Summary: One of the greatest of all the psalms gives us hope when venturing out of the sheep pen that a God of great love will accompany us in life's darkest valleys.
Psalm 23 is by far the most well-known of the psalms. Many people who are not Jewish or Christian can often recite it from memory. It has even made its way into popular films and TV shows (mostly in graveside scenes). Overall this psalm gives us a picture of God as provider, no matter what circumstance faces us. The Psalmist portrays himself as a sheep. When you are a sheep, you are pretty vulnerable. Sheep aren’t known for their smarts, and when it comes to facing the perils of this life and the enemy of our souls, Lucifer, we feel pretty vulnerable too. But we have a God who cares so much for us that He becomes our shepherd to guide us, protect us, and provide for us a place of safety and even joy amidst trouble.
There are two settings used in this psalm: a shepherd and his sheep, and the Lord’s house. Each has its place as we study the poem.
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The idea of shepherd was of course familiar to David as he was himself a shepherd as a young man. When Samuel the prophet came to anoint Israel’s next king, David was out in the field caring for the sheep. When presented with the enemy Goliath, David described to Saul how he had protected his father’s sheep from predators like lions and bears.
(1 Samuel 17:34-36) David answered Saul, "Your servant has been tending his father's sheep. Whenever a lion or a bear came and carried off a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it down, and rescued the lamb from its mouth. If it reared up against me, I would grab it by its fur, strike it down, and kill it.
A Shepherd’s main job is to protect and provide for his sheep. David’s first acknowledgement about the Lord (“Yahweh”) is that when you are in His flock you lack nothing. That doesn’t mean you get everything you think you want, it means you get everything God wants you to have—to begin with that means a relationship with a loving Father. In that relationship you are protected.
As Jesus prepared to leave His little flock and go the cross He prayed this:
John 17:11 I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You.
Holy Father, protect them by Your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one as We are one.
Without green pastures and safe water, sheep will die. This suggests the richness of the relationship between sheep and shepherd. “He lets me” and “he leads me” tell us that it is God who finds places for us to be nourished and refreshed. Are you nourished and refreshed by your relationship with God? More importantly, what pastures and waters are you feeding at? If it is that which this world offers, you will not find true nourishment for your soul, but if it is God’s Word, the fellowship of the saints, your times of prayer and intense fellowship with God and the interaction between child and Father—then you will find what truly “renews your life.”
The idea of “leading me along the right paths” suggests that the way God leads our life is to become more like Him and His character.
God knows that in this life there are enemies and circumstances that will try to hurt us and harm us. David calls these “the darkest valley.” In terms of a shepherd, a dark valley can hold many predators, just as when circumstances grow dark around us the enemy lurks to bring us down by attack or by our own weakness. A place of darkness also means we cannot accurately predict and prepare for the dangers around us, just we often have no idea from what quarter or when danger will strike. But here David says “I fear no danger”—why?
1. You are with me. God doesn’t promise to remove us from danger but He does promise to walk through it with us, and that’s makes all the difference. Remember: the Messiah’s name is Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
2. The comfort of God’s rod and staff. The rod was used to count and discipline the sheep (Leviticus 27:2, Ezekiel 20:37). The staff suggests something to lean on and was used for protection (Isaiah 36:6, Zechariah 8:4).
Just knowing that God is with us, protecting us from harm outside of His will, helping us to become more like Him through His discipline, and being there for us to lean on when we are tired is extremely helpful when it comes to going through hard times.
So next, David moves to another image, that of the banquet hall.
Now David describes the Lord as a gracious host at a banquet. A host was obligated to protect his guests at all costs. Here we picture David, coming into God’s house, the Tabernacle. The Lord lays out this great feast and says “though your enemies look on, you can still feast and have a good time with Me at my banquet.” Hosts were also obligated to anoint their guests with fragrant oil after a long day out in the heat. Oil represents rejoicing, happiness, and prosperity. The cup symbolized your lot in life. Isaiah 51:17 speaks of a cup of judgment. Jesus took the cup of suffering (Matthew 26:39). Here the cup overflows – is filled to the brim. A relationship with God always is good and overflowing with goodness.