Perhaps one of the most beloved Psalms ever written. It expresses David's love and trust for his Lord. Often read at funerals or wakes, it is to give comfort to those who mourn. However it was meant for the living. For those of us who are going through rough times and need to know the Lord is there. No matter what the circumstance, He will never leave us, but will lead us and be with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. Before we start I would suggest you read through the 23rd psalm in its entirety. This will give you an overview of the psalm. It will also bless you as you read, and this never hurts.
Verse 1 The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. David was a shepherd by trade, and the king of Israel by grace. He was very familiar with the stupidity and dependency of sheep on their shepherd. To say the Lord is my shepherd is the same as saying I have surrendered to Him and will follow Him anywhere. Sheep need a shepherd, it is that simple. They are not very bright animals. They would not be able to find food, water, shelter or protection when needed on their own. David say's, the Lord is my shepherd. What a privilege, to have god as your caretaker and provider. There is trust involved here. You must be convinced that the one leading is competent to do the job. David was confident, that his shepherd could do the job, and do it so that there would be no needs in his life that were not taken care of. "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (Matthew 10:11) A sheep must know that the shepherd will protect them even to the point of laying down his life for the flock. Jesus was such a shepherd; David knew this even before his Lord went to Calvary. "Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord. (Hebrews 13:20) He is not only a good shepherd but also a great shepherd. "And when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory" (1 Pet. 5:4) We went from the good shepherd to the great shepherd to the chief shepherd. Every need of David will be met, he can have no greater shepherd than the Lord God, and he knows it. David knows that as a follower of his shepherd, and by listening to His voice he can never stray or get lost.
Verse 2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me besides the quiet waters. One of the hardest things a shepherd must do is to get the sheep feel at ease or safe. They are prey for all types of predators and are very skittish, because they have no defense, except the shepherd. As we said before sheep are not the brightest animals and actually have to be made to stop eating or they will glut themselves and die. The shepherd has to make them feel it is all right to stop and that there will be more when they need it. Boy does that sound familiar. We humans are the same aren't we? We are always trying to get the most of everything instead of relying on the shepherd for the future. A shepherd maps out ahead of time where the greenest pastures are so the sheep can have adequate food through out the season. Notice it does not say that he suggests that they lie down but he makes them lie down. They need, like us to know that there are times we need to rest and take it easy. And some sheep have to be made to lie down. They are either too energetic or overly spooked to do this on their own. He knows what is best for them. Only sheep that truly trust their shepherd will rely on him in this way. A sheep will also not lie down next to a running stream or brook. The noise of the water against the rocks actually scares them, they are that skittish. So the shepherd finds a quiet or still place for them to bed down. His concern for little details is the sign of his love for the flock. Sheep will not drink from a moving stream either; they need a quiet or still pool and no disturbances. Sheep have actually been known to die of dehydration from lack of water, because the shepherd did not care properly for the flock.
Verse 3 He restores my soul; he guides me in the paths of righteousness for his namesake. We have the thought here of restoring order to a flock that is perhaps going astray. If the sheep get spooked they need to be calmed down, to feel safe again. Sheep can have nervous breakdowns too. The shepherd talks to his sheep in a soothing voice. The sheep know his voice; they will listen to no other. His voice put them at ease and they are restored to normal again. When we get troubled or anxious, who's voice do we listen to? Can that voice be trusted, is it the voice you are used to hearing or is it a strange voice. We need to listen to the voice that has never failed us. Not that of relatives, or a spouse, or friend or pastor, but the voice of the chief shepherd. Jesus will speak to us in those times if we listen. I open my bible sometimes and read and then just stop and listen. In that quiet time he speaks to me and guides me. All at once I feel calm. The trouble may still be there but somehow it is not as large as it was. He is there with me and I am restored again. There is also the problem of fallen sheep. If a sheep falls on its back it can not get up because of the heavy fleece. If left that way it will die. A shepherd must be on the alert that this does not occur. He watches his flock and counts them regularly. If he comes up short, the danger is there that possibly one of the sheep has fallen. He must immediately leave the flock and find this one and restore it. When Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep this is what he had in mind. During the course of the year, sheep must be moved from the low valleys and meadows to higher ground for the winter. The paths leading to some of these high areas must be traveled very carefully. The good shepherd goes ahead and scouts out the best routes and then leads his sheep after he has gone first. Jesus has gone on before us in every matter. Temptation, persecution, heartache and even death. What if a shepherd leads his flock along one of these mountain trails and some die? What does it say about the shepherd? It says he does not really care for the sheep. But our shepherd has gone on before and will not lead us into danger. His name is at stake. God will never lead us into anything we will fail at, or where he will be embarrassed. We can depend on it. The narrow trails along the mountainside are not the only danger he must be aware of.
Verse 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me. The season is changing fast. The lush green meadows are now brown due to the summer heat and the shepherd must find green pastures on higher ground. He has scouted the way and all is prepared. However he must lead them to the foot of the mountain through valleys that border the mounts. In these valleys there are often caves with wolves and lions and bears. All three would love to have a feast on the flock. The sheep know this is not a safe valley and they are afraid. All too often sheep meet their final days in these valleys. The shepherd must always be on the alert for predators. With the shepherd the flock is at the mercy of these ravenous animals. We as Christians are always looking for that mountaintop experience. We want that high we feel when we are close to the Lord. We are closer to God up there. We feel safe and seem to hear and see Him clearer up there. But to get to the mountaintop you must go through the valley. There is no way around it. Some day we will go to be with the Lord forever, but there are valleys we must go through first. Notice who is doing the leading here. Yes the valley is an unpleasant place but God must lead us through to get to where we are going. God may lead us into very sad and trying times. He may allow things to come into our lives that we can not understand. He may put us in situations we don't want to deal with. But it is the only way to the mountain. If he is leading, that means he is with us. Although it is not a situation we want to be in, he is there with us, and so we will get through. Jesus said let not your heart be troubled and again be not anxious. Fear not for I am with you. I do not want to walk through the valleys, but I will not be afraid as long as He is there with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Sheep have no natural defenses. They are helpless in the face of these predators. The shepherd however is not defenseless. He has his rod and his staff (sometimes a sling like David). The rod was a short club, like a policeman's nightstick. It had a rawhide string attached to the end. It could be used as a club or bat. It could be swung by the cord, and even thrown with great accuracy. Some shepherds can take out a wolf at 100 feet with this rod. The staff was a long stick about 6 or 7 feet long with a hook on the end. It was used to lift a fallen sheep from a hole or to guide him along a narrow path or to fight off predators. It is also used to restore the fallen sheep we talked about before. Often when you see the Pope, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. In his right hand you will see the staff of peter, a long rod with a hook at the top. This is exactly what the shepherd uses to guide his flock. He may even have to give the sheep a slight tap to get it moving when the sheep has decided he wants to stop. We do not talk about this responsibility of the shepherd, but the flock sometimes needs a good push to get it going. Or a measure of discipline to stop it from going into danger. A shepherd once had a sheep that would always straggle off and get lost. No matter what the shepherd did he would always go his own way. Well one day, knowing if he did not do something it would lead to the sheep's death, he took it and broke its hind leg. The sheep was in pain and the shepherd had to tend to it. And for the next three months he had to carry the sheep on his shoulders. The sheep never strayed again. It hurt the shepherd as much as the sheep, but it had to be done to save its life. They don't always like it but it is necessary, sometimes for their very lives. The sheep find comfort in these tools. They know that the shepherd is equipped for every danger and circumstance.
Verse 5 thou dost prepare a table before me in the midst of my enemies; thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over. We will look at these three points separately. a. In the spring when the fields are lush and the feeding is good, it is also at its most dangerous. The wolves and lions are about and looking for food as well. The shepherd leads the flock to these lush pastures but must stand watch and look for enemies. When God set up the tabernacle in the wilderness, enemies surrounded Israel on every side. When he instituted the Passover meal, the Egyptians and the death angel surrounded them. When Jesus sat and ate the last Passover meal with his disciples, His enemies were plotting His death. And even us as we partake of our lord's supper are in the midst of the world, which is our enemy. But there is comfort there knowing He is there also. This is the table prepared by the Lord for us. What a comfort to know that no matter how dangerous it gets He is there, watching and protecting. What a loving shepherd. b. Sheep are susceptible to a whole array of infections; lice and other parasites that can cause discomfort and even kill. The shepherd has in his pouch a vile of oil that he uses to put on such infections and parasites. He is not only a provider and a protector but he must be a healer as well. This parasite can come from the water they drink as well as the grass they eat or from just being in the lush fields. The shepherd will check every sheep everyday to keep them free from such things. Boy he counts them regularly and checks them daily, no wonder they know him and he knows them. When Jesus says God knows everyone of us and knows the number of hairs on our head, we can see why. c. My cup runneth over gives the impression of someone who has all that he needs. This is definitely the point David is trying to bring to us. A study of David's life will show he really lacked nothing. He had the support of the people, he was king of Israel, and he had all that the world would consider the important things in life. He also had much heartache. His affair with Bathsheba, the loss of his first born from that affair, enemies from within his own family. But he knew his shepherd and knew he was being cared for. His repentance is unquestionable, and God continued to bless him even in the times of trouble. A cup does not mean too much to those of us in the culture we live. However in the culture of David's time and in the eastern cultures of today, it is quite different. If you sit at table to eat at a host's house, now keep in mind that David has just talked about a table being set before him. The cup was the center of the meal. If your host wanted you to leave he would allow the cup to go below half full. This was a hint that it was time for you to leave soon. If however your host kept filling your cup when it reached half full, it meant he wanted you to stay a while longer. David says here his cup is overflowing. A sign that the lord wanted him to stay forever. Is that not the most comforting thought you have ever had? Yes the table is in the midst of enemies, there will be hard times, even attacks, but God, the shepherd of your life is here for the long run. He is not leaving and He does not want you to either.
Verse 6 " Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." This goes back to what we just discussed. You can live in the house of the lord forever because he has made your cup to overflow. The word forever in Hebrew is "adolom" which means as long as time lasts. However in covenant terms it means that as long as the terms of the covenant are kept, so will the promises. The terms of the covenant here or in the case of the sheep they must follow the shepherd. And in the midst of all that has happened David can say goodness and lovingkindness still follow him. And this was not just on the part of the Lord, but also on David's part. While he was running from Saul, the king who wanted to kill him. David had an opportunity to sneak up on Saul while he slept. It would have been a perfect opportunity to kill Saul and put an end to all of this. But David knew that even though Saul had fallen out of favor with God, he was still Gods anointed. All he did was cut a piece of Saul's coat off to show him how close he was. That was goodness and lovingkindness on the part of David.
There are shepherds and there are shepherds. If one owns the flock he shepherds, his concern for the flock will be greater than those who are just hirelings. Hirelings will do the job, but it is still that, just a job. He will not lay down his life for the flock. He will not prepare properly for the flock. While tending his flock in Australia, a shepherd tells the story of how he would in the winter plant new seed for the coming spring so that when the flock needed to feed there would be lush green fields. In the spring he would walk the fence line between his and a neighbors fields. The ground on the other side was brown and barren. The owner of the flock was never around and would use hirelings. They would not plant for the spring and summer and so the sheep would have nothing. He would see the sheep looking over the fence at his own flock and could see in their eyes the longing and hunger to be on his side of the fence where the sheep ate to fullness. It would pain him to see such pathetic looking sheep being neglected so. This is how God views the lost outside the fence of salvation. They are hungry and longing for the lush spiritual food we eat and are so pathetic looking. But they are under the care of another shepherd who does not care for his flock.
The same good shepherd would go out in early spring and scout out where he would bring the flocks to get drink from clear and clean waters. He would have the waters tested to make sure of their purity before letting the herd drink from them. The hirelings just let the sheep drink whereever there was water. After all they weren't his. In drinking from these dirty pools of water the flock would pick up parasites and all kinds of sickness. Leading to sick and dying sheep. The good shepherd leads the flock to waters clean and fresh. Living waters. Water that refreshes and does not harm. This is the good shepherd.
David says the Lord is my shepherd. He knows the flock and the flock knows him. A sheep will not answer the voice of a stranger. Sheep know the voice of THEIR shepherd and will come when they hear his voice. Shepherds have even been known to name their sheep, and the sheep will answer to their name. It is an intimate relationship. A hireling shepherd could care less. Sheep can sense this and will not always respond to the hireling. David knew his Lord and answered to His calling. We as sheep of His flock ought to answer when called. Especially knowing he has our best interest at heart. He will never lead us into danger without going with us.
Have you ever noticed the frequency of incidents where shepherds are used in scripture? I have not done an exhaustive study, but the frequency can not be by accident but rather by design. Psalm 23 we have already discussed Psalm 28:9 says of God "be their shepherd and carry them forever Isa 40:11 "like a shepherd He will tend His flock" Jer 3:15 "I will give you shepherds" a reference to good leaders Jer 23:1 "shepherds who are destroying the flock" a reference to bad leaders Zech 11:16 "I am going to raise up a shepherd" reference to the messiah Psalm 100:3 "we are His sheep" Psalm 119:176 "we are lost sheep" Is 53:6 "all of us like sheep have gone astray"? Mt 9:36 sheep without a shepherd 10:16 I send you out as sheep 12:24 lost sheep of Israel 25:32 separates sheep from the goats 26:31 strike down the shepherd and the sheep will scatter Jn 10:3 He calls His sheep by name 10:7 I am the door to the sheep * * In Jerusalem the sheep could only enter by the sheep gate into the city. Jesus here states he is the sheep gate to the New Jerusalem. Jesus is the only way to the kingdom.
Abel, the first person killed in the bible was a shepherd, and offered the good sacrifice David was a shepherd and later became king of Israel Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all shepherds The prophets were referred to as the shepherds of the people Jesus used shepherds and sheep often to illustrate his point A lamb was used to bring about the Passover Lambs were used in the sacrifices for sin Jesus was the Lamb of God Elders are required to shepherd the flock of God The shepherd in the judgement will separate the sheep and goats
We can learn much from these scriptures and illustrations. We like sheep have all gone astray, but like sheep when the shepherd calls we are to answer and come. We must recognize that like sheep we are defenseless against the enemy with out the shepherd. We depend on Him for good food (scriptures) clean water (He is living water) safe passage (His guidance) anointing when we are ill (the Holy Spirit) and on and on. People do not particularly like being called sheep. But when you have Jesus as a shepherd, it really not such a bad thing is it? "Where He leads me I will follow, where He leads me I will follow, where He leads me I will follow, I'll go with Him with Him all the way"
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