The Shepherd Psalm: Psalm 23 – Part 1

With long years of a shepherd’s life behind him, David penned this beautiful Psalm, which has become one of the most beloved in the Psalter. In it, the shepherd-minstrel turns his attention upwards to the heavenly Shepherd, whom he has contemplated while caring for his sheep in the solitude of the hills.

An eastern shepherd occupied a unique position toward his flock. A friendship developed between him and the dumb creatures of his care, so that he knew them all by name and they responded to his call. Nothing comparable exists in the western hemisphere.

Throughout the Psalm, the Lord is put in the place of the shepherd, and the psalmist takes the place of one of His sheep. In this way, the sheep voices David’s appreciation of the divine Shepherd, based upon a day’s experience in the life of a sheep.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”, v. 1

The opening words of the Psalm are not “O Lord, be my Shepherd!”, but they are “The Lord is my shepherd”. Therefore, the Psalm opens not with a petition, but with an assertion. In this first verse, “Lord”, printed in capital letters, is the name of Deity equivalent to “Jehovah”. This primary name, which is one of three used in the Old Testament, was the most revered, for no Jew took it upon his lips. As Jehovah, the divine Shepherd is eternal in Being, knowing no past or future and living in a continuous present. As Jehovah, He is Self-existent and Self-sustained, not dependent upon another for either His existence or His sustenance. No other shepherd was like this Shepherd. Centuries later, the Lord Jesus identified Himself with this incomparable Shepherd when He said, “I am the good shepherd”, John 10. 11. He meant more than “I represent the good Shepherd”, but He claimed to be Jehovah, the “I AM”, in His Shepherd character, known to David of old.

The word “shepherd” occurs only twice in the Psalter, and it is used both times of Deity. Here, the words are not “our Shepherd”, which would convey the thought of a collective relationship between a flock of sheep and its shepherd, but the phrase, “my shepherd”, indicates a relationship which is personal, founded, in our case, upon the work of salvation. If we can say of the Lord “my shepherd”, then it means that we have appropriated the Shepherd-Lord personally, even as Thomas had, when with every doubt removed, he said, “My Lord and my God”, John 20. 28.

For the other occurrence of the word, we turn to Psalm 80. If, where the setting, as it would be expected, is not the hills of the Holy Land but the tabernacle. “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up thy strength”. To understand this petition, we need to remember that it was in Jacob’s prophetic blessing of Joseph that the patriarch used the word “shepherd” of God, when he said, “from thence is the shepherd”, Gen. 49. 24. In Psalm 80, the petition is addressed to the Lord as the “Shepherd of Israel” who leads “Joseph like a flock”. With this allusion to the patriarchal blessing, Joseph stands representatively for all twelve tribes, which the Lord shepherded from Sinai to Canaan. Recalling the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat and cherubim at the head of the long orderly column of Israelites in their wilderness march, Num. 10. 33, the psalmist sees figuratively the “Shepherd of Israel … between the cherubim”, taking His rightful place of pre-eminence, leading “Joseph like a flock” through the wilderness. The psalmist thinks of the shekinah glory upon the mercy seat and between the cherubim personified as “the Shepherd of Israel”, upon whom he calls to “shine forth” in all His glory. Israel’s Shepherd goes ahead as the divine Vanguard with Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh, the tribal descendants of Joseph and his brother, taking their rightful position in the march, Num. 10. 21-24.

Returning to the closing words of verse 1, the psalmist’s sheep says confidently, “I shall not want”. From past experience, he knew that he had never lacked adequate pasture and water, and also he knew instinctively that the Shepherd had in His own mind already planned where to lead His flock for ample supplies on the morrow. By declaring Jehovah to be his Shepherd, the sheep knew Him to be the Self-sustaining One, and well able to sustain others such as a dumb creature like himself. What implicit trust this sheep had in his Shepherd!

With faith in his Shepherd, the sheep says, “I shall not want”. With doubt lurking in our minds, we are prone to say, “I may want”, but “they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing”, Psa. 34. 10, is the assurance of the Word of God. “In nothing be anxious”, Phil. 4. 6 R.V., is the lesson for us, and it is amplified by the Lord Jesus, “Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; …”, Matt. 6. 25 R.V. Admittedly, we all need our daily food and drink, and we should not neglect ourselves physically, but such mundane necessities should not take precedence over our spiritual well-being. With an illustration from nature, the divine Speaker says that the birds do not sow, neither do they reap nor gather into barns, but our heavenly Father provides food for them. As we are of much more value than they, we should recognize the divine hand of Providence for our daily needs, even as Paul says, “my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory”, Phil. 4. 19. Living under the Lord’s shepherd-care means that we are never in want.

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters”, v.2

From this second verse and onwards, a shepherd’s work to feed, water and lead his flock, and to care for them by day and by night, is related to Jehovah as the true Shepherd.

A night had been spent in the fold, and the sun was rising above the horizon at dawn, when the shepherd led his flock from the fold to fresh grazing ground. From about 3. 30 in the morning until 10 o’clock, the sheep grazed, starting on rough herbage and moving later to richer and sweeter grasses where the shepherd led them to a shady spot for protection from the scorching heat of the sun, and for their forenoon rest. In such congenial surroundings, the sheep rested while chewing the cud. With a pastoral scene like this in mind, the psalmist’s sheep expresses his feeling of contentment and rest, provided by the divine Shepherd, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”. Yes, “He maketh me …” — this is not a matter of compulsion, because a hungry sheep will not lie down, and a shepherd will fail in forcing it to do so. The shepherd, who is able to provide his sheep with plenty of pasturage, will soon bring the most restless animal to rest, lying down contentedly amongst luscious grass. With this background, we may understand the sheep saying literally and amplified, “‘He causeth me’, having satisfied my hunger, ‘to lie down’, resting ‘in pastures of tender grass’.”

Sheep require not only grass to graze but also water to drink. High in the hills, there were many small springs, some of which became fast-flowing streams, but sheep will not drink swift-moving water, or even gurgling water. Therefore, the shepherd was obliged to find a place where rocks impeded the swiftness of the water, or where erosion in the rocks had formed a little pool. Having found tranquil water, the shepherd took his flock there. Hence, the psalmist’s sheep says, “he leadeth me beside the still waters”, which may be rendered as “He leadeth me beside waters of rest”.

The over-riding thought of this second verse is rest, once the needs of our spiritual appetite have been met. Men of the world, conscious of an inward hunger, try to satisfy themselves with the husks that swine eat, but it is all in vain. This inward unrest continues until a soul heeds the words of the Lord Jesus, “he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst”, John 6. 35.

For believers, the Word of God may be compared with the green pastures and the still waters. This spiritual pasturage never becomes bare and barren, but it is ever green and lush. These spiritual waters never become stagnant or run dry, but they are always fresh and refreshing. Not once a week but daily, the psalmist’s sheep ate the grass and drank the water, which brought a sense of contentment and rest. If we are haphazard or neglectful in the participation of our spiritual food and drink (which is reading and meditating upon the Scriptures), then we become dissatisfied, perhaps critical, and unrestful in spirit. Feeding upon Christ daily, not occasionally, is essential not only for spiritual growth but also for serenity of spirit.

Rest of mind and spirit, which is inward, should manifest itself outwardly, but such rest is not the abstention from work. The Lord Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you …”, this conjures up the thought of a pair of yoked oxen ploughing. Submission one to another and harmony of action between the two animals were essential for good results in ploughing. The Lord Jesus added, “and ye shall find rest unto your souls”, Matt. 11. 29. Clearly, the rest given by Christ is not a rest from work, but a rest in work. With the mind and spirit satisfied, this is possible: submission to Christ and the harmonious working of all our faculties and affections are requirements in our service for Him.

(To be continued)

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