The Shepherd’s Psalm
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.—Psalm 23:1
Reprinted from People’s Paper (Australia), by Ray Charlton
The Best-Loved Psalm
The Book of Psalms, it can be safely said, has had more influence and has accomplished more good than any other collection of poetry ever written.
There are many beautiful poems, but none with the sentiments of the Psalms which seem to touch every soul at every turn, in sorrow, and in joy. Of the 150 Psalms, Bible scholars attribute 73 to the writings of David. What a wealth of experiences David had to draw on as inspiration for these beautiful songs!
The Hebrew definition of Psalms gives the meaning of praises, a term that reflects much of the book’s contents. The title given to Psalm 145 is Psalm of Praise. Its name in the Latin and English bibles comes from the Greek psalmoi which means twangings (of harped strings) or songs sung to the accompaniments of harps. Several of the Psalms have been written to music and even with the English translation little is lost of their meaning or beauty.
The Pearl of Psalms
Probably the most well known of all the Psalms is Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm. One scholar (Beecher) wrote of this Psalm “It is a nightingale amongst the Psalms, it is small, of homely feather, singing shyly, out of obscurity, but it fills the air of the whole world with joy.” Another commentator writes, “This is the Pearl of Psalms, whose soft and pure radiance delights every eye.”
Commentators feel that Psalm 23 was written quite late in David’s life. As a result he could call upon all of his experiences of life and of his intimate relationship with God. He could draw on his experiences as a young lad attending to his father’s sheep. He remembered being anointed with oil, as we read in 1 Samuel 16:11,12—”And Samuel said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and behold, he keepeth the sheep . . . And he sent, and brought him in. Now he [was] ruddy, [and] withal of a beautiful countenance and goodly to look to. And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him; for this is he.”
He remembered the battles with his enemies with the Lord on his side, especially with Goliath, as we read in 1 Sam. 17:45-50.”Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield; but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou has defied. This day will the LORDdeliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hands. And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slung it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.”
He desired to build a house for God, to replace the temporary tabernacle which he felt did not do justice to God. We read in 1 Chronicles 17:1-4. “Now it came to pass, as David sat in his house, that David said to Nathan the prophet, Lo I dwell in an house of cedars, but the ark of the covenant of the LORD remaineth under curtains. Then Nathan said unto David, Do all that is in thine heart; for God is with thee. And it came to pass the same night, that the word of god came to Nathan, saying, Go and tell David my servant, Thus saith the LORD, Thou shalt not build me an house to dwell in;” At times, he was very close to God working in full harmony with him; but on this occasion, David’s will was not God’s will for him.”
The Lord Is My Shepherd, I Shall Not Want
The opening line of the Psalm tells of the intimate relationship that David had with his Lord. The Lord is my Shepherd tells of the covenanted relationship that the psalmist had with Jehovah. Only those who have a covenant relationship with God can properly appreciate the sentiments that David expresses in the following verses and how they apply in their lives, David had this relationship with God through the covenant which God had made with his favoured nation, Israel, at Mount Sinai. The Israelites had a covenant to walk in the Lord’s ways and to obey His statutes, and in return God covenanted with them that, in proportion as they would walk in His ways, He would bestow His blessings upon their every interest (Deut. 30:15-18).
Only a few of the Israelites were trying to keep their part of the covenant, but David apparently was one of these, for the Lord declared him “a man after his own heart.” If he failed God, he confessed, repented, received his punishment, and rejoiced when restored to God’s favor striving in the future to maintain his fellowship with God. David also gives a beautiful picture of the relationship between Christ and his Church: Jesus speaking to his disciples in John 10:14 says “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep and am known of mine.”
We too have a covenant relationship with Jehovah through Christ our Shepherd. If we accept this relationship with our Father, we can appropriate the various pictures of this Psalm. The world as a whole has no idea of this relationship. Jesus declares that there is only one way to enter the sheepfold, namely through the door.”I am the door, by me if any man enter in he shall be saved, and shall go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Shepherds—Then and Now
To fully understand the sentiments of the Psalm, we must realize there is a great difference between the shepherd in olden times in Palestine and the care of sheep as we know it today. It was the eastern shepherd who illustrated our heavenly shepherd’s care for his little flock. An eastern pasture is vast, often boundless, it has to be extensive for the greater part of it is barren, in fact, the Hebrew word for desert and pasture is the same. It consists mostly of dry stony soil out of which for the greater part of the year the sun has sucked all life. In this desert, the breaks are few and consist of paths, gorges or thickets where wild beasts lurk, as well as oases of pleasant grass and water. It is evident that the person and character of the shepherd meant a great deal more to the sheep than it does with us. With us a flock of sheep without a shepherd is a common sight but unheard of in the east.
As a rule, a shepherd during David’s time owned the sheep that he cared for, he was no hireling, he asked and received no wages, he was acquainted with all of his sheep. He was quick to discover and supply their individual needs; it was his duty in the morning to lead his sheep out and find good pasture for them. He needed to be familiar with the territory to know the special places where good pasture could be found. It was his duty to find quiet waters where they could quench their thirst and shady places to protect them from the heat of the noonday sun. He had to defend them when attacked by their enemies. It was his duty to seek out straying sheep and to bring them back to the fold, to carry the weak lambs in his arms and tenderly to lead those who were lame or footsore. Occasionally he would be called upon to protect his sheep against the ravages of the wolves and bears who were lurking near some of the best feeding places, preying especially upon the weaker sheep. When the day was done, before darkness set in, the shepherd led them back to the fold. If any were wounded, he poured oil into the wound and bathed the bruises. When he found one hot and thirsty, and almost exhausted, he filled the large cup that hangs by his side with cool water and gave it drink. The day’s toil was over and the Shepherd settled down to guard the sheep overnight.
I Shall Not Want
David could not have put his faith in God more strongly than in the words I shall not want. He shows us the trust that we too are to have in our Heavenly Father, Isaiah tells us in 33:15, 16, “He that walketh righteously and speaketh uprightly . . . Bread shall be given him; his water shall be sure.”
What a beautiful promise to us from our Heavenly Father. Jesus speaking to his disciples during the sermon on the mount, Matt. 6:25-34, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, neither gather into barns; yet your Heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought saying, what shall we eat? or, what shall we drink? of Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (for all these things do the Gentiles seek), for your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
Every Need Supplied
The Lord’s sheep, abiding in perfection of relationship with Him, will lack nothing. Their every need will be supplied. This may not mean great earthly wealth, fame or name or luxury. The Lord’s blessings to natural Israel were earthly blessings, supplying their every earthly need; but his blessings to spiritual Israel are spiritual blessings. Psalm 84:11 promises that “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly,” again re-affirming God’s commitment to his sheep.
He Maketh Me To Lie Down In Green Pastures:
He Leadeth Me Beside The Still Waters.
Although the experiences of the Lord’s sheep include many experiences in the parched wilderness of sin, yet he graciously gives them experiences in the oases of divine favour. These are not always with immunity from trial but certainly are seasons of rest and refreshment. The Psalmist assures us that, as the Lord’s sheep, we will be provided with green pastures and cool refreshing waters of truth. Moreover, while being spiritually fed and refreshed, we shall have the peace of God as is implied in the suggestion that the sheep will lie down in green pastures. We may truthfully say, “The peace of God which passeth all understanding rules in our heart.” Which of the Lord’s sheep has not found such green pasture of spiritual refreshment in his private devotion and studies or when assembling together with those of like precious faith to study and pray and give thanks for the Lord’s goodness and mercies?
The still waters are contrasted with the rushing torrents of the mountain slope. They are not stagnant waters but rather smooth flowing so that the sheep can receive proper refreshment. The Hebrew meaning is “waters of quietness.” and Christ speaking in John 14:27 tells us, “Peace I leave with you my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth unto you. Let not you heart be troubled neither let it be afraid.” Alas! not all of the sheep have full confidence in the Shepherd and are fully resigned to have no will but his. Some are continually getting into trouble because they wander off into the desert straying far from the Shepherd. Only after difficult experiences do they return to the quietness offered.
He restoreth my Soul
These words are amongst the most precious of this priceless Psalm. They are words that everyone of God’s children will have been able to say on many occasions, We are often tempted and troubled by the world; this can lead us into lethargy and indifference and as a result we need our souls restored. If he alone was always followed and if his commands were instantly obeyed, we would not need this restoring.
In order that we may follow in his footsteps and become living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, our reasonable service (Romans 12:1), our Lord provides the right paths which are advantageous to our development in righteousness. These paths are not always easy, they can be difficult and trying. How fortunate are we that our Master has trod the pathway before us, so he knows of the difficulties the dangers, the snares, the pitfalls by the way, so that we are not tried beyond our capabilities. He leads us not contrary to our wills but in harmony therewith, to prove what is good, next the acceptable, and finally the perfect will of God, as Paul tells us in Romans 12:2: “Be not conformed to the world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”
The whole of mankind is walking through this valley of death as the result of the sin of father Adam, living with the daily prospect of death. Adam had fallen from the mountain top of life, he lost his footing there and descended into the valley of the shadow of death. Mankind as a whole fear this valley as they can see no way of escape. Scientists have for years been trying to find the key to increasing our life span, looking for the fountain of youth, even to deep freezing of the human body in the hope one day of finding the secret to eternal life. Mankind’s journey through this valley is one of sickness, pain, sorrow, culminating in death. As the Apostle Paul states:
For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. . . . For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.—Roman 8:22,19
The world is yet to realize that only through Christ and his Church during the Millennial Age can they be lifted out of the “valley of the shadow of death,” back to the heights of light, love and Divine likeness.
The sheep, however, that hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow his directions, although still in the world, walking through this valley, learn to be neither careless nor anxious as they walk. Fear and tremblings, doubts and perplexities are replaced with the realisation that God through his Son has provided a way out of the valley of the shadow of death. He has assured us that death shall not mean extinction of life, but merely, until the resurrection, an undisturbed sleep in Jesus. As we are told in 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” No wonder then that the world looks upon these sheep with amazement as they pass through this valley singing, and rendering praise unto the Lord: They surely fear no evil as their shepherd has promised, “I will never leave thee or forsake thee.”
The Rod and the Staff
“Thy Rod and Thy Staff they comfort me” tells us of the ways in which God looks after us as we walk. The Shepherd’s crook or staff was used to assist the sheep out of difficulties, to defend it from its too powerful enemies, and to chasten it when inattentive. The word staff means “a support, a stay.” The rod was also used to count the sheep to make sure all were present. How glad we are to know that all power in heaven and in earth is committed unto our Shepherd and that under both his protecting and correcting care, we are safe from all foes, and nothing can by any means do us harm.
Thou Preparest A Table Before Me In The Presence Of Mine Enemies
The figure of the shepherd caring for his sheep is still before us in this verse, and it serves to illustrate the love and care of the Great Heavenly Shepherd for his people. A very important part of the Eastern shepherd’s duties would be that of preparing a suitable pasture for the sheep under his care. Not only must he find a supply of water, and plenty of the right kind of grass for the sheep, but he must also prepare the pasture in the sense of driving off the wild animals and reptiles which may be lurking around. The shepherd walking ahead of his sheep would be able to note any poisonous grasses and avoid such places; also the presence of snakes would be detected; and wolves and hyenas would need to be guarded against. How true of the Good Shepherd who provides the food for His trusting ones, but sees to it that no poisonous elements shall get into it. He sees to it that they are not injured thereby. The Good Shepherd has spread a table for his trusting sheep in this time in the very presence of enemies, but we need to listen and thus keep ourselves in his love and care, by earnest efforts to know and do his will.
Thou Anointest My Head With Oil, My Cup Runneth Over
Throughout the Psalm, the leading thought is that of the Lord’s love and care and interest in His people, illustrated by the figure of a shepherd caring for his sheep. The Psalm has sung the whole round of the day’s wandering–all the needs of the sheep, all the care of the Shepherd. Now we close with the final scene of the day. At the door of the sheepfold the shepherd stands, and he carefully inspects each sheep as they pass one by one before him into the fold. He has the horn filled with olive-oil and he has at hand a supply of Cedar-tar, and he anoints a knee bruised on the rocks, or a side scratched by thorns. If one is simply worn out and exhausted, he bathes its face and head in the refreshing olive-oil; he takes the large two-handled cup and dips it brimming full from the water he has brought for that purpose, and he lets the weary sheep drink. There is nothing finer in the Psalm than this. God’s care is not for the wounded only; it is for those who are just worn and weary, to the point that we can say his mercies and goodness are such that our Cup overflows, all our needs are fully supplies.
Surely Goodness And Mercy Shall Follow Me All The Days Of My Life
To dwell in the house of the Lord forever will require a change. We have but a temporary abode on earth waiting as strangers for our calling home to be with our Master in the heavenly mansions or abodes, as some translate the word. This is the promise of Christ when he went away to prepare a place for his disciples. We can only imagine the joy that is set before us when we can dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
We realize more and more as we look back over the way, that He has been with us all the way during the sunny days, cloudy days, days of joy, days of sorrow, days of trial, days of toil and days of weariness. Along with David, we can say that surely goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our lives and we look forward to dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.