Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
The twenty-third Psalm was written by David, about three thousand years ago, and may still be the most loved poem in the world. David spent his youth as a shepherd, so he had a good idea what sheep are like: stubborn, nearsighted, no sense of direction, mostly defenseless, and not very smart. In a flash of insight, David realized that people are a lot like sheep, and that even he needed someone to watch over him.
This is surprising because David was one of the most capable people who ever lived. He was a gifted poet, a skillful musician, a lethal warrior, and a powerful leader. If anyone had reason to feel self-sufficient it was David. But David felt dependent on God, and God became his greatest strength.
Psalm 23:2-3 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
This is the life we long for: an everyday stroll down to the river, to picnic and relax. It is a life of leisure, the purpose of which is to know and love our Shepherd.
The patriarch Jacob was also a shepherd, and was moving his flocks to another town. The journey was long, but he refused to drive the sheep too hard. If they are driven hard just one day, all the animals will die (Genesis 33:13), he said. God is a gentle shepherd who knows how to care for his sheep. Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mark 6:31), said Jesus.
Psalm 23:3 He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
A good shepherd cared for his sheep by keeping them on the right path. The only way for a sheep to get into serious trouble was to go its own way. This was a bad idea since to a wolf, sheep are just lamb chops waiting to happen.
Years ago I was walking along a path when I was surprised by a large dog. He was tied up to a tree, and actually hid behind it. But the moment I was close enough, he lunged at me, and nearly got my throat. Thankfully, his leash ran out, and he fell in a heap. But it is not hard to imagine what might have happened if I was off the path.
Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
We can imagine David passing through a valley, where bandits were known to attack, especially after sunset. David wondered how he would defend himself, and began to feel afraid. But then he recalled that God was with him, and his confidence was restored.
As we make this pilgrim journey, we may find ourselves in valleys of fear, depression, rejection, guilt, addiction, unemployment, confusion, sickness, poverty, pain, and other effects of living in a sin-cursed world. But God is with us in every valley, and is leading us to a place where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4). Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), he said.
Psalm 23:4b . . . your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
David was familiar with the rod and staff. He used them to coral his sheep, and to comfort them. They were an extension of his personal touch, to remind his sheep that he was there for them.
A shepherd was watching his flock in a place that was torn by war. Whenever a shot rang out the sheep would tremble uncontrollably. Then he would extend his staff and touch each one as if to say, Don’t be afraid; I am here for you. We too can comfort others reminding them that God is here for us.
Psalm 23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Notice the change of imagery. David is no longer a wandering sheep, but a guest of honor at a glorious banquet. A good host would welcome his guests by filling their cups and anointing their foreheads with oil. Likewise, Isaiah spoke of a banquet at the end of the age where God himself will be the host, and we will be his guests (Isaiah 25:6). He will fill our cups, anoint our heads, and say, Welcome home my child.
But as someone capable of both adultery and murder, David seems optimistic about his reception at the heavenly banquet. I would be happy to slip in quietly and take a place near the back. And if there was a place for the most unworthy, I would be happy to sit there. But that is not what the Bible teaches.
[Y]ou will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:11), wrote Peter. When we walk through heaven’s door there will be shouts of praise to God for his amazing grace, and for the blood of Jesus Christ which makes the foulest clean. God himself will fill our cups, anoint our heads, and rejoice at our arrival.
Psalm 23:6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
My wife and I used to look at new home magazines and discovered we have similar taste. For example, we both like anything over two million dollars. But can you imagine God’s house?
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:2-3), said Jesus.
A young lady was hospitalized for severe depression. She never took her eyes off the ground, and rarely spoke word. Then one day, she was assigned a doctor with an unusual last name. He introduced himself as Dr. Heaven.
That was his real name, and it helped change her thoughts. She stopped worrying about this life, and began to focus on the one to come. She took her eyes off her problems, and put them on God. Within a few weeks she was released, and went on to become a successful teacher. Regardless what happens in this life, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Reflection and Review
How are people like sheep?
How can valleys strengthen our faith?
What should we expect when we arrive in heaven?