Psalm 23 | The Lord Shepherds Us and Welcomes Us
23 A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
I found this, from a real news story.
Hundreds of sheep followed another off a cliff in eastern Turkey, while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 meters to their deaths in a ravine but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived. Shepherds from a nearby village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free.
The shepherds were off eating breakfast as their sheep followed one another off a cliff. Amazing.
When we read in Psalm 23 that God is our shepherd, I wonder: do you picture your life like these sheep? In other words, do you imagine God is like that Shepherd away at breakfast, and you’re doing the best you can, but who knows when the cliff will come, and when it does, who knows if you’ll be among the 400 who die or the 1,100 who live? Put more pointedly, do you believe that God really cares for you? Or do you believe that maybe he cares enough to claim you but not enough to not leave you for breakfast?
Psalm 23 is David’s proof of God’s compassionate nature in two metaphors. First, he shows us that God is not a distant, breakfast-enjoying Shepherd but a never-leaving, never-neglecting, caring one. Secondly, he’s a Friend, welcoming us into his lavish home. So, the Lord shepherds us and the Lord welcomes us.
The Lord Shepherds Us (vv. 1-4)
Everything in the Psalm flows from the first phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd.” David knows something about shepherding. Before he was King of Israel, he was a shepherd in his father’s field.
Now, the Lord is not just some generic shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is David’s shepherd. He personalizes his relationship to God, referring to himself seventeen times throughout the Psalm. He is dependent upon God. God leads, and David follows. That’s the relationship.
Shepherding isn’t easy. It requires constant attention and care: providing, leading, healing, and protecting. It's humble service to animals far below intellectually. And this is the metaphor that David uses. In fact, the Bible uses this metaphor throughout. It's one of God's favorite ways to show us who he is, and who we are, and how he relates to us.
So, God is our shepherd, which makes us the sheep. The story I opened with proves that sheep need a Shepherd. They can’t take care of themselves. You can’t put sheep in a pasture and wait for them to flourish. They’ll die. They get caught up in the frenzy of mob mentality. If one sheep gets spooked, the others will too. They’re bound to their fears and their timidity. They’re at the same time stubborn and stupid. How do you like that? It’s a humbling comparison.
Sheep are helpless, but a good shepherd meets every need, and David knows God’s a good shepherd. That’s why he says, “I shall not want.” What does he mean? Want doesn’t mean desire. It means lack—I shall not lack. Shall not lack what? Anything the Shepherd thinks is good for me.
If you don’t shear a sheep, he may fall over with the weight of his wool. If you don’t dip a sheep in insecticide, he may be overcome by flies. Sheep don’t like either of these activities but without them they could die. A good shepherd always has his sheep’s best interest in mind. That means that whatever you have in your life right now is put there by the Shepherd himself because he deems it to be the best possible thing for you. The problem is not what he gives but what we think we need. You may want something else, but you don’t need something else. A good shepherd knows his sheep by name. And God knows you, down to the number of hairs on your head. He knows you thoroughly: your temperaments, desires, temptations. God looks out at his flock and asks, “What do they need? What does that one need?” Then he gets to work. God really likes caring for you.
This should calm our heart. It’s why David uses the imagery in verse 2 of laying down in green pastures and beside still waters. Sheep only lie down if they’re belly is full and their fears are stilled. But, of course, sheep can’t provide sustenance or peace themselves. They can experience it, but they can't create it. The environment for sheep to flourish must be created by the shepherd. And David says that’s what God provides. We lack nothing.
You might hear this and say, “Well, this is a great idea. I love the concept, but I feel so dry and lifeless. If there are green pastures, I can’t see them.” That’s why David includes the phrase, “He restores my soul.” Since God is a good shepherd, he knows we need restoring.
To restore does not mean to replace. We could translate it, “He refreshes my soul.” When you restore an old piece of furniture, you take something beat up and renew it. You don’t throw it away. You fix it up and put it in the front room to show it off. And that’s what Jesus does with us. He freshens us up. He gives us new life. He buffs out the stains and mends the broken frames. That’s why he’s a Redeemer. He takes tattered things and renews them into treasures fit for his kingdom.
To all who feel a dryness of soul and wonder where the vitality of Christ is, hear this: God can restore your soul. All you have to do is look up from the grass and behold the Shepherd standing watch over you. When you do, you’ll see that he’ll take you exactly where you need to be along the well-worn paths of righteousness.
We have to ask the question. Why would he do this? What does the Shepherd gain from re-energizing sheep? Well, David answers that question in verse 3. The Shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Now, this takes us into a deep truth embedded within every page of the Bible. God leads us into righteousness because in giving us joy he gains glory. He shepherds us because it’s who he is. A good shepherd is most satisfied when his sheep are so cared for that they lie down and ruminate. It’s the sign of a good shepherd, and others see it and recognize it.
Did you know that a shepherd adores the sight of his sheep at rest? So many of us grew up with the image of God as a demanding Father that we find it hard to believe that he’s a Good Shepherd. We work so hard to please him that we never sit down to enjoy him. As I studied this passage this week, I noticed something missing. There is not one call for us to do anything: not one exhortation or command or even implication. God isn’t asking us to work for him. He’s asking us to rest in him. That’s the gospel: we can’t get ourselves to God, God must come to us. And when he does, he shows the world what a good shepherd he is, and others see it and give glory to him. He proves that he is the Good Shepherd able to meet every need.
So, what about verse 4? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no
evil.” That sounds quite a bit different from green pastures and still waters. How does that calm us? How can we rest in the valley of the shadow of death? We hear this verse at funerals, but David isn’t talking about clinical death. In the metaphor, he’s referring to those dangerous passes through which the shepherd takes his herd. Why does he do that?
A good shepherd will lead his sheep to another pasture when he must, even if the sheep don’t understand why. Left in one pasture too long, sheep will destroy it. They won't grow as they should. They’ll lose the vitality that a fresh pasture provides. One pasture may offer too many dangers so another is sought. Sheep may not stay where they should, so the Shepherd makes some changes. Whatever the case, moving pastures can be difficult and dangerous. Even so, a good shepherd presses on out of concern for the well-being of his sheep. Sheep will follow, but the shadow that falls overhead is disconcerting.
Some of us may know what this experience is like, where God leads through difficult terrain. Perhaps it’s due to our own destruction of the pasture, perhaps it’s because the Shepherd decides it’s time for us to move on. Whatever the case, the time will come to journey through the valley.
My friend, Jared Wilson, shares about one desperate night when he was in the valley.
I was taken back to the smell of the guest bedroom carpet, where my nose had been many hours of many nights, my eyes wetting the fabric as I cried out to God. You ever groaned? If you have, you’d know. I planted my face in that floor and prayed guttural one-word prayers til I couldn’t speak any more. The lullaby music from my daughter’s room across the hall haunted me. I felt alone, unloved, unaccepted, and unacceptable. But I knew I deserved it all, so I was trying to be as submissive to God’s discipline as I could. But it hurt. Oh God it hurt.
I was clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment in desperation in those days, beyond begging him for the restoration of my marriage, beyond begging him for forgiveness of my sins, beyond begging him to take away my thoughts of suicide. I just wanted to know he was there.
Jared couldn’t see it, and when you face it, you can’t see it either, but that shadow falling overhead doesn’t foretell condemnation. It forecasts satisfaction. The shepherd is leading to a place of flourishing. We won’t get there on our own. We don’t know the way. But God does.
Here’s where this Psalm transitions from comfort due to peaceful circumstances to comfort in the middle of trouble. We even see a shift in David’s pronouns here. In verses 1-3, he says, He leads, He restores. But in verse 4 he uses a different pronoun: You.
The Christian life is not always green pastures and still waters. Dark valleys are real. But see what David says here. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me.” Do you see that? The Shepherd is there. The strength to endure times of trouble is the presence of the Shepherd.
Why? Because he is prepared. He has a rod and staff. The rod to drive away danger and keep the sheep in line. The staff to rescue if any should fall away. His protection comforts, not in a sympathetic way, but in an encouraging way. When life gets most unsure, God comes closest. He’s not there only before and after. David says, “Even though.” He’s there during the darkness.
Jared spent more than one night on that floor, crying out to the Lord. And one night, God broke through in a moment that Jared calls gospel wakefulness. His soul was refreshed, and he saw that his Shepherd was there all along. If you’re in a valley right now, just hold on. Just keep following. Your Shepherd is there. He hasn’t forgotten you. He’s caring for you, even if that’s hard to understand.
The thing about shepherding is that it’s a long process. Seasons come and go. Sheep grow and mature and give birth. Life doesn’t all happen at once. And so it is with us and our Shepherd. As one shepherd says, “landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a million little unseen jobs.” The environment you’re in is not a problem to overcome but a pasture prepared by a million unseen jobs by your Heavenly Shepherd. You have no need that your Shepherd can’t meet. He’s been preparing for you since the foundation of the world.
Whatever valley you’re in, and whatever valleys are in your future, know this: The Lord is never absent. He’s always right there, even if the shadows have darkened your view. You may have shadowy days but he’s holding you, and in due course you will step into the sunlight and lie down in green pastures and beside still waters. The soul that was shaken shall be restored. After all, why would a shepherd lead sheep through the valley of the shadow of death? Isn’t the only reason to get to a better place?
And what is that better place? Look now at verses 5-6.
The Lord Welcomes Us (vv. 5-6)
In verse 5, David switches metaphors. He shows that the Lord welcomes us. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” The image is a traveling guest arriving at a full table in the home of a rich friend, where he’s refreshed with oil after a long, dry journey.
Now, here’s what’s amazing. Where is this table is prepared? In the presence of his enemies. God doesn’t need to wait until the coast is clear to prepare the table. He is not bound to earthly circumstances. He works inside of them. David’s enemies are either so helpless that they can’t touch him, or they’re held captive. Whatever the case, God’s presence makes them impotent. Here’s the point: when we are firmly in the love of God, the scary world outside is transformed into a refuge in his presence. We don’t have to wait until the coast is clear. God can come into the danger and create peace. He can come into your worry and turn it into joy. He can come into your fear and turn it into singing. He can come into your trouble and turn it into safety. Not only can he do this; he yearns to do it!
David says God lavishes him with oil and an overflowing cup. With this metaphor, David is declaring his trust in God, and calling us to trust in him too. The more we trust him, the safer we’ll feel, and every moment will become a holy moment in his presence.
But you’ll never feel this if you believe God is stingy with you, if you think God is holding out on you. Psalm 23 shows us that God isn’t an unconcerned third party. Only when you really see this and understand your place as a sheep in his fold and as a guest at his table will you find the peace your heart is looking for. God doesn’t hold back. We hold back. God gives us his best. He gives us himself. All he’s asking in return is for us to stay with him.
He doesn’t merely invite us in for a visit. He welcomes us in forever. This is the better pasture we’re being led into. Look at verse 6. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” See that word follow there? That's a bit misleading. The Hebrew is more intense. David is saying that God's goodness and mercy pursue him. God chases after him.
These two metaphors (God as Shepherd and God as Host) show us the comprehensive care of God. Whatever is going on in your life, God knows about it and cares about it. He will take you through it and care for you in it. And even as comforting as Psalm 23 is, God gave us something even clearer by sending Jesus into the world.
It's interesting: Psalm23 comes immediately after Psalm 22 in our Bible. That’s no accident. Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Charles Spurgeon put it this way.
The position of this Psalm is worthy of notice. It follows the twenty-second, which is the Psalm of the Cross. There are no green pastures, no still waters on the other side of the twenty-second psalm. It is only after we have read, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" that we come to "The Lord is my Shepherd." We must by experience know the value of blood-shedding, and see the sword awakened against the Shepherd before we shall be able truly to know the Sweetness of the good Shepherd's care.
Psalm 23 is comforting to the degree to which you understand and believe the reality of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Did you know that sheep learn their shepherd's voice? He can call out in a mixed herd, and his sheep will come to him. That means that Psalm 23 is not a Psalm for everyone. It only applies to the sheep of God’s flock. So, don’t think that this is just a nice, feel-good Psalm that anyone can pick up and find comfort in. It’s only for those who hear God’s call. Have you heard it? Do you trust in this Shepherd? Here’s why you should.
The reason God can be with us even in the valley of the shadow of death is because he has been in the valley himself. Every other guide, every other shepherd must turn back at some point. Jesus alone can escort you all the way through death because Jesus alone has been through it and come out the other side. When all others must stop, Jesus walks on—all the way to the resurrection.
And that’s where the real comfort of this Psalm resides: in the person of Jesus Christ. Hear what Jesus said in John 10.
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Do you see that? Jesus says he’s the Good Shepherd David was talking about! Furthermore, he’s saying there are still some of his sheep out there that haven’t heard his voice yet, but they will. So, if you’ve been sitting here wondering if this good news can be your good news, but you don’t believe in Jesus Christ as your savior, now is your chance to hear his voice. Listen to him! If you can hear it, you can be saved! Just ask him now to come to you and shepherd you.
And if Jesus is your Shepherd, you do not have one single thing in all the world to fear. Jesus goes on to say in John 10, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” Jesus has authority over his own life, how much more does he over yours?
Here’s what he did with his authority. The night before he died, he prepared a table for his disciples in the presence of his enemies. When he was in danger he didn’t leave. And hours later, he put himself in the hands of his enemies so that he could save us from ours. He let the sheep slaughter the Shepherd. He laid his life down on the cross and bore the penalty of our sins. He allowed sin and wrath to catch up to him so that goodness and mercy would pursue us all our days. He left the house of God so that we could dwell there forever. He used his authority for your good. He let the wolves tear him apart to save his sheep. But God raised him up and gave him all authority in heaven and earth.
Jesus humbled himself, taking the form of a sheep and followed the Father perfectly so that when we go near the edge of the cliff, Jesus has the power to pull us back. When we see that, we will begin to understand the true comfort of Psalm 23. We will begin to understand the goodness of our Shepherd, and all fear will melt away.