Philippe R. Sterling
Jesus designated Himself as the good shepherd who knows His sheep (John 10:14). He came that the sheep could have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). We find life when we believe the promise of Jesus for eternal life. We experience the abundant life when we allow Him as the good shepherd to care for us and lead us.
The Bible refers to sheep and shepherds hundreds of times. God appears to be saying, “If you want to know something about a relationship with me, watch sheep and shepherds.” A sheep is many things that we do not want to be. It is defenseless, dependent, and some say even dumb. Yet it is the sheep that God chose most often to picture our relationship with him. You and I should acknowledge it before God: we are sheep. We will not enter into the experience of the abundant life unless we acknowledge that we are sheep in need of a good shepherd.
David pictured his relationship with God in Psalm 23 as that of a sheep with the shepherd. The figure was a natural one for David, the shepherd-king.
We can display the sections and main figures of the psalm by this structure:
A Care of the Shepherd (the LORD) for the Sheep – verse 1
B Provision by the Shepherd (He) in the Pastures – verses 2-3
C Protection by the Shepherd (You) in the Dark Valley – verse 4
B’ Provision by the Shepherd (You) in the Sheepfold – verse 5
A’ Confidence of the Sheep in the Shepherd (the LORD) – verse 6
I. Care of the Shepherd for the Sheep (v. 1)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. (ESV)
The first verse is a summary verse. The Lord meets our needs as our shepherd. An important word in the first verse is the personal pronoun “my”. David allowed the Lord to shepherd him. As a result “he did not want.” He never lacked what he needed.
II. Provision by the Shepherd in the Pastures (vv. 2-3)
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. (ESV)
A. The Green Pastures: The Lord provides us with spiritual rest and nourishment.
Sometimes sheep, like people, do not know when to rest. At times when they should be resting, something will excite them. They will mill back and forth across the pasture. The shepherd might move in the midst of the flock, and catching each sheep, gently press upon them to lie down. He makes his sheep lie down in green pastures.
Sometimes we find it hard to rest. Someone has characterized a typical American’s lifestyle with the three words “Hurry, worry, bury.” When the shepherd steps into this situation, he might press us down into rest. Our “green pastures” may actually be an illness that keeps us at home for a while. God causes us to rest that we might gain spiritual nourishment.
The sheep is a ruminant. It does not simply swallow its food. While lying down at rest, the sheep regurgitates the grazed grass and thoroughly chews it for assimilation. Food for our soul is the word of God. We assimilate it into our being by reflecting upon it and applying its truths.
B. The Still Waters: The Lord provides us with spiritual refreshment and restoration.
Sheep are afraid of running water. They might stand and just look at a swiftly flowing stream. The shepherd would take his staff, pry loose a few large stones and dam up a quiet place where the sheep could drink.
Has your shepherd ever done that for you? Have you ever drawn back in fear when life seemed like a rampaging stream? God calmed things for you and restored your soul.
C. The Right Paths: The Lord guides us in the right way to live our lives.
David asserts that because the Lord is his shepherd, he will not want for guidance. God led him in the right paths. There are private fields, gardens and vineyards into which the sheep are not to stray. A good shepherd knows the right paths on which to bring the sheep to the sheepfold. He does so because of his reputation.
God’s leading is not so much to a place as to the right kind of life. Would you like to know God’s will for your life today? I can tell you what it is. Paul tells us that God’s will for us is our “sanctification”, that is that we be set apart for a holy purpose (1 Thess. 4:3). When we are what God wants us to be, he will take us where he wants us to be.
III. Protection by the Shepherd in the Dark Valley (v. 4)
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. (ESV)
The Lord is with us to protect us. Right paths may lead through perilous regions. Early in the year, the flocks graze in the lowlands, but as summer comes the shepherd leads his flock to the better grazing land on the mountains high above. In order to take the flock to the better land, however, he must lead them through some treacherous and threatening ravines. Hidden in the shadows on this dark pathway are dangers such as poisonous snakes and prowling wolves.
A. The Lord’s Presence
The Lord dispels our fear by his presence. Notice the interesting change of pronouns in the middle of Psalm 23. In the opening verses David has been talking about the shepherd. But in verse 4 David begins to talk to the shepherd. When he thought about the rest and refreshment and the sunny green pastures, he talked about his shepherd! But when he thought about the dark paths of life through which he passed and was sure to go, he spoke directly to the Lord, “When I go through these places, you are with me”!
B. The Lord’s Protection
The Lord comforts us with his protection. The shepherd not only dispels our fear by his presence, he also comforts us with his protection. The rod and staff symbolize the shepherd’s power.
1. The Rod
The rod is an oak club about two feet long that was used to defend the flock against wild beasts. It may have had a round head whittled from the knot of a tree bough. A skillful shepherd not only swung the club to smash the head of an attacker, but he could also hurl the club to strike a wolf lurking in the distance. The rod is a tool for defense.
2. The Staff
The shepherd’s staff was sometimes hooked at one end. With the staff he restrained the sheep from wandering or hooked them to pull them out of holes. He also used it to pull branches aside when a sheep became tangled in a thicket. The staff is a tool for support and control.
The sheep take comfort from the shepherd’s power. David was comforted by the Lord’s presence and protection. From the defending rod and supporting staff of our shepherd we can find comfort. The Lord gives us his ever-present protection. If we find ourselves in a valley of deep darkness, we need not fear. The Lord is with us through life-threatening circumstances. I can look back over the course of my life and see many instances of the Lord’s protection.
IV. Provision by the Shepherd in the Sheepfold (v. 5)
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (ESV)
Some commentators believe there is a change of metaphor here, from the shepherd and his sheep to the host and his guest. I’m not convinced that is the case. Warren Wiersbe understands it as continuing the same metaphor and referring to the shepherd, the sheep and the sheepfold:
“Flat spaces in the hilly country were called “tables” and sometimes the shepherd stopped the flock at these “tables” and allowed them to eat and rest as they headed for the fold (see 78:19). After each difficult day’s work, the aim of the shepherd was to bring the flock safely back to the fold where the weary sheep could safely rest for the night. Sometimes at the fold, the shepherd would spread out food in a trough, because sheep lie down and rest after they have eaten. As they slept, they would be protected by a stone wall that surrounded them, and the shepherd himself would sleep across the opening and be the door (John 10:7-9). During the night, thieves and dangerous animals might approach the fold, but there was no way they could reach the sheep.”
A. The Prepared Table: The Lord shelters us.
The Lord provides us with spiritual sustenance as he shelters us in the midst of a dangerous world. The shepherd prepared a safe sheepfold (sheltered place) for the sheep in the midst of a dangerous environment. What the shepherd did for the sheep, Jesus does for us. If you are a believer, the Lord has sent you to live in a dangerous place. Jesus said to his disciples, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16).
Jesus sends us into the world, into our society, to live for him there. He prayed to the Father, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-17). The word “sanctify” means “set them apart.” We are set apart though the Bible. It is as we study and apply the Bible together in the local church that we can graze in the midst of a dangerous world, yet dwell in spiritual safety. Are you in the fold? Have you strayed from the fold?
B. The Anointing Oil: The Lord soothes our wounds.
As the sheep entered the sheepfold the shepherd would check them over for bruises, scratches and wounds, and anoint them with oil. He would also apply the oil to the heads of the sheep to help keep flies and other insects away.
Oil can represent the refreshing and restoring ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit grants us life and peace and joy as we set our minds on him (Rom. 8:6; 14:17).
C. The Overflowing Cup: The Lord pours out his blessings upon us.
The Lord abundantly blesses us. The shepherd drew water for the sheep in the sheepfold filling a large two-handled cup to overflowing.
God does more than “fill it to the rim with brim.” Our God is a great giver. He not only gives us what we ask or think; he gives us exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think (Eph. 3:20). Count your blessings; name them one by one.
V. Confidence of the Sheep in the Shepherd (v. 6)
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (ESV)
The psalm ends with the sheep settled and safe in the sheepfold. David looked back over his life and saw that in spite of his sins and failures, God had been faithful and gracious to him. He realized that the Lord’s loyal love would go with him everywhere through all his life and into the life to come. So he decided that he would turn to the Lord again and again and worship him all of his life. We should worship and follow the Lord all of our lives in grateful response for all of his benefits.
Let us worship and follow our good shepherd all of our lives.