The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever [or, for length of days… “many days.”]
Rather than going phrase by phrase through this psalm, I’d like to make six observations with some implications:
- This is a song expressing satisfaction with the life directed by God.
Maybe it’s your habit to read a psalm/ day, and I think that’s a great habit. We know that Jesus was deeply immersed in the psalms: it’s the book he quoted from the most.
You’re reading psalm by psalm and come to Psalm 23. “Of David.” And as you read this psalm of David you’re struck by its cheerfulness. Not exuberance. Certainly not frantically ecstatic. But very noticeably happy. And as you sit in your chair that morning with open bible on your lap, you think: now isn’t it pleasant to hear from someone who’s doing well?
We lived in a condo in Watertown, and our neighbor would often have a friend’s car parked in the driveway with a bumper sticker that said: Annoy a Liberal: Work hard, succeed, be happy.
Now whether or not it’s a socially liberal trait or not, I do believe there’s a strong current of thought running through western society that suggests: you should be miserable. If you’re not unhappy, you’re not living an authentic life. You’re not considering all that should be considered. Your head is buried in the sand. You’re acting too privileged.
But we read the psalms. Including Psalm 23. And we have this simple poem wherein David expresses a lot of delight about how his life is going. Ahh!
While looking over his life, David is grateful. Believes that he’s living a happy life. And believes that the secret sauce isn’t luck or talent or drive, but God.
I wonder if you’re ever in the frame of mind to reflect over your past and your present and consider your future. And if could do so without the very common sounds of complaint, but with gratitude and optimism.
Could you take time this week to reflect with gratitude on your life with God as your Shepherd?
- We’re not told when David wrote this
Some titles contain information about the setting of the psalm – we saw one such in Psalm 3. This one doesn’t.
We don’t know the setting of this psalm, though we do know a bit about David’s life, and we know therein was a wide range of experience, including plenty of ups and downs.
His growing up years were generally hidden from the chroniclers: we just know that he helped tend the family’s sheep. We could call those his “quiet years.”
Later came plenty of ups and downs. And these ups and downs weren’t due to daily mood swings, but to changing external circumstances. There were periods – even up to years – of hardship: think about those seven years running from Saul.
Also, there were periods of relative peace, then success upon success.
But on the whole things never got totally settled into a happy groove. Those favorable years were followed by more periods of hardship, even some anguish. Even up until the end of David’s life he was experiencing the judgment of “the sword not departing from his house”: before his death there was schism between his sons about who would succeed him as king.
I say all that to make one point about Psalm 23: It’s not tied to a specific period of David’s life but seems to be an overall reflection on his life.
That life, as we said, included much hardship; there was probably more than one Psalm 22 moment: “my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But here’s the takeaway: moments of despair and frustration need not cancel out an overall portrayal of life as happy and satisfied in God. The same David that said in Psalm 34, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” is the David who penned Psalm 23: “Yahweh is my Shepherd; I shall not lack.”
This psalm, in a way, gives those who have experienced heartache the permission to say something like, “Yes, hardship; but overall “God is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
This leads to our next observation:
- Even though Psalm 23 expresses a deep satisfaction of life with God, it also contains shadows.
Of course, the most famous Psalm 23 shadow is even called a shadow: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” And David did spend much time in that shadowy valley. He was a man of war living in tumultuous times. He’d seen his share of bloodshed and heard his share of death rattles and had closed plenty of his comrade’s eyes.
In great contrast to almost all, or all of us, his life was one long brush with death.
But even we sheltered moderns very much resonate with David’s words when he speaks of time spent under the looming specter of death. We also know death. We are embodied in a dying body. We live among families whose members are dying off. Dying friends. Dying colleagues. Dying creation. Death indeed looms darkly over us. As much as we’d like to avoid the whole topic, especially as we get older, the walking through the valley of the shadow of death seems just about how things normally are.
Which makes our first observation about Psalm 23 – that his psalm expresses a deep satisfaction in life as it is, being directed by God – that much more striking. Even in a lifetime under the shadow of death David found his way to cheerfulness and optimism. Because God was his Shepherd.
But the famous “shadow of death” isn’t the only shadow in Psalm 23. Where else did you feel a chill while reading? What about v. 3: “He restores my soul”? Because “restore” implies a wound, or a deprivation, or set-back. Loss. Lack. Etc.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a lifetime without some moments, even stretching into periods, of lack. Deep hurt. Slim accounts. Spiritual drought. Loss of health.
But these dark reflections help us appreciate even more the steady throb of joy emerging from Psalm 23. David’s not for a moment looking at life with rose colored glasses. He knows. He’s seen. He’s been, for instance, hungry enough to have to resort to eating the holy bread. And yet, and yet… “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not lack.”
- The main theme of David’s rejoicing is that God’s shepherding generates a constant supply.
David rejoices in God’s provision. He sees himself a sheep continually being returned to green pastures. Now, green pastures are comfortable to lay about in, probably look nice enough for someone to photograph, but what the sheep really enjoys about the green pastures is the plentiful food therein! David looks over his life and is struck by the bounty. He has enough. More than enough – as he says, “my cup overflows.”
Perhaps those of us who tend toward worry and complaint can be inspired by David to recognize that, indeed, God has been the opposite of stingy with us. Could we follow David and take time this week to reflect on God’s supply:
- Good influences
- Family members – aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces
- Encouraging words
- Moments that moved you in a good direction
- Foods and restaurants
- Places visited
- Books & movies & stories that furnish the imagination
- Pants with stretchable nylon
As part of Yahweh’s provision, David also speaks of being led to “still waters.” I want to say here: that even though there are moments and periods of stress that God leads us up to and through, His people are taught to expect and to seek out peace. “Aspire to live a quiet life,” Paul says. “As much as you can, live at peace with all.” “Live in harmony with one another.” We’re to pray for our political leaders to enact such legislation so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life…”
There are people attracted to stress, busy-ness, busy-body-ness, and even chaos – as moth to the flame. But it is generally the way of our God to lead us beside still waters. He leads us into: Steady relationships not beset by constant drama. Bills paid and funds set aside ready for emergencies. Productive routines. Solid blocks of sleep. Children who cheerfully obey.
Bonus content: I wonder how much our phones and the constant titillation of social media are actually running afoul of the intent of God to make his people steady, rooted into responsibilities where they are, dealing with the people in front of them, and fruitful. At peace. Parents!
So, the Shepherd supplies, he leads into peace. And as we’ve already said, a part of the Shepherd’s provision is to restore sheep who’ve been banged up. The Shepherd brings His people through and then past great hurt, binding up the hearts of the brokenhearted. Bringing people into and through and then past periods of not-enough-money. Loneliness. Sickness. Spiritual apathy.
Of course, we are taught to set our hope fully on the grace that will be revealed when Jesus returns; only then will God fully restore us. Until then we’ll carry about at least residual perplexity and pain. But even so, David testifies that there is a measure of restoration even during this life.
I remember that after my dad died…
Again, I encourage you to reflection on those times that God brought you out and away from hardship, restoring your life. Out of debt. Sins forgiven. Health regained. Refreshing your immaterial life. Restoring warmth to a relationship.
- I want us to notice David’s declaration that it’s specifically God’s Presence which has made his life so satisfactory.
“The LORD is my Shepherd”…“For you are with me.” “He leads me…he leads me… You prepare a table before me…” The other day I quoted the lyric from an old gospel hymn: “How tedious and tasteless the hours, when Jesus no longer I see.” The song goes on: “Sweet prospects, sweet birds, and sweet flowers, have lost all their sweetness to me.” The writer is saying, without God, even the good things in life don’t seem to land.
David agrees. For him, it is not in itself the supply: the provision, the peace, the repair, that makes his a happy life. But the fact that all of these have been brought to Him by God Himself.
Yes, realizing that they’re a result of God’s Presence makes all the provision – new tires, meals, restoration of health, the help of a friend, completed project – especially sweet.
So, David’s satisfaction with life has largely to do with the presence of God.
Let me draw that out: his satisfaction with life has largely to do with David believing himself in the presence of God.
Let me draw that out just a little more: David’s satisfaction with life has largely to do with his practicing the habit of believing himself in the Presence of God. As He said in our last psalm, He sets the LORD always before Him
We believe, and strain to believe, that God is with us and for us, though not due to any virtue in us. Just the opposite. We were once alienated from God in our thoughts and deeds, but now we have been brought near to God through the broken body of Jesus Christ. He’s the Mediator between God and men, so that by Him we are at home with the Creator, part of His household. “Abba” is what we call the awesome Creator now. That is only possible after an atoning death.
But even though by Jesus we have come safely into the Presence of God, we can easily lose sight of this. Astoundingly, we forget about God. We don’t see Him in the provisions of life. And as the sight of God dims, things grow gray and chilly. Even though we’re in a happy situation, we think unhappily. Everything seems against us. We suspect that even God is angry at us and has turned away. We find only reasons to complain.
This is generally where the world is: feeling distant from God – (and they actually are). And out of that feeling of distance comes a climate of grumbling, constant critique, hatefulness, fearfulness. Go on to Twitter and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Complaining. Constantly harping on everything and everybody. This comes out of the darkness that doesn’t see God.
It doesn’t have to be that way! David’s cheerful reflection, that we call Psalm 23, is possible because he’s recalled that he’s in covenant with God, and that covenant is sure, not dependent on anything other than God’s own word. He doesn’t imagine that God has gone away but knows that “you are with me.”
Again, this takes work, thoughtfulness, poise to set the LORD at your right hand. Odes to the good life like Psalm 23 don’t just pour out of you; this kind takes faith-full concentration. But how worthwhile the effort! Practicing the presence of the LORD is sweet, and suffuses our life with gratitude and optimism.
David’s notion of God’s Presence isn’t simply that He feels God, or doesn’t forget about the fact that He’s there. Under the umbrella of the notion of God’s Presence, he speaks of God’s “rod and staff.” This rod and staff are the instruments of the Shepherd to direct the sheep (sometimes seemingly harshly!)… and occasionally extricate them from peril. The “rod and staff” are not the Shepherd himself, but in His hand become extensions of His care of and goodness toward the sheep.
A good example of this in David’s life is Abigail. Do you remember her? Find the whole story in 1 Samuel 25. She’s married to Nabal, and it happened that Nabal rudely and loudly humiliates David, so David sets out to kill him. (What else does a man of war do?) Abigail hears that David is on the way and she hurries to intercept him before he arrives. Upon meeting him she pleads with David, admitting her husband is a fool but also telling David that this revenge mission he’s on is a mistake. God will reward him for not shedding blood without due cause.
David listens to her speech. Afterwards, the first words out of his mouth are these: Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me….For as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there had not been left to Nabal so much as one mule.
Did you hear that? In the middle of his anger and desire for revenge, David recognizes the LORD’s instrument in Abigail coming to meet him. That day, she was verily the “rod and staff” of the Good Shepherd.
I wonder how practiced we are in discerning the instrument of God in the people and circumstances around us? Don’t you see, this is a critically important aspect to the satisfied life? To recognize the hand of God working through various instruments for your good, and to constantly be comforted by His Presence working through these rods and staffs.
Even when those rods hurt! Open your eyes to see God!
Who are some people, some circumstances, some conversations, that have been God’s comforting “rod and staff” in your past?
- Finally, notice that David looks not only to the past and present, but also the future, with grateful confidence.
There’s something in us that, in the face of a huge heaping of contrary evidence, makes us continually doubt that God is for us, that He’s good, that He’ll take care of us. After admitting that we have been given a lot, we tend to think, well that was before, but the other shoe is about to drop. All the blessing so far has only set me up for a bigger crash.
We’re natural born gloom and doom-ers.
Learn from David: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
David looks back and looks forward with conviction. There is a God. There is the steadfast love that streams from the covenant He’s made. I’m a party to that covenant. Therefore, I can be sure that for as many days as are in my future I’ll encounter God’s steadfast love, whatever else I also encounter. He’ll shepherd me in such a way that goodness and mercy will always be at my heels.
I don’t know what your credit card debt is now. What’s happening in your body at the moment. Where the economy is going. What’ll happen in Europe this winter and what that’ll mean for the rest of the world. What the next advance of the dark powers will be.
And yet, withal we don’t know about the future, there is still a reason for cheerfulness, confidence, courage. Because of God. God is faithful. God is good and does good. God raised Jesus from the dead and said “yes” to those who come into this new covenant put into effect by Jesus’ blood. The “yes” stands over and under your life now. Take heart as you stride into the future awash in steadfast mercy that will culminate in God’s new creation. God’s Spirit, the Spirit of our loving Lord Jesus Christ, is with you all the way. Take heart.
Young people ready to graduate college and begin a career. Middle-aged father staring down the prospect of kids going to college. 50-year-olds starting to feel the body wearing down. Seniors on a fixed income looking at inflation outpacing cost of living increase. Take heart. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
Did you notice the phrase in v. 3, “for his name’s sake”? God’s provision for you is ultimately motivated by a concern for His own reputation. God’s provision for you is ultimately motivated by a concern for His own reputation.
As I understand this and a few other passages, God brings the great heavenly beings into his royal residence, and on display in his dwelling are trophies and keepsakes of feats of his strength, tangible evidences of his ability to make promises and follow through. He delights in exhibiting these emblems of his might to the heavenly beings, and hearing them whistle under their breath.
And what is chief among these trophies by which God is praised and celebrated among the heavenly beings? His care for His people, for his name’s sake. What a solid ground for optimism! It makes so much sense to be grateful!