The 23rd Psalm
One of the most known chapters of the Bible. Even people who know very little of the Bible are at least familiar with the term “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is a concept used my many in a variety of ways. While the term is found 19 times in the KJV it is most known for Psalm 23. Which is one of the most comforting and memorized chapters in the Bible. And I believe the more you learn about what is a shepherd you will understand why.
“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 Though prepares 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 for ever.” Psalm 23
This is clearly a prophetic Psalm pointing to Jesus, who called himself the good Shepherd (John 10:11) I find so much comfort and peace in the first verse, although I do prefer the Holman’s Christian Standard Bible here, which says it this way,
“The Lord in my shepherd; there is nothing I lack” Psalm 23:1
If the Lord is our shepherd we have nothing to worry about. We have all that we need. However, if you are anything like me there is always plenty that I want. I am still trying to be as Paul who said he could be content with a little or a lot, in any circumstance. Contentment is not my strength, unfortunately.
What does it mean to have the Lord as our Shepherd?
It is thought that David wrote this Psalm during Absalom’s rebellion. Which would have been many years past his experience a as shepherd, and many years of walking with the Lord. In my own musings, it looks to me as though David saw a lot of similarities in being a shepherd and being a King. It was after all David’s experience as a shepherd that prepared him to slay the giant, as I discussed in “Can we talk about David”
When I think about this Psalm I tend to think about the character of sheep. Sheep are very social animals, I have read that they need at least 4-5 sheep around them to feel comfortable. Sheep tend to be nervous and frightened animals. I have a couple of commentaries that say sheep will not lay down if they are at all nervous, which by the way a moving river would make them nervous. However, “still waters” calms them. For me this kind of changes the way I see the second verse. Being lead to food, water, and a resting place is just the surface. Looking deeper and with the information of how sheep are I see how the shepherd is not only taking care of the physical needs of his flock, he is also concerned with their mental and emotional health as he leads them to a place where they are comfortable enough to rest, eat, and drink.
God was taking care of our mental health before we even gave it much thought.
Sheep don’t make very good herd animals. Meaning they prefer to be led, or to follow rather than pushed and turned from behind like cattle. This is why Jesus said that His sheep hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27). The shepherd had to be familiar with his flock, they had to trust their shepherd and know his voice. The sheep would follow the voice, or call, of their shepherd. Throughout scripture we read stories of shepherds putting their life in danger to protect his sheep (1 Samuel 17:37) and leaving the 99 to save the one that went astray (Matthew 18:12). These are not just stories, that was what was expected of the shepherd.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
Going back to the “valley of the shadow of death” I did a little digging into the word “shadow”. The word used here as “shadow” means a deep darkness. Again, it makes me think of the care of the shepherd for the emotional and mental health of his sheep as well as the trust that the sheep would develop in their shepherd.
Let’s think about what “the valley of the shadow of death” would/could look like from the point of view of these sheep. I have read before that there is not a lot of good pasture land in Israel, so the shepherd would have to move the sheep regularly. Can you imagine coming along the path, towards the end of day and just the way the hill or some large bolder sits blocks the sun and casts a dark shadow, and due to the contrast, it appears even darker than it is. This would be very scary for a nervous animal. The sheep would naturally be fearful and hesitant to continue. They must really trust their shepherd and the shepherd would need to be patient, calm, and understanding of their temperaments. Or entering the shadow would not happen.
I have two more thoughts that I really want to share with you regarding this. One is that there is no shadow without light and two a shadow, in and of itself, can’t harm anyone. This is a fear there is no true present danger. Although there are times I would argue this, as fear can be so hard to overcome, I do logically know that a shadow can’t hurt me.
Let’s not miss the change in tone, David starts in verse 1 with “The Lord is my” and here it becomes more personal with “thou art with me”. Just as a shepherd is always near his sheep our God is always with us, caring and tending to our every need. Isn’t that awesome? I mean really the Creator of the earth and all that exists, the One who hung the stars in the sky and knows each one by name – He is always with us.
A Table in the Mist of my Enemies?
Think about sitting down to a lavish feast in the midst of your enemies. How does that make you feel? I’m not so sure! However, I do know that if it is arranged by God it will be good. This is exactly what our God does for us. Make no mistake this table in not your everyday dinner table. God is a god of abundance, and He blesses His children in abundance. This table is a feast like no other.
Think on this, have you ever experienced being seated at a feast in the presence of your enemies?
Amazingly, I think that I have. As a child I was bullied, it was a very hurtful, crushing, experience. Growing up in a small town, later I had experiences where a couple of those who had bullied me now wanted something from me, or wanted to acknowledge our “friendship” in a way. Sorry, this is hard to explain. And it just now occurred to me that those couple of encounters were God seating me at a feast in the midst of my enemies. He lifted me up before them. At the time it was just awkward, at least for me. In the long run it helped me gain some confidence that the experience of being bulled stripped from me.
He Anointeth My Head with Oil
This term is often spoken of as being filled with the Holy Spirit. How beautiful is that? Christians today are filled with the Holy Spirit, only that has not always been the case. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. In the time of writing this Psalm there was no being filled to overflowing with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit was present and would come along/upon but not fill. We are so lucky, I can’t imagine trying to work out my life without the constant continual presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There is one other thought on this oil that I want to mentioning. It is thought that the shepherd would carry a bottle of oil to aid in care for the sheep. The sheep would often get cut up by thorns and stickers when digging into bushes for food, typically these cuts were located on the face. The shepherd would use the oil to care for these wounds. So, the picture here is of Jesus, at the end of each day, holding my head to gently clean and care for my hurt from that day. I feel ashamed to say that I don’t always go to Him at the end of the day for this beautiful healing.
Benefits for Now and all Eternity
Verse 6 is the last, and one of the best bits of comfort in the entire Bible. “goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” vs6 Do you know the word “follow” here is a word that in Hebrew means more than just follow, it is the chase, hunt down, and pursue kind of follow. That means that goodness and mercy are chasing you, it will hunt you down. How marvelous is that – you can’t escape from God’s goodness for you. I for one am not sad about that.
Finally, my favorite part, “…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” This is our promise for eternity. It is not just about this life, the here and now. I often pray scripture and one of my favorites is this,
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want….and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” (Psalm 23:1 & 6)
I love this because it reminds me that the Lord is with me, He is taking care of my every need and even better than that is that one day I will dwell with Him for all of eternity. I think it is important to keep our eyes on eternity and not let this life side track us from what the real prize is. Which is living in the constant presence of Jesus. This verse helps me to remember what is really important and what my ultimate goal is. To “dwell in the house of the Lord”.
Final Thought – We as Sheep
If the Lord is our Shepherd, we are His sheep. Did you know that sheep see better when they have their head down? Because of the placement of their eyes and how they see, they have a blind spot when their head is up. Yet when they are grazing, their head is down, they can see all the way around them. This made me think about staying humble. When we put our head up and start thinking, “I got this” we actually create a blind spot. When our head is bowed and our heart is humble we can see much clearer and we are less likely to fall into troubles.
WOW I did not realize that there was so much packed in these 6 verses. Right now I feel like I could write an entire book on these 6 verses, it may be a small book but a book none the less.
I really enjoyed studying and writing this for you, and I hope you found some value in it. As always I would love to hear your thoughts.
Have a beautiful blessed Day!