankful for our parents’ chastening. Without it, our spiritual and moral character would have developed in sinful and wrong ways. Have we grown up enough to appreciate God’s chastening? Can we give thanks to the Father for those rebukes, whether gentle or not so gentle, that have been administered to us by loving elders and faithful preachers who cared for our souls? How blessed we are to have God’s rod and staff to comfort us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
The figure has changed from God being pictured as the Shepherd to God as the Host. God prepared (`arak: “arrange, set in order. . . arrange a table,” BDB 789) a table (shulchan: “table. . . skin or leather mat spread on ground,” BDB 1020; the table seems to be used by metonymy for what is set on it) for David. Significantly, this table was prepared in the presence (neged: “what is conspicuous or in front, always as adv. or prep. in front of, in sight of, opposite to,” BDB 617) of mine enemies (Qal ptc. of tsarar: “to shew hostility toward, vex… ptc. used as a substantive for enemy,” BDB 865). David’s enemies were not able to prevent God’s ample provisions of David’s needs.
More than merely feeding David, God also anointed his head with oil. Anoint is from dhashen, “be fat, grow fat … causat. make fat. . . i.e. anoint symbol of festivity and joy” (BDB 206). While his enemies are watching, God is providing festivity, luxury, and joy for David. Plumer observes, “When men were sad they covered themselves with dust and ashes. When joyous they washed and anointed themselves, Job ii.12; xlii.6; 2 Sam. xii.20” (315). My cup (chos) runneth over (revayah: “saturation. . i.e. is well filled,” BDB 924). There is no skimping.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all thedays of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
David fully expected (surely: ‘ak: adv. “surely.. . asseverative, often introducing with emphasis the expression of a truth [or supposed truth] newly perceived,” BDB 36) to receive from Jehovah goodness (tob) and mercy (chesed). Shall follow is from radap, “pursue, chase, persecute. . . in a good sense, attend closely upon” (BDB 922). All the days of my life is limited to life on earth. This is not to be construed to say that David never expected any more days of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Rather, God’s goodness and mercy would be with him even as he walked through that valley.
He also had the confident expectation to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. To dwell in the house of the Lord is to enjoy his fellowship, presence, and companion-ship. He will dwell there le’orek yamim length of days. Compare Psa. 27:4 “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.”
This psalm has inspired many poets to offer praise to God as our Shepherd and Guide. May we fill our hearts with its teaching today before the time comes when we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death so that when the hour comes, we can know that we walk through securely because God our Shepherd is leading us. May it give and grant to us a tranquility of spirit, a serenity, and a blessed peace that will enrich our lives.
Guardian of Truth XL: No. 21, p. 2
November 7, 1996