The 23rd Psalm is one of the most widely known scriptures in the Bible. It is memorized and repeated in all lands. It is the universal Psalm, the chief Psalm, the pearl of Psalms.
1. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
4. Yea, though I walk: through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord tor ever.
Only a shepherd could write Psalm 23, and David was a shepherd. The Lord is the Shepherd of His people and they are His sheep; so David said, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
In eastern lands, the shepherd goes before his flock—he leads them. They know his voice and follow him. So the sheep in this beautiful Psalm, the flock of the Lord, are those who follow Him. Jesus said, as we read in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
Are you a child of God? Then you can repeat the 23rd Psalm and know that it is yours—it was written for you. All believers can say, "We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3). We do not naturally belong to the Lord's flock. We are orphans and need to be brought into the fold of the True Shepherd.
We were orphans—we did not belong to God's flock, but through the death of His Lamb, we are clothed in the robe of His righteousness and are able to enter the true fold.
Our Saviour is not only the Lamb; He is the Shepherd too—the Good Shepherd, who giveth His life for His sheep. (see John 10:11).
The picture of the divine Shepherd leading His flock fills the first four verses of Psalm 23. There is a sort of double progress in these verses which rises from memories of His care in the past: the experiences of God's present care for us, and our hope for the future—in other words, what was, what is, and what will be.
The other part of the picture in these four verses gives the different methods that God uses in leading His flock; or, we might say, the various regions through which He leads them are described in order. And they are three: rest, work, and sorrow. Rest, strange to say, in the past; work in the present; and sorrow, the valley of the shadow, still to come.
The Psalmist puts rest and refreshment first because this is the way God deals with us so often. His blessings span the years. When we look back over life, the trials are out-weighed by His love. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
No one can rest in mind and heart until the weight of a guilty conscience is removed. But God heals the troubled soul when He forgives our sins. In spiritual communion with Him, the hungry heart finds food that satisfies. It feeds upon the Word of God, and the thirsty soul drinks deep from the cool, still waters. And by these blessings to which the great Shepherd leads us, we find our souls restored, the natural life invigorated, the spiritual life reborn.
The restored soul is then led on to another stage in God's plan for his life—“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake” (Psalm 23:3). That is, God leads us into work, into service for Him. Rest in the green pastures and refreshment by the still waters are to fit us for work.
In the gospel plan, works do not precede but follow rest. The restoration of the soul comes first; then the works of righteousness. We are not saved by our works, but we work because we are saved. We are not justified by works, but for works. As the apostle Paul puts it, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Faith in the Good Shepherd does not make void His law. On the contrary, His death for the sheep makes it forever sure. “Do we then make void the law through faith?” asks the Apostle to the Gentiles; and then he answers his own question: “God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31).
The fact that all the Ten Commandments—not five or eight of them—are repeated in principle in the New Testament and are taught by both Christ and the apostles, sustains the Word of the Psalmist. The Good Shepherd leads His sheep in paths of righteousness to the very gates of the beautiful city itself, and on through the gates into the eternal fold, for it is written in Revelation 22:14, “Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”
And now the Shepherd leads on, not only beside the still waters of rest and the righteous paths of service, but through trouble and sorrow. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
The heavenly shepherd does not always keep His sheep from sorrow, but He is with them in sorrow. When the three young men of Babylon found themselves in the fire for conscience's sake, the form of the Fourth walked with them in the flames. When the apostle Paul stood before Nero, he was not alone. In 2 Timothy 4:16-17, he says: “At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me!...Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me.”
So, friend, do not worry about the future. Whatever it brings, “let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). However bright our path, somewhere along the way—perhaps around the next turn—sits the “shadow feared of man.” Unexpectedly, we may come to the deepest, darkest valley of all—the valley of the shadow of death. But even there, the Shepherd is with us and we need fear no evil. His rod and His staff comfort us; His law and His gospel contribute to our correction and support.
We may not always be able to see or understand, but we know that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). We may not know the “why” of many of our experiences, but we know that our Shepherd knows, and that is sufficient.
A father was once holding his little blind daughter on his knee, when a friend who had called took her in his arms. The child didn’t cry or resist. “Aren’t you afraid, darling?” the father asked. “You don't know who has you.” “No,” was the prompt reply, “I don't know, but you do.” She didn't have to know, if father knew that it was all right. Her faith in him took away fear.
In the last two verses of the 23rd Psalm we read: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. 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” (Psalm 23:5-6).
Remember, the sheep are men—are people. They gather around the Lord's table here in this world and in the one to come. The next time we sit at the table of the Lord, let us brush aside any thought that it is the table of the church. Let us meditate on the words, “Thou preparest a table before me.” The Lord prepares it; it is His. But it is for us.
And it is written: “As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till He come” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
The Shepherd supplies all our needs in the presence of our enemies. Now it is more than rest or work—it is conflict. He provides for us here in this world. It is wilderness food—the manna of His promise, and water out of the Rock. We eat it as the Israelites did in haste, staff in hand, and ready to march on.
But the day is coming when the Good Shepherd will call us to the great supper in His kingdom. Then we shall lay aside the pilgrim dress and the sword and we shall put on the royal robe and sit down with Him. And all enemies will be gone forever. Here is the picture of that blessed state in Revelation 7:16-17, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”
At feasts in Bible times, the heads of the distinguished guests were anointed with perfumed oil. The woman in the gospel story poured the box of precious ointment upon the head of our Lord, (Matthew 26:6-7) a custom which the host who had invited Him had shamefully neglected. So, too, the very sheep of the Lord's pasture are to be oil-anointed guests.
Now notice the next sentence in the text, “My cup runneth over.” God's blessing here and hereafter is more than we can receive. “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” As the ancient shepherd led his sheep, his two shepherd dogs guarded the rear to keep straying sheep in the path of the shepherd and draw attention to the wounded and lost. So through life, like two angels of God, goodness and mercy will follow us and encamp round about us. Then we “shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”