Psalm 23 is one of, if not the best known and best loved texts in all of Scripture. It has brought comfort and strength to those on the battlefield, in the hospital, at a graveside, and to people going through almost any other kind of trial imaginable.
The Psalm is written by David. As a young man David was a shepherd. So this is a song using an analogy from what he knew.
Sheep are interesting animals. From what I read I learned,
- Sheep have no sense of direction and easily get lost.
- They have no effective means of defense.
- They are easily frightened and this can paralyze the sheep or make them run.
- They are dirty.
- They have a poor sense of smell so cannot easily find food or water.
These facts make the analogy between us and sheep pretty striking. We too are helpless without our Shepherd.
The first line sums up the entire Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have all I need.” (Or “I shall not want” which doesn’t mean we don’t want the Lord, it means when we have Him we don’t need anything else). Think about the profound nature of that simple statement. The LORD is the One who created the Universe. He is timeless. He has always been. He possesses all power, has all knowledge, and is complete, needing nothing. Yet, He has condescended to be the Shepherd (often considered to be a lowly role) of rebellious sheep like you and me. He takes care of us and when He does so, we are well cared for.
In Luke 15 Jesus told a parable about a lost sheep and the Shepherd’s relentless search to retrieve that sheep. Jesus said God feels that way about us.
In John 10 Jesus told us that He is the Good Shepherd and He lays down His life for His sheep. He said He knows His Sheep and His sheep know Him. The picture of Jesus as a Shepherd is well established.
In the familiar King James Version David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The New Living Translation writes,
The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need.
Left to themselves a sheep lacks everything. People talk about their goals and what they “want to get” from life. Some will tell you what they “need”. However, all of those people come up empty in the end. They don’t really know what they “need”, only what they “want”. What we will see in these next verses is that God meets our deepest needs and only He can do so. The remainder of the Psalm lists the needs God provides.
He Provides Rest
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams. (v.2)
Phillip Keller was a pastor and author who for eight years was himself a shepherd. Out of that experience he wrote, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. In the book he writes, Sheep do not lie down easily. In fact, “It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.”(Boice on Psalm 23)
Do you see how much like Sheep we are? How often do you find yourself so filled with anxiety that you have trouble sleeping? How frequently do you feel overwhelmed by a to-do-list that long ago became unmanageable? Do you ever feel like your life is simply a blur moving from one thing to another?
The Shepherd brings His sheep to green meadows and a peaceful stream and has to “make the sheep lie down”. Maybe this helps us understand the whole idea of the Sabbath . . . it is God’s way of helping us learn how to rest and regroup. Our Shepherd has provided a way for us to know His rest is available anytime we want by coming to Him in prayer.
He Renews Us
The King James says, “He restores my soul” others say, “He restores my life” The New Living Translation says “He renews my strength”. Keller enlightens us when he said sometimes sheep lie down in a little hollow or depression and may roll on its side slightly to stretch out. However, when they do this, the sheep’s center of gravity shifts so that it rolls more on its back and its feet are in the air. This causes the sheep to panic and kick which only makes the problem worse. It is quite impossible to get back to a standing position. Gases can build in the body cutting off circulation to the legs. In only a matter of a few hours the sheep can die. The Sheep needs the help of the Shepherd to restore their soul and equilibrium.
At times a sheep will get lost (because it gets distracted and wanders away). If the sheep does this perpetually the Shepherd will rescue the sheep and abruptly break its leg. He will splint the leg and then carry the lamb near his heart. The lamb then must fully rely on the Shepherd for everything. The Shepherd does this to teach the sheep to more fully trust the Shepherd. He does it to save the Sheep from itself.
The Lord is concerned for our souls. He rescues us from the trouble we get into and He does what is necessary to put us on the right path and to help us to learn obedience.
Chuck Swindoll writes,
Do I write to a wandering sheep? Do my words fall upon one of God’s children who has gotten into a habit of drifting from the flock? Let me remind you of one important word – He. It is He, the Shepherd-Savior who will restore you. He is looking for you if you have strayed away. He is jealous for your love. He wants you back . . . and I must warn you — He will stop at nothing in order to restore you. God doesn’t play games – especially with His wayward woolies! 
He Will Guide Us
Sheep are not very smart. They can easily wander away to where fields are barren and the water unfit to drink. David tells us that the Shepherd, “guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.”
In this case I prefer the older translation “He leads me in paths of righteousness.” Like sheep, we are easily distracted by contemporary trends, a good advertising campaign, and by our friends and co-workers. We are highly impressionable. Have you ever gone to a movie theater right after you ate a big dinner but you still crave popcorn because you can’t resist the smell? Like sheep, we sadly are completely lost as to the right way to go. We are seduced by the values of the culture around us. Like the popcorn we desire what the advertisers tells us we need.
Our Good Shepherd knows what we need. He created us. He has a purpose for our lives. He made us to live in fellowship and harmony with Him. He knows that we will never be complete and we will never know contentment until we are at rest in Him. Consequently, He continually works to lead us in the right way (in spite of ourselves). He does this through the Bible, through the inner voice of His Spirit (sometimes through the screams of our conscience), and sometimes even through the circumstances of life. He does this so we might find our true purpose in Him.
He Takes Away Our Fear
Even when I walk through the darkest valley, (or the dark valley of death) I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. (verse 4)
Sheep have to travel from high pasture to the low valleys as they seek for rich pasture and water. At times they face danger. Wild animals lurked in canyon walls; storms sweep along valley floors causing flash floods. And deep shadows are scary and often hide danger.
The Shepherd’s rod and staff brought comfort to the sheep. The rod was an oak club about two feet long. The head was usually round and was often whittled from the knot of a tree. The Shepherd pounded sharp bits of metal into this tip. He would use this club as a weapon that could fight off any beast. In fact, most shepherds could hurl the club like a missile, with great accuracy, to pick off a predator from a distance.
The staff was a pole that had a rounded hook on the end. It could be used to dislodge a sheep from a thicket or could help to retrieve a Sheep that had fallen into a hole. It could also pull a sheep back from danger.
Our Shepherd is with us in all kinds of darkness. It may be the darkness of depression, serious illness, rejection, loss, failure, or disappointment. No matter what the darkness, we need not be afraid, because we walk with the Lord. Our Great Shepherd is the “Light of the world”
- Isaiah 42:16 “And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them.”
- John 8:12 Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”
- 1 John 1:5 “ This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. “
Dr. Boice observed,
Many commentators on Psalm 23 have noticed that the second person pronoun “you” replaces the third person pronoun “he” at this point. Earlier we read, “He makes me lie down … he leads me beside quiet waters … he guides me.” But now, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (italics added). We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.
Are you going through a period of darkness in your life? Do you feel completely alone and vulnerable? Our Shepherd is not blinded by the darkness. He sees everything. He knows exactly where we are. He knows the way through the darkness back to the light. In the time of darkness trust the Shepherd.
He Provides for Us
You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings. (v.5)
The picture here is that of a banquet. Has David changed his sheep analogy? Perhaps but a man named Charles W. Slemming writes about the work of Shepherds in the Middle East.
He tells of the shepherd who comes to a new field in which he plans to graze his flock. The shepherd doesn’t just turn them loose, he inspects the field for vipers – small brown snakes that live under the ground. These snakes frequently pop up out of their tiny holes and nip the sheep on their noses. This can cause inflammation and in some cases can kill a sheep.
The shepherd keeps the sheep from the field until he can inspect it. He walks up and down the field looking for the small holes. When he finds a hole he takes a bottle of thick oil and pours a circle of oil at the top of each viper’s hole. He also spreads the oil over each sheep’s head – in that sense he ‘anoints’ them (rubbing their heads) with his oil. When the viper senses the sheep and tried to strike he finds that he cannot get out of the hole because of the oil. If a viper hole is missed the smell of oil on the head repels the snake.
The picture David gives us is that the Shepherd makes sure the Sheep are safe. They are cared for and provided for.
Jesus told us in John 14 that He is “going to prepare a place for us.” This place will be a place where we are free from danger. As believers we know that our Shepherd will prepare a place for us at His table. We will be vindicated before our enemies (more on that in Psalm 26) and we will have everything that we need.
David says our cup overflows . . . it is a picture of abundance. God is not simply interested in keeping us alive, He wants us to enjoy Him and the world He has made. He provides far more than we could ever need or want. However, it is a mistake to think of this only in terms of physical blessings. Our greatest blessings are not things and they are not from this world.
He Provides for Us a Heavenly Home
The promise is incredible, “We will live in the house of the Lord forever.” Jesus told us that He came to give us eternal life. He told us that those of us who truly put our trust in Him (as a sheep with the Shepherd) will “live even though we die” (John 11). We will be where Jesus is. The book of Revelation (as confusing as it can be) is perfectly clear on one thing: Heaven is a place unlike any other.
As we near that point of life that we call death the believer should have a different outlook from that of the unbeliever. The unbeliever believes this life is all there is and death is viewed as a cliff that leads to the end of everything. Such a person can only hope that some loved ones will fondly remember us for awhile after we are gone. For the unbeliever, death is the final act in the futility and meaninglessness of life.
However, for the one who has put their trust in Christ, death takes on a different face. Because of the resurrection of our Lord we know that death is not the end. This is not all there is! In fact, we understand that this life is but the title page to the great and wonderful story of life eternal. Death becomes the beginning of true life. It is reaching our destination. It is finally arriving home after a long journey. It is as if all our life we are making the journey to the Celestial City (as in the book Pilgrim’s Progress). At the time of death we (as believers) finally arrive home. Once there we never have to leave again.
Imagine how our view of life and living would change if we could believe these truths. Stress would be gone. Fear would give way to faith. Despair would be replaced by hope. Drudgery would be replaced by life. Confusion would be replaced by clarity. All this is ours if we will but entrust ourselves to our great Shepherd.
I love the story, coming from last century, of the two ministers who went on holiday together tramping in the Welsh hills. High on the moors they met a shepherd lad and stopped to chat with him. They found the boy had never been to school and that he knew nothing at all of the Christian faith. The two ministers read to him the 23rd Psalm, and to help him find a personal faith they got him to repeat the words, “The Lord is my shepherd”. Next year they were back in the same hills. This time they called at a cottage to ask for a drink of milk. The lady noticed them looking at a photograph of a lad on the mantlepiece. “Yes,” she said, “that was my son. He died last winter in a snowstorm while tending his sheep. But there was a curious thing about him, his right hand was clutching the fourth finger of his left hand.” “Well now,” one of the ministers replied, “we met your boy last year. In fact, since he was a shepherd boy, we taught him to repeat the first line of the 23rd Psalm, and we told him whenever he said it to himself, to pause at the fourth word, and think ‘This psalm was meant for me’.”
So, who is your Shepherd? Who do you trust when life gets hard or the way becomes uncertain? To whom do you look for direction? Is it a teacher, a friend, a psychologist, a coach or even a spouse? These may all be good people but the truth is that they too are but sheep. They can never do what only the Good Shepherd can do.
When you finally come to the place where all of your life is placed in Christ’s care you will be able to say with David: “The Lord is MY Shepherd and I have everything that I need.”
 Swindoll, Charles Living Beyond the Daily Grind Book 1 (Waco: Word 1988) p. 74-75
 Boice, J. M. Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2005 ) p 211
 Swindoll ibid 77-78
 Knight, G. A. F. (2001). Psalms: Volume 1. The Daily Study Bible Series (117–118). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.