The sections of Scripture most familiar to us are the ones we ought to observe most closely. That is because the more familiar the passage, the more we tend to think we have seen all there is to see, and the less likely we are to engage with it intellectually and thoughtfully. Familiarity might not breed contempt in this case, but it often breeds laziness and lack of engagement!
The 23rd psalm, penned by David shortly after his anointing as future king of Israel, is one of these most familiar passages. Indeed, it is so often quoted—at funerals, as poetry—that the words become meaningless and flat for many of us. Perhaps some of us even wonder why the Lord put it in His text if it is as meaningless and generic as our over-familiarity makes it seem! But this psalm reveals truth about us and about our wondrous God that is ever fresh, vital, profound, and glorious-and is exactly the kind of ballast that will keep us pursuing Him in the glorious ruins of our fallen but redeemed and redeeming world.
The psalm portrays our Lord from three interrelated vantage points; these comprise the outline of the message.
A. Provider (vv. 1-3)
David begins with the personal covenant name of God: “Yahweh is my Shepherd” (v. 1a). Yahweh is the Lord’s personal, self-revealed name, used over 6800 times in the OT. It means something like “[I am] He who causes to be.” Is it not wonderful that God has a personal name? Yahweh is the name by which He signs His covenants, by which He acts in history to bring about His ruling and redemptive purposes in the world. It says He is present and active to fulfill His covenants and promises.
Jesus, of course, is Yahweh in human flesh, “the only God” (1 Tim. 1:17—the entire context of that verse talks about Jesus, not the other members of the Godhead). The whole universe and all humans who have ever lived will declare Jesus is Lord and Yahweh (Phil. 2:12; cf. the passage Paul is quoting, Isaiah 45:21-24). Indeed, given that our Lord’s incarnate name, Yeshua, means something like “Yahweh is salvation,” it would not be incorrect to say that the New Testament name of God, the New Testament “version” of Yahweh, is Jesus. The voice of the Galilean carpenter echoes to us today from Israel and from heaven where He rules and reigns even now: “I am Yahweh—that is My name” (Isaiah 42:8a).
This covenant God, this eternal Creator, Redeemer, King, and Savior—this lofty God is David’s personal shepherd. He guides David into His will and purposes, instructs him in righteousness, leads him, provides for him. Calling God shepherd is both humbling for David—sheep were the among the stupidest, most helpless, most un-self-sufficient animals in the ancient world—and deeply astounding on God’s part. This God condescends to individually shepherd unworthy, fallen, foolish people? More, He does so with joy and delight? He does so ultimately by becoming a man, writing Himself into the story, and doing so at highest cost to Himself physically and spiritually? O God! What wonder!
“I shall not want” is the catch-all phrase for the next verses; everything in them is subsumed under this larger category. David, and all who know Yahweh as their Shepherd, will never be in a state of needing what we do not have. There is no need we have He cannot and will not meet abundantly and graciously.
“He makes me to lie down” is not a statement about forcefulness, but of provision. Sheep will not lie down if they’re hungry, thirsty, or afraid. They must be made to lie down by these needs being met, and only the shepherd can meet them! The green pastures are where the sheep can eat until they’re satisfied—and in the ancient, arid world those pastures took time, effort, and energy to cultivate, and it was the shepherd’s job to do it. Sheep are easily frightened and startled, and the shepherd’s presence calms them. Fear also prevents them from drinking water if it’s fast-moving—the current can pull them in and drown them! The shepherd has to dam up the river for them to drink. And he also has to do that because if they’re thirsty, they’ll look anywhere for water—even cisterns and potholes filled with stagnant, dirty water.
“Restoring” is the Hebrew word for repentance. It clearly carries the idea of turning back or righting. But this has additional implications for sheep. The have small, stubby little legs, and if they fall over, they cannot right themselves. This becomes dangerous, because the change in position causes gases to build up in their stomachs that will kill the sheep in a matter of hours.
Is this not what our sin does? Satan wants us to die eternally, and it is sin that causes that death. Those who continue in sin will be damned. But God keeps all His elect eternally secure—and He does so through means. Do you see, Christian, that God causes you to repent? God causes you to turn? God sees you are in a deadly position and did not just save you mechanically when you were born again but works dynamically to keep you saved now and finally? God restores your soul by turning you away from that which harms you. And He does not merely turn you, but He causes your blessing and fruitfulness (we ought to read “restore” maximally). And He does this not begrudgingly, not frustratedly, not half-heartedly, but willingly, tenderly, with great concern for you. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find you. And He will do it as many times as it takes to keep you.
Finally, the Shepherd guides him. “Paths” is the Heb. word for “wagon tracks” or “ruts.” These are the well-worn pathways the sheep traveled with their shepherd to where he wanted them to go. Sheep recognized the paths of their shepherd and knew that not all the ruts went to the same place. They knew his voice and kept flowing him (cf. John 10:3). Isn’t it interesting that David uses a word that implies long-term, habitual effort over time? The path that leads to heaven and blessing is the path marked by consistent, obedient, trusting habits of “rightness with God.” These paths are often hard. They are on a narrow way, after all. But they are right, for they lead to where our Shepherd wants us to be. His Spirit convicts us when we are not walking the ruts He has marked for us, and if we stray enough the Shepherd Himself comes to get us back on the path.
He can be trusted to do all this because it is “for His name’s sake.” God’s devotion to His glory—the manifestation and exaltation of His name or character—is His highest, though not His only, goal. If something will glorify Him, He will swear Himself to it. We think this is selfish, but that is because we don’t grasp only God can be rightly so devoted to Himself! And we don’t see how it benefits us. God’s glory is to save, love, bless, and help you. He has committed Himself to His glory and thus, dear believer, to you.
How can God fail to give you all good things when it magnifies His worth and character to do so?
B. Protector (v. 4)
This is one of the most-known phrases in the psalm. “Shadow of death” is a Heb. term that can also be translated “deep darkness” or “deep shadows.” It’s the same phrase used in Job 12:22 and Isaiah 9:2. David does not say he is going to die there, but that he is walking through it—there is an end in sight. And we need not take the valley to refer strictly to physical death; rather, I think it’s referring to all the darkness of a fallen world that flows from spiritual death, a darkness that culminates obviously in both physical and eternal death.
But we serve the God who is alive! Isaiah 9:2 is pivotal here. Those in deep darkness—pagan Gentiles, interestingly enough—would see light because they would see Messiah. Many of those Gentiles embraced the light by trusting Him and that light began to progressively dispel the darkness within and without. The dark valley that is this fallen world, and the valleys we each experience, need not be causes for fear or bondage—much less turning to unbelief and disobedience as distractions or substitute saviors! The God we love broke into the darkness personally, manifested His kingly divine authority to abolish it, finally took it and our sin fully upon Himself, rose bodily to declare His victory, and through the Spirit He poured out on His body is progressively dispelling the strongholds of darkness and flooding His world with light.
Note the switch in pronouns; now David is speaking personally to God: “You are with me!” The paths of righteousness have led into a valley, and David communes with his shepherd in and because of it. Sometimes trials are the only reason we look to Him. He gives us comfort through His rod and staff. The “rod” was a protective implement that could be used to fend off attacking animals or thieves. It was also a kingly image, and one used of our Lord in His present-future rule (Psalm 2). The “staff” is like a shepherd’s crook, used to lay newborn sheep beside mothers and to rescue those stuck in thickets. It symbolized personal aid, protection, and concern.
This God, this powerful, covenant-making, redeeming, ruling, sovereign God, is personally with us in the valley. We need not be afraid, for “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).
C. Host (vv. 5-6)
The Lord is also our Host, or Patron. In the presence of our enemies (men? Demons? Our flesh?) He prepares us a feast, and we eat contentedly and joyfully. He blesses, provides, lavishes—the image is not sustenance, but celebration, extravagance, dazzlingly pulling out all the stops. (This is the same idea behind the cup running over.) “Anointing” is probably a dual image—it is both the soldier home from war, in a time of peace, who can settle down in contentment not anticipating battle, and the loving healing of the shepherd tending to his wounds. Oil was used as a salve in those days to soothe and refresh. It is a personal, intimate, affectionate caring for the wounds of battle and the guilt of sin.
Goodness and mercy—God’s abundant care and provision, and His covenant love and unbreakable promises—will pursue you all the days of your life. You cannot escape them. They will chase you down and overwhelm you. Now. Today. Not just heaven. But here. And they are the Lord’s sheepdogs that press you forward all the way to heaven—the (earthly!) house of the Lord where you, and He, and all His redeemed people will be at home forever and ever.
Therefore, comfort one another with these words, and go forth to love and serve the Lord. Amen.