One of the glories of the New Covenant is that believers enjoy a deeply personal and vibrant relationship with the Lord. This is accomplished through the personal indwelling of the Trinity within the soul of each regenerate believer (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Col. 1:27). While Old Covenant believers were not indwelt by the Spirit permanently as we are, it is a mistake to think they enjoyed no intimacy with the Lord, as many of the psalms make clear. Psalm 23 is likely the best known of these declarations, and is one of the most widely-known passages in the whole Bible. But its familiarity can make us underestimate or not appreciate its riches—and its frequent quotation at the funerals of ungodly people can make us forget that it provisions are strictly for those who know Christ and are in covenant with Him. This week’s message was an encouraging study of Psalm 23 and how it reveals our covenant-keeping God as our good Shepherd and our gracious Host.
A. The Good Shepherd (vv. 1-4)
The most important facet of this section is the third word in the Hebrew text (first if you don’t count the two-word title): “Yahweh.” Bible students know this name to be God’s personally-revealed name, not a title; it is the name whereby God signs His covenants and as the God who acts to fulfill and accomplish them. It is the self-existent God acting in the earth to extend His kingdom, bless His people, and restore the inhabited earth and all that is in it to shalom. Moreover, it is the God who is an eternal Trinity and who became incarnate in the man Jesus Christ—the one and only true and living God. This God, defined by His self-revelation in Scripture and His sovereign acts to execute His divine purposes for the establishment of His rule on earth, is David’s shepherd. And He is ours too.
Shepherd imagery is common in the Bible; perhaps most famously, Jesus used this image of Himself (John 10:7-16). In that culture, shepherding was both a thankless and full-time job. Shepherds had to live with the sheep at all times in order to protect and provide for them (what a picture of the believer’s perfect and immediate access to God!). Their whole responsibility was bound up in ensuring the well-being and flourishing of the sheep. This, of course, is because sheep were not at all able to provide for themselves. Sheep have a herd mentality; they will follow one another off a cliff if a shepherd isn’t there to protect them. They need to be led to proper grazing pastures, or they’ll die of starvation (or eating poisonous weeds or inedible things). If they fall backwards, they can’t get up on their own and gases will build up in their stomachs that will kill them. They are so afraid that they will stampede at the slightest noise or disturbance. They are in desperate need of a shepherd for everything, for even existence itself.
God is like that for us. Were Christ to stop sustaining all things by His powerful word, the universe and all it contains would go out of existence. God provides food, shelter and basic needs to His creation. Even those without food and covering stay alive because God wills them to keep breathing. But let’s move this to the spiritual: We’d also self-destruct spiritually if God did not preserve us. Threats of the flesh, indwelling sin, the world and Satan himself would prove too attractive and alluring. This goes for believers as well as the unsaved: Why are the unsaved not worse than they are? Why do some unsaved people come to know Christ? Why do believers wake up every morning still believing Christ and still obeying Him (however inconsistently and imperfectly)? Because God does it. God restrains, God hinders, God preserves and guides and rules and overrules. God is in every nanosecond of your day, preserving you from things only He can see and prevent, and directing you into the exact place necessary for the fulfillment of His purposes.
What about not wanting? The old King James language of this verse is familiar to us. It means to not lack, to not be without. Certainly this means to have what we need (and note of course that sometimes God knows we need disappointment, starving, loss, unmet longings, pain, and a thousand other unpleasant and thorn-wrapped gifts), but for the Christian it also unlocks a vast storehouse of abundance and blessing. Those who know Christ and live out their covenant relationship with Him—set apart from the peoples of the world to be His—will experience God’s blessing and goodness in a way distinct from how He generally blesses the world. A unique, set-apart relationship with God places us in a unique, set-apart sphere of blessing and favor.
As our covenant shepherd, some (by no means all) of His blessings are as follows:
He provides rest (v. 2)
Sheep would not lie down unless they were made to. (This goes back to the fear mentioned earlier.) The pastures, of course, were healthy places of lushness, cultivated over years of hard work and irrigation, to be fruitful and abundant for sheep to graze. God causes us to be nourished and fed. The quiet waters are lit. “waters that have been stilled”; shepherds would build dams or other blockages to running rivers and streams because even the sound of the water would be frightening to sheep. The idea is God does whatever is necessary to reassure, calm, and settle us.
He restores the soul (v. 3a)
This image is taken from the sheep which has fallen and is unable to right itself. The Hebrew carries the idea of righting, causing to return, or turning back. (The frequent theme of “being cast down” in the Psalms is the Hebrew idea for this kind of sheep.) Note that this is done to the soul: If the soul is right, that will eventually pave the way for all lesser things to be right, either in this life or the next. In salvation and sanctification alike we are utterly dependent on God’s power to be made right with Him.
He guides us into righteousness (v. 3b)
“Paths” here is the idea of wagon tracks or wheel ruts. A rut, of course, is a groove worn into the dirt, often by repeated or prolonged movement, as the wheel traveled to a particular destination. Stephen Davey writes that all of us are forming ruts—habits or patterns—throughout our lives; the question is if they are patterns of obedience to God, in conformity with His righteous standard. Not all shepherds took their sheep down the same path to the same place, so it was imperative to follow the leading and guidance of the shepherd to end up where He wanted them to be. God’s guidance and direction is found in consistent, daily obedience to Him. If we follow His commands in Scripture, we will know better His will for our lives and follow Him to where He wants us to be.
He protects us (v. 4)
The Hebrew for “shadow of death” is used eighteen times in the Old Testament. Fully half of those are in Job, some referring to the comprehensive nature of the Curse, and others referring to death itself. Most notable is its lone usage in Isaiah, where it refers to the Gentile-dominated land where Jesus settled and began His ministry. It is for this reason that I take “shadow of death” to refer not merely to all of the decaying, destroying effects of the Curse that envelope all of human life and endeavor, but to the blindness and darkness brought about by sin and unbelief. Though David walks through a dark, deadly, dying world, he walks through it. He survives. He even thrives. Why? Because “You are with me” (note the pronoun shift). The shepherd’s rod was used to fend off wild animals, among other things, and symbolized authority, protection, and discipline, all exercised on behalf of and for the sheep. The staff was like our modern shepherd’s crook, with a curve at the top to rescue tapped animals, lay newborn sheep next to their mothers, and to rest on the back of a sheep to let them know the shepherd was there, guiding and directing them. The personal presence of the Shepherd is our defense against the Curse and fallen flesh.
B. The Gracious Host (vv. 5-6)
God is not only a shepherd to His people, but He is a gracious and lavish host. In the valley, there are enemies—to God’s work and ways, to our victory and our enjoying all of the blessings of God. Yet in their midst, God prepares a feast for us. Philip Keller writes that this is the idea of the Spanish mesa—a lavish table the shepherd has gone ahead and prepared beforehand so that it is waiting when the sheep get there. The psalmist goes on to expand this idea with “anoint[ing] my head.” This may mean two things. First, anointing in the Bible carries the idea of blessing, and it was quite common to welcome honored guests—who had to travel dusty, dirty roads to get to your house—with a rubbing of oil on their heads and necks to cool them, refresh them, and show them honor. Second, if we stick with the sheep imagery, it’s likely a reference to how shepherds dealt with flies that had laid eggs in the moist nostrils of their sheep. The eggs would hatch into larvae that would worm their way into the nasal cavity, creating infection that was painful and itchy. The command for sacrificial sheep to be “without blemish” is likely a reference to this infection—which, of course, came to represent sin and uncleanness.
Shepherds would take a mixture of oil and other items to soothe and heal the sheep’s infection. It was a very close, personal, intimate encounter, full of touching and gentleness. This is a deeply personal and picturesque way of showing how gentle and personal the Lord is in dealing with our sin. The goal is healing and relief, not punishment, degradation and pain. God is gentle with us when we sin, and He has what we need to excise the infection and make us whole.
In light of all this and unnumbered blessings besides, David cries out, “My cup overflows!” It isn’t half-full. It doesn’t only have a puddle. No, God is lavish, extravagant, unbridled and unhindered in pouring out His goodness and blessing upon David. He goes on to say that goodness and mercy will lit. chased him down, overtake and pursue him because he follows the Shepherd…and one day he will be face to face with the One who loved and led him, forever.
Those who know Him have the promise of his unending presence, intimate involvement, comprehensive and certain blessing, personal forgiveness, continual restoration, and the hope of heaven. We face a fallen world with confidence and death with joyful anticipation. For all the way our Savior leads us—all the way from birth to Home.