A Study of Psalm 23
by John J. McCave
The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful example of the loving care God has for His people. As we study this beautiful Psalm, we will better understand the true nature of our God.
The 23rd Psalm is probably one of the most widely quoted sections of Scripture. Yet for all of its exposure, people still misunderstand it and use it in the context of a funeral or burial service when it has nothing to do with death. Let us carefully read this beautiful Psalm and consider what it says.
Psalm 23:1 "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
The Lord is my Shepherd is a figure of speech called a metaphor. A metaphor, as well as all figures of speech, are legitimate grammatical departures to draw attention to that which is to be emphasized in the Word of God. Therefore, God is pointing out in His Word that which He wants emphasized. "The Lord is my shepherd" is not literally true. We know from John 4:24 that God is Holy and God is Spirit, this is literally what God is, but He is not literally a Shepherd. Yet God is representing Himself as a Shepherd to elaborate His faithful, loving care for His people.
The shepherd, in the East, is a very highly honored profession. The head shepherd is the most honored position among the shepherds and their families. The prosperity and well-being of the entire group of people and their flocks rests on the shoulders of the head shepherd. One wrong decision could be devastating to the entire flock and all the people who derive their living from the sheep. The shepherd is responsible to think through every detail to provide food, shelter, and water for the sheep. The shepherd has to understand the terrain, its people, and have the ability to understand how to deal with the ever-changing weather.
In considering all of life's variables and all the predators there are, there is great comfort in having the Lord as your Shepherd. With Him there would be no disasters from wrong decisions. The flock would be perfectly cared for and protected.
This verse also shows that God's people are His sheep. Sheep are the most helpless of all animals. They resist little when they are attacked. They have no power to drive off an enemy. They are not smart enough to take care of themselves. As long as the sheep walked with the shepherd, they were protected, cared for, and healed. So, in just these first few words, we have a beautiful picture of the care and love of God for His people as a shepherd.
When God's people are under the care of the Lord their Shepherd, a remarkable statement is made: "I shall not want." This is a fantastic statement. Most people think they are doing well if they are getting by in their lives. But, when God's people walk with God, they shall absolutely have no want. Not only will every need be taken care of with abundance, but there will be a fulfillment and peace in the soul of a man or woman to the end that there is no want. God’s people will have a state of bliss and satisfaction that is provided by God that cannot be received from any other source.
Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
Psalm 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
God supplies and provides His people with abundance, so they have no anxiety about being provided for. God's people can rest in the Lord's loving care.
Watering sheep has its own peculiarities. The shepherd must seek out water, test it for purity, and make sure it is clear and not running swiftly, because sheep will not drink if the water runs too swiftly. The emphasis in this part of the verse is on the peace and restfulness the shepherd provides. When "the Lord is my shepherd" and God's people walk with Him, they have plenty and can rest with peacefulness in their lives.
It is always God's will for His people to have rest and live in peace. Whenever God's people stayed faithful to God and obeyed His Word, they lived in peace. Whenever they turned their backs, they returned to bondage and a life filled with anxiety and fear, because they have no shepherd.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident.
Psalm 23:3 "He restoreth my soul...he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake."
"He restoreth my soul": God has redeemed His people. He has healed them and strengthened them. When God's people are under the care of the Shepherd, regardless of what their lives were before, they will be restored spiritually, mentally, physically, and not only in this lifetime, but ultimately in the age to come.
Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits:
Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases;
Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies.
"he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake": God's people will always be on the right path as they take their directions from the Shepherd.
Shew me thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths.
The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way.
All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.
Proverbs 3:5 and 6
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.
There are many devices in a man's heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.
It is only the counsel of the Lord, which is His Word, that can direct the heart and life of a believer: "...the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand." The Word of God delivers those who believe. Man, for the most part, always wants to direct his own way. Israel is a great example. Every time the children of Israel decided to do their own thing instead of living according to God's Word, they suffered tremendously in bondage. Whenever they returned to God's Word, they were blessed, powerful, and prosperous.
Psalm 23:4 "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me."
The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.
I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. [Verse 1 should read: "Shall I lift up mine eyes to the hills? From whence cometh my help?"}
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
We, as God's people, will never have to fear because we have the Lord as our Shepherd. He will never leave us nor forsake us. Our God will bear His arm for all those who fear Him.
Psalm 23:4 "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me."
This is also the section where, I assume, people believe God is talking about death. People may assume death is like a valley one must pass through to get to the other side. Well, there is no foundation in Scripture for the belief that immediately after death we are with the Lord. The Word of God states that when one dies, he is asleep awaiting the Lord's return.
This verse has nothing to do with those who are already dead, but with those who are alive. Sheep have no need of a shepherd when they are dead. They need the shepherd to keep them from getting killed.
There is example after example in God's Word of His bearing His arm to protect and fight for His people: the children of Israel being led out of Egypt; the crossing of the Red Sea; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego delivered from the burning fiery furnace; Daniel also being delivered from the den of lions. Whether a nation, a group, or an individual, God will bear His arm and fight for His people.
"Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
These are two tools of the shepherd. Here, in this verse, the rod, or crook, is used to provide food and leaves for the sheep. The staff is used to protect the sheep from all wild animals or poachers. The staff is also used to train, discipline, and teach the sheep, especially the young ones, for their own benefit and safety.
It is a comfort to God's people to know they are protected, but there is great comfort in being trained or disciplined in the right way of living. There is no comfort in ignorance, in fact, ignorance of God and His Word will only lead to doubt and confusion rather than build faith. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.
Proverbs 3: 11, 12
My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction:
For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the in whom he delighteth.
The discipline of the Lord is a great blessing to those who fear God. His loving correction will keep us from the evil that surrounds us in this world. Every believer is responsible to study the scriptures and pray for God to teach them and train them.
Psalm 23:5 "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."
When God's people walk with God, they will have abundant blessings even in the presence of those who do not want them to prosper.
When God’s people walk with God and fear Him, they will have wonderful blessings in this life and also in eternity. Jacob is a wonderful example of this. He worked for years to marry Rachel, but was cheated by Laban. Yet, Jacob trusted that God would help him, and no matter what Laban did, God turned it on Laban and Jacob ended up with the wealth of Laban and caused Jacob to prosper. This truth can be seen time and time again in the scriptures. This record also shows us that there are many trials and pressures in a believer’s life, but those who fear and trust the Lord will be delivered and will rejoice in front of those who did not believe. God made promises to Jacob and to all who believed that they would enjoy the blessing of the coming Kingdom, that they would rule and enjoy the presence of God for all eternity. In the resurrection all those who have ever lived will stand before the Almighty and they will all know that He is God, and reap the reward of their works. Those who have believed to eternal life, and those who despised His promises, like Esau, to death. God will show all mankind what they could have had in the resurrection.
"thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."
The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot.
Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them.
The oil stands for God's presence and grace to His people--His calling them out. The cup is our portion which is more than abundant once again. God's people are completely satisfied in every capacity with the Lord as their Shepherd. Not only in this lifetime, but also for eternity. We not only trust that God will provide for us now, but we also know He will be with us and provide an inheritance that will be so wonderful it cannot be understood now.
I Corinthians 2:9
But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
Psalm 23:6 "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
When God's people faithfully follow and look to the Shepherd, they are abundantly supplied with all their needs taken care of. As you have seen, the shepherd has to go through what we would consider unusual lengths to care for sheep. But the shepherd is more than prepared to do so; he loves the sheep as if they were his children.
These sheep are blessed to live in the household of the shepherd all their days.
One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of
the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
The Lord wants to love His people and care for them. For many people this is a new concept. They have been taught God kills people, makes them sick so they will be more humble, and holds them back so they can beg to get their prayers answered. How sad it is that people do not believe what they read in God's Word. How devilish that men who are supposed to teach God's Word do not read what is written or believe it.
The 23rd Psalm stands as a tremendous witness of God's care, concern, and loving kindness, His gracious abundance toward His people that trust and fear Him.
This Psalm shows us the very heart and nature of our God. God uses the metaphor of a Shepherd to paint a beautiful portrait of His love and care for His people, His provision and tender mercies. This beautiful Psalm also teaches us to trust that God will provide for us now in this present evil age, but more importantly, that He will ultimately provide and heal those who trust Him throughout eternity.
This 23rd Psalm teaches us something else which is critical. It teaches us how we are to view ourselves. Most people view themselves as self-made and self-sufficient, in other words, lions, tigers or bears. Oh My! God teaches us we are to see ourselves as sheep, defenseless animals which are incapable of providing and protecting ourselves. The metaphor of sheep is used very often in the Gospels so it is critical that we understand the picture God paints of us with the use of this metaphor.
If we are humble and meek, we will accept the guidance and the direction of God in our lives, and will be under the protection of the Almighty and enjoy His blessings. But, if we are arrogant and believe ourselves to be masters of our own lives, we’ll live a life of our own choosing and reject God’s Word and direction. The choice is clear, what will you choose?