The Twenty-Third Psalm

Psalm 23.jpg

1-3 God, my shepherd!
    I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

©2006 Eugene Peterson (from The Message)

I am certain many of you are familiar with Psalm 23. It is one of the most read and most quoted Bible passages. It is perhaps the best-loved psalm. It has delighted the child, rejoiced the faithful, emboldened the dying, and comforted the grieving. It has been read at countless funerals, most likely due to its reference to the Valley of Death. Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not by way of escape; its contentment is not complacency: there is readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack. And who can’t relate to that? The climax of this passage reveals a love which does not lead to material gain, but to a relationship with the LORD Himself.

This psalm is built on the metaphor of the shepherd, a common figure in Israel. Indispensable to the flock, he is its constant companion, its guide and source of provision, its physician, and its defender. Although the term “shepherd” was commonly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East, God is not often called Shepherd (see Genesis 48:15; 49:24). Psalm 23:1a is therefore especially striking in its claim: The LORD is my Shepherd. David has claimed an intimate relationship (He is my shepherd).

Shepherd and His Flock

The rest of 23:1 seems to flow naturally from the assertion that the LORD is our shepherd. God is, after all, the possessor of all things, and Himself has all things. Everything belongs to God. And with such a provider, we cannot lack materially. Whether feeding on fresh and tender grass (v. 2), drinking at quiet waters (v. 2), or feasting at the table of his host (v. 5), every material need is abundantly met. Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?” Of course, Psalm 23 also speaks of God’s ability to provide just what is needed. Sheep, who cannot drink from rushing waters, need to be led to those which are still. Perfect provision will continue, since it is given for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). God’s giving is consistent with His character; since this does not change, neither will His habits of provision for His flock.

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With God as his shepherd, David can rest. He restores my soul (Psalm 23:3a) does not refer to God’s restoration of wayward sheep but to how He imparts new life to the sheep. It can rest in the shepherd’s protection, comforted by the rod (v. 4), a weapon used for defense of the flock. Restoration is also found at quiet waters (v. 2), literally translated as “waters of restfulness.” Although the metaphor changes from the pasture to God’s table, the emphasis on rest continues. There is no further need to fear enemies, for as God’s guest (v. 5), David’s protection is the concern of the LORD, his host. The foes, unable to harass, must look on as David feasts at God’s table.

Now, instead of being pursued by enemies, David is pursued by goodness and love (Psalm 23:6). Goodness is the steady and faithful kindness which is unending and undeserved. Follow is too mild; these things chase David. What is more, he has nothing else to fear, since surely could be rendered “only.” David knows the rest which comes from joy. His head is anointed with perfumed oils (v. 5b), an action that symbolizes festivity, honor, health, and blessing. His cup overflows, symbolizing a life “overblessed” in every way by God.

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With God as his shepherd, David knows he will always be led in the “right paths,” as paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:3) should be translated. He need not find his own paths but only follow the staff of the Shepherd, taking direction from its gentle guidance (v. 4). The Shepherd may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but this too is one of His right paths. In 23:1-3, David speaks about God; when he moves into this dark valley, he speaks to God (v. 4). When he needed God the most, God was there.

Of all that comes from having God as his Shepherd, David is most delighted with God’s presence. It seems that is what he lives for! The center of the psalm (23:4) resounds with this affirmation without which none of the good gifts would be possible. Without the shepherd, there is only a harassed and helpless flock (see Matthew 9:36). Without the host, there is no banquet. Of all the places where the psalmist might choose to be, he longs to stay in God’s presence all his days. From the first verse of this psalm to the last, the focus has been on God. The search which has occupied humanity—for provision, rest, guidance, and fellowship with the divine—ends in God.

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