Reading the 23rd Psalm
By: Patty Joyce
I had come to faith shortly before my mother passed away in April of 1987. My Bible was the most important item I possessed. It held treasures and mysteries that would unfold as I grew in my walk with Jesus. At her memorial on April 17th (which happened to be Good Friday), I requested the twenty-third psalm be read from my very own Bible. Today, the condition of that Bible tells how often I read and studied it. Some parts of it have come away from the spine, some pages are torn, and others have water or coffee marks on them. And, there are scads of verses that are underlined, highlighted, and notated, reminding me of a certain sermon or Bible study.
Psalm 23 is probably the most familiar part of Scripture known throughout the world – to believers and non-believers alike. It radiates relationship, peace, comfort, protection, and direction. Why did God inspire David to write about sheep? Probably because David tended sheep and knew all about them. Let’s find out why Jesus is our Good Shepherd.
Verse 1: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
Immediately, I am told the Lord is my Shepherd. This is an ongoing relationship. By spending time with his flock, the shepherd intimately knows each sheep and their personality. Christ knows us intimately as His Spirit dwells within us.
Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gave Himself to us. With Him, we have no lack. Although cute and cuddly, sheep are not very intelligent, but have free will. My free will has made me look quite “dumb,” more times than I would like to remember. And yet, His supply meets all of my needs now and in the future—needs, not wants. He will give us what is excellent according to His purpose and agenda.
Verse 2: He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters.
We think of a pasture as a big, lush, and plentiful area for grazing. However, in Jerusalem the hillsides are mainly dirt and sand. As the west wind blows its humidity against the hillsides, small sprigs of grass appear. This is what the sheep graze upon. Please note the words, “He makes me lie down.” Sheep don’t always know what is best for them. They won’t lie down until they are sufficiently full, hence, he finds the sprigs of grass to satisfy their hunger. Our Good Shepherd offers us exactly the amount of daily nourishment we need during the dry spells in our lives. As we trust in Him, He provides another patch of encouragement and support to meet our needs. Partaking of His Word fills us, and we too find that place of rest.
Sheep won’t drink from a harsh stream of water. Because they take a sip at a time, the shepherd leads them to a shallow, quiet creek where the water gently flows along. We are offered the same calm and satisfying water in Isaiah 55:1: Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.
Verse 3: He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
God doesn’t lead us to green pastures and still waters just for our sake, but His. The glory and praise are His alone. I am sure you have encountered times when your soul was in turmoil. It is then that His amazing grace restores our souls, and we experience the peace that surpasses understanding.
Verse 4: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou are with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
The word through indicates that we complete the walk despite difficult odds. Note that David goes from using I at the beginning of the verse to having conversation with the Lord and writing, “for thou are with me…” We will experience difficulties that cause fear, doubt, and discouragement; however, they are shadows. The reality is that God is with us during these times, and as we depend on Him, we have nothing to fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:18-19 NASB)
Why does a shepherd traditionally carry a rod and a staff? The rod was a heavy cudgel, a bat-like stick, to stun or kill any predator that would attempt to attack the sheep. When we are attacked by the enemy or any of his schemes, God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword—never missing a blow. Even Jesus told the enemy, “It is written…” (Matthew 4:4-7)
The staff is the shepherd’s crook, a sturdy stick with a hook at one end. This is used to manage and sometimes catch sheep. The staff can also be used as a walking stick for the shepherd. We, like sheep, go astray. At times, our Good Shepherd needs only to gently nudge us in His direction, and at other times, it is necessary to use the staff for needed correction. He only allows what is ultimately good for us and will never allow permanent separation to come between us and Him.
Verse 5: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
The table mentioned here is not a piece of furniture. It speaks of God's blessings and bounty even in the presence of danger or opposition. In the middle east, it is customary for the host to anoint the heads of their guests with fragrant oils and serve a glass of choice wine which intentionally is filled to overflowing. This is a gesture for guests who are highly regarded.
We can all attest that during difficult and trying times, the Lord has continued to bless us abundantly and supply all of our needs. Oil is a symbol of Holy Spirit who resides within those who have trusted Christ as Lord and Savior. Our cup surely overflows with His love and goodness toward us.
Verse 6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Love, goodness, and mercy are the most comforting and undeserving characteristics of God toward us. What can be greater than sending His Son to die for our sins. The word “follow'' used here actually means pursue. To imagine that a Holy God would actually pursue us all the days of our lives, above my understanding, but true because His Word tells us so. The best part is yet to come. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
You may have heard Psalm 23 several times and yet haven’t trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I pray this has given you a greater understanding of how much God loves you. No sin can keep you away from God’s forgiveness. Your eternal life can begin now as you invite the Good Shepherd into your heart and allow His goodness and mercy to follow you all the days of your life.
Gaultiere, William (1992). A Walk with Your Shepherd: The Twenty-Third Psalm and the Twelve Steps to Recovery. Moody.