The Good Shepherd (Psalm 23)Written by admin on Feb 10, 2019 in - No Comments
I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles this morning to Psalm 23. We need to get back to the book of 1 Peter and finish it up, but what I believe we need more than that this morning is to be comforted by God. Our church has experienced a great deal of sickness and injury and sadness lately. We are hurting in many different ways, and I believe what we need most this morning is to be comforted. And there is no passage of Scripture that has provided more comfort to God’s people over the centuries than the twenty-third psalm. That is surely why it is one of the most well-known and most often quoted passages in all the Bible. And it is, indeed, one of those portions of the Bible that is known and loved by both believers and unbelievers alike for its beautiful language and comforting words. And so, this morning I would like for us to spend some time in this Psalm reminding ourselves of the many ways that God comforts and cares for his people. If you do not have a Bible with you today, I encourage you to make use of one of the pew Bibles where you will find Psalm 23 located on page 458.
Over the past few weeks, I have been reminded of the importance of having and maintaining a close, personal relationship with God. And I am not just talking about checking off prayer and Bible reading everyday on your to-do list. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that those things are unimportant—in fact, they are vital. You cannot have a close relationship with God without those things. But, at the same time, it is possible to read your Bible and pray—every single day—and still not feel all that close to God. Yes, there are ways of doing those things that do not lead you closer to God, isn't there? We have probably all experienced that before.
Yes, unfortunately, there are many of us who read the Bible regularly, and learn a lot about God from the Bible, but still feel as if God were very distant from us. And there are many of us who say prayers everyday, but still feel like something is missing. And I am talking about people who have been in church for many, many years and have called themselves Christians for many, many years. These are people who are familiar with the Bible, who have spent time in Sunday School classes and on their own reading and studying the Bible, and yet are still not enjoying a close, personal relationship with God. In fact, I suspect that there are some here today who would fit that description—maybe many here today who would fit that description.
But I am even more certain, that each and everyone of us here this morning—no matter how close we are in our relationship with God—would be interested in having that relationship with him strengthened. Yes, what we are interested in as Christians is a relationship with God that is nurtured through Bible reading and prayer. We are interested in a relationship with God that is strengthened as we spend time in our Bibles and prayerfully meditate on the truths about God we find within its pages. And after everything that has taken place in recent weeks, I have been reminded just how important it is, that we do have a strong relationship with God. I have been reminded that we need that sort of relationship with God because it will be our greatest source of comfort when difficulties come our way.
And so, for these reasons, we are going to turn our attention this morning to Psalm 23—a psalm written by a man named David, someone God referred to as “a man after my heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). Yes, David was a man who knew what it was like to have a close personal relationship with God. He could not have written this most beloved of all the Psalms had he not had that sort of relationship with him. Yes, to write about God in these ways, you must have experienced God in these ways.
So, my main purpose for looking at this psalm today, is to show you two ways we must think about God, if we are going to experience the same sort of close, personal relationship that David shared with God. In other words, I want you to walk away from here this morning not simply having learned some things about God, but also having learned how you can have the sort of faith in God and relationship with him that David demonstrated during his life on this earth. A faith and a relationship that will be your greatest source of comfort in your greatest times of need.
So if you haven’t already, please turn with me now to Psalm 23, and follow along as I read. David says,
1 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. (Psalms 23:1–6 ESV)
Now, the truth is, we tend to only think of this psalm as funeral psalm—because that is where we most often hear it, and because it is very comforting in those sorts of situations. But this psalm is more than that. It is not only comforting when we are dealing with death, it can also be a great comfort to us in all the other difficult situations we encounter in this life. And this is particularly true in the life of an individual who walks closely with the Lord.
In this psalm, David describes the Lord for us using two metaphors—two metaphors that come directly from his own personal experiences in life and with God. The first metaphor is the metaphor of God as a shepherd who carefully tends a flock of sheep. And the second metaphor David uses to help us understand his close, personal relationship with God, is the metaphor of God as a gracious and welcoming host. And, as I alluded to earlier, these are two of the ways we must come to think about God, if we are going to experience the same sort of close, personal relationship that David shared with God. Yes, until we understand what it means for God to be our shepherd, and until we understand what it means for God to be a gracious and welcoming host, he will seem distant and not very approachable. And if he is distant and not very approachable, it will be difficult to find comfort in him when we need it most.
God The Shepherd (vv. 1-4)
So let’s begin by talking about God the Shepherd.
One of the ways we learn new things in this world is by taking something we already understand, and using that to help us understand things that we don’t yet understand. And that is what is going on here for David. Remember, David himself was a shepherd. Before he was anointed King of Israel, he tended his father’s flock of sheep. He fed them, watered them, protected them from wild animals, and tended to their wounds. In fact, it was his time as a shepherd of sheep, that prepared him to shepherd God’s people as their king.
And, as we can see here in Psalm 23, somewhere along the way, God took what David knew about being a shepherd, and used that to help him understand about God’s care for him as one of God’s sheep. So, this first part of Psalm 23 is simply an overflow of David’s personal experiences as a shepherd of his earthly father’s flock and his personal experiences as a sheep in his heavenly Father’s flock.
Now, David is not really a “sheep, and the LORD is not literally a shepherd.”1 Remember, David is writing poetry here and he is using a metaphor to describe God to us. And the purpose of a metaphor is to help us understand something that is difficult to adequately communicate using literal language. For example, David could have simply told us that “God watches over his people.” And that is true. But, that does not communicate nearly as much to us about God as it does when David describes God as a shepherd. And so that is why David uses this metaphor.
But what does David want us to understand about God from this metaphor? Or more importantly, what are the shepherdly characteristics of God that we need to understand if we want to have a closer personal relationship with him? Well, there are four things that David highlights for us here.
He Feeds Us Spiritually (vv. 1-2a)
The first thing that David tells us about God the Shepherd is that he provides his people with complete spiritual nourishment. Let me read to you again beginning in verse 1. David says, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalms 23:1–2 ESV).
Now, what are “green pastures”? Well, for literal sheep they are the ideal feeding place, but for metaphorical sheep—you and me as God’s people—they are as Charles Spurgeon explained, “the Scriptures of truth,” or the Bible. Listen to Spurgeon here; he said:
What are these “green pastures” but the Scriptures of truth—always fresh, always rich, and never exhausted? There is no fear of biting the bare ground where the grass is long enough for the flock to lie down in it. Sweet and full are the doctrines of the gospel; fit food for souls, as tender grass is natural nutriment for sheep. When by faith we are enabled to find rest in the promises, we are like the sheep that lie down in the midst of the pasture; we find at the same moment both [food] and peace, rest and refreshment, serenity and satisfaction.2
And that is one key to understanding the meaning of this metaphor of God as shepherd. It is remembering that the biblical authors often compare the Word of God to food. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 ESV). The Apostle Peter, who was personally instructed by Jesus to teach the Word of God with the words, “Feed my sheep,” went on to command his fellow elders in 1 Peter 5:2 to “shepherd [or feed] the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2 ESV). And the author of the book of Hebrews compared food with the Word of God when he exhorted the Hebrew believers to move on from baby food to the solid food of God’s Word (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Yes, just like a real shepherd feeds his sheep by taking them to green pastures, God provides for his people by feeding them spiritual food that is necessary for their spiritual growth and maturation. So while it is true that God gives us physical provision, that is not what David has in mind here. Remember, he is not a literal sheep, God is not a literal shepherd, and the food God feeds David here is not literal food, but spiritual food—namely the Word of God. And what David wants us to understand, is that just like sheep grow and mature into healthy sheep as they eat the food their shepherd provides them, we as God’s people grow and mature into healthy believers as we walk with him and feed on the food he has made available to us—which again, as Jesus and Peter and others have told us, is the Word of God.
So the first way David compares God to a shepherd is by telling us about how God fed him in a spiritual way that in turn drew David into a closer relationship with him.
He Restores Us Spiritually (vv. 2b-3a)
And then, beginning in the second half of verse 2, we see the second way David compares God to a shepherd. He does this by pointing out the ways that God restores and refreshes us in terms of our spiritual life. At the end of verse 2 David says, “He leads me beside still waters.” And leading sheep to water is obviously something that a shepherd would regularly do for his sheep. He would take them, not to a scary, raging river, but he would take them to a calm pool of still water where they could refresh themselves without having to worry about being swept away.
But remember, this is still part of the metaphor. David is not talking about God literally giving him a jug of water at a time when he was very thirsty. He is talking instead about an experience with God that was so satisfying that it could be compared to talking a big gulp of cold, refreshing water when you feel like you are dying from thirst. David had experienced this sort of refreshment in his relationship with God, because in the midst of all the turmoil of his life, David found that the Lord, like a shepherd, was always ready and willing to refresh him and restore him.
That is how David describes it at the beginning of verse 3 when he says, “He restores my soul.” David wants us to understand that when we are spiritually parched, God is ready and willing to refresh us spiritually in a manner similar to what a cold glass of water does for us physically. And, he is also ready to cleanse us from the stains of sin in a manner similar to how a dip in a pool of water or gently flowing stream would cleanse the dirt stains from the wool of the sheep in a shepherd’s flock. Those are the things David has in mind when he tells us about the way God had restored and refreshed him, not in a physical way as a literal shepherd would do with literal sheep, but in a spiritual way for God’s spiritual sheep. Yes, that is the second way David compares God to a shepherd in this psalm.
He Guides Us (v. 3b)
Now the third way David compares God to a shepherd in Psalm 23 is by telling us about how God has always guided him in paths of righteousness. Look at the second part of verse 3. David says, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Now, before we talk about what it means for God to lead us, I want you to notice the reason the he leads us in the first place. What does David say here? Why does God do it? Well, according to David, God leads us in paths of righteousness “for his name’s sake.” In other words, God leads us because his reputation is at stake. It is his name on the line because we are his people.
You see, if a shepherd loses one of his sheep, he gets a bad reputation. And what David is basically saying is that the Lord’s reputation depends on him guiding his people safely home. Throughout the Psalms and throughout the Old Testament, God’s people often appeal to him to act for the “sake of his name.” For example, Moses pleaded with God not to destroy those who had been brought out of Egypt during the Exodus when they grievously sinned against him. And Moses made this appeal on the basis that doing so, and thus not bringing the people all the way to the Promised Land as he said he would, would make God appear weak to the other nations.
And so today, for the sake of his name God is leading us in paths of righteousness. He does this not because we deserve it, not because we have earned, but because God has made us his own people, and because his reputation and fame are tied to the safe arrival of his people in the Promised Land. That is why God leads us in paths of righteousness. In other words, he shows us the way to live that will bring us safely home. And how does he do this? Well, he does this by giving us his written Word. He does this by sending the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. That is how he leads us in paths of righteousness like a shepherd leads his sheep down paths that are good for them. And that is the third way David compares God to a shepherd—by telling us about the guidance God has given him.
He Protects Us (v. 4)
But there is something else about shepherds, and about God, that David wants us to know. He wants us to know that good shepherds, like God, always, always, always protect and defend their sheep. In verse 4 David says, “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.” In other words, God defends his sheep in times and places of danger. He has promised to protect and defend us just like a shepherd protects his sheep from predators. The idea of walking through a valley would have been very clear to the original recipients of this psalm. Being down in a valley or gorge with steep sides put a shepherd and his flock at a greater level of risk from predators and even thieves. And in verse 4, David is taking this idea of a valley and using it as an image for all the life threatening experiences we, as God’s people, encounter in our lives. That is why he calls it the valley of the shadow of death.
But David expresses his confidence in the LORD here. He says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Why? Because, as David says, “You are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Like sheep being led by a shepherd through a dark valley, David has confidence in the Good Shepherd to protect him. Like a shepherd uses a rod and staff to guide and protect his sheep, David has confidence that God will also guide and defend him in the midst of danger. In other words, David is confident in God as his shepherd. And we can be confident in God as our shepherd too. And when we begin to see God as our shepherd, and when we begin to relate to God as our shepherd by depending on him for spiritual nourishment and refreshment and for guidance and for protection, we, like David, will find ourselves in a deeper and closer relationship with God. And so, I want you to begin today, seeing God as your shepherd.
The Welcoming Host (vv. 5-6)
But I also want you to see God in another way. I also want you to see him as a gracious and welcoming host. Yes, earlier I said that David describes the Lord for us in this psalm using two metaphors. Normally we just focus on the idea of God as our shepherd in this psalm, but the second metaphor David uses to help us understand his close, personal relationship with God, is the metaphor of God as a gracious and welcoming host. Look with me now at verses 5 and 6.
You will notice in verse 5 that the scene shifts from God as a shepherd to God as the host of a great banquet. And in these verses, David is presented as an honored guest at this banquet—a guest who will be provided for by the host of the banquet—in an amazing way.
Notice that David says God prepares a table for him, “in the presence of my enemies.” And though having oil poured over our head today before we sit down to eat at a banquet would not be something high on our priority list, in David’s culture, providing oil for refreshing one’s self was something a gracious host would do for honored guests whose skin had been dried up by the sun and wind. And by saying his “cup overflows” David is referring to the fact that the Lord has provided him with many good things in life. The Lord has blessed him in abundance. He has poured out blessings on David to the point that his life is overflowing with them.
But again, David is not speaking of a literal experience here—God hasn’t really setup a physical table for David to eat on. So he is speaking again in a metaphorical way to help us understand the way God has cared for him and provided for him throughout his life. And as we can see in verse 6, David was confident, because of God’s ongoing care for him, that God’s goodness and his love toward David, would follow David all the days of his life.
Now, it is important to point out that the word translated as ”mercy” here refers to God’s faithful, loyal, steadfast love that he has for his people. This is covenant language that God reserved for his covenant people. And as we see at the end of verse 6, David is confident that he will experience this type of love, not only in this life, but also in the life to come. David is confident of this because he knows he will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” He is confident that God will pursue him with goodness and mercy all the days of his life. And he is confident that the Lord will never let him get away from his care—not for all eternity. And brothers and sisters, that is true for us as well. There is a day coming, when God will be the host of a great banquet (literally)—a banquet where we, as the Church, will be the honored guests, as the bride of Christ.
But for now, on this side of eternity, we can be content with the Lord as our shepherd. A shepherd who feeds us with his Word, gives us spiritual restoration and refreshment, guides us and protects us along the way, and provides for our every need like the host of a great banquet.
So my encouragement to you today is to get to know God in this way. Feed on his Word, take comfort in the refreshment he provides, accept the guidance and protection he offers, and give thanks to him for every provision he has given you. Live, my friends, in the light of these truths. Come to see God, not as some distant unknowable being, but as a shepherd who lives in close proximity to his sheep as they make their way through this life, and as the host of a banquet who welcomes you as his guest. Don’t be content, brothers and sisters, to only know about God. But insist on knowing him the way David knew him. That is the sort of relationship he wants with you. And that is the sort of relationship that Jesus Christ has made possible for you. And when you have this sort of relationship with God, you will find great comfort in saying:
- “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
- “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,”—but no matter what happens to me on this earth, I will rejoice because I know for sure that I will “dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
- Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1 (1-41) (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013), 560. ↩︎
- Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, “Psalm 23,” retrieved from http://www.romans45.org/spurgeon/treasury/ps023.htm. ↩︎