The Shepherd’s Psalm

Psalm 23, The Shepherd’s Psalm, is among the most loved and well known passages in the Bible. Many can recite it from memory. But do we fully appreciate what the psalmist is communicating to us in this short but powerful poem? Let’s first read through the entire psalm together and then examine it verse by verse to see what new revelations are in store for us.

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 Thou preparest 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.”

In verse one, the writer likens his relationship with the Lord to that of a sheep with his shepherd. What do we know about sheep and why would a human being liken himself to one?

“Sheep do not ‘just take care of themselves’ as some might suppose,” says Phillip Keller in his book ‘A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23’. “They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care.” (p.7)

So the psalmist realizes that he does not take care of himself. Such an attitude is quite opposite that of a typical adult. In fact, it more closely resembles that of a little child. Therefore, to say “The Lord is my shepherd” is acknowledging a return to the mindset of childhood. Why is that necessary?

On one occasion, Jesus’s disciples asked him who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. He replied,

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3-4]

Most little children express a fascination and enthusiasm for learning that far exceeds that of the typical adult. However, because of their lack of experience and discipline, they require extensive training and meticulous care, much like sheep. So little children are quite dependent and well aware of this fact.

The Kingdom of Heaven represents a condition where one is ruled by the Mind and Will of God. Because God’s thoughts and ways are so different from ours [Isaiah 55:7-8], to learn them requires a childlike hunger and thirst for knowledge. In order to learn, one must be taught. Thus, our dependence on God to teach us is likened in the psalm to the sheep’s dependence on the shepherd to guide it.

Jesus modeled this behavior perfectly. He demonstrated his own dependence on God, his Father, when he told his listeners,

 “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” [John 5:19]

 “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” [John 12:49-50]

In these passages, Jesus is copying his Father’s words and deeds, like a little child copies the words and deeds of a parent or other caretaker. Has any of your children ever spoken or behaved like you?

What benefit is there to becoming like a sheep or a little child? The second part of Psalm 23:1 tells us – “I shall not want.” The Hebrew word translated “want” is “haser” which is a verb meaning to lack or be diminished. How many of us can honestly say that we have never felt diminished or lacking in some way? When you experience the Lord as your shepherd, you are beginning life anew, like a little child. And that life comes with the certainty that all your needs will be met. Jesus does not want us to experience anxiety or worry. Rather he prefers that we adopt the carefree attitude characteristic of early childhood and of a sheep at rest.

In fact, verse two tells us,

 “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” [Psalm 23:2]

Here is a word picture of peace and tranquility. According to Keller, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from all fear. Fortunately, fear is a learned behavior. Because it was learned, it can be unlearned. Under the perfect guidance and protection of the Shepherd, all fear is driven out so only love remains. As the apostle John wrote,

 “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear..” [1 John 4:18]

In order for the sheep to be at peace, fear must be driven out completely. Among fear’s detrimental effects are anger, timidity, or both. The way fear is unlearned is through gentleness. That is why the Shepherd leads his sheep to quiet, still waters. In the Scriptures, water represents the presence of God. Water is also known for its ability to refresh, cleanse, and heal. Therefore, being led to still waters pictures the gentle manner in which the Lord, through perfect love, removes all fear from our minds. 

The removal of fear and worry prepares our minds for learning a new way of thinking. As the good farmer recognizes that preparing the soil is necessary prior to planting to produce an abundant crop, the wise teacher recognizes that a mind at peace, free from fear, with trust in its teacher is most productive at learning a new way to think.

“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”[Psalm 23:3]

The refreshment of the soul comes from the perceptual shift created by learning “the paths of righteousness.” However, Keller tells us sheep are notorious creatures of habit. They are like us. He writes,

 “If left to themselves, they will follow the same trails until they become ruts, graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes, pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites.” (p.61)

Human beings living independent lives have done the same thing for millenia. Once fertile lands have become desert wastes due to human activity. Our ground, water, and air has become polluted, corrupted with disease, and brought about the suffering of many. 

The Lord, our shepherd, wants only the best for all of us – no more sorrow, no more pain. But his ways are much different from ours. They may at first appear strange. Yet, as we learn to follow where He leads us and experience the results, our trust in his guidance grows.

“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.” [Psalm 23:4]

“The valley of the shadow of death” is a graphic way of depicting fear. If you are walking alone, unguided, in a strange and scary place trying to find your way to a destination, what are the odds that you will succeed without suffering harm? And, as you go along in your journey, how will you feel?

The point here is that he fears no evil even though he walks in a fearful environment, because he trusts in the guidance and protection of the shepherd. The Lord knows the territory and the simplest and safest way to our destination. We do not walk alone. He goes with us wherever we go. He is a Shepherd that loves his sheep and devotes his life to their well being [John 10:11, 14-15].

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” [Psalm 23:5] 

There is rich symbolism in this verse. The Hebrew word translated “table” is “sulhan” which by implication means a meal. Spiritual meals pertain to thoughts. Notice Isaiah 55,

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.” [Isaiah 55:1-3]

The thoughts of God are the food by which we live [Matthew 4:4] [Deuteronomy 8:3]. He prepares and presents these thoughts to us in the presence of our enemies. The Hebrew word translated “enemies” is “sarar” which is a verb that means to be in distress. So the Lord, our shepherd, retrains our minds through His Word while we dwell in a place of distress. It is misperceiving reality that produces this distress. What the Lord does is correct our perception of reality which paves the way for an extraordinary transformation. 

“..thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” [Psalm 23:5]

The first evidence in scripture of anointing someone’s head with oil was when Aaron was consecrated as the high priest of Israel [Exodus 29:7]. Each high priest thereafter was to be anointed in the same way [Leviticus 21:10]. The same procedure was used in anointing Israel’s kings  [1 Samuel 10:1] [2Kings 9:3,6]. Oil was also used in healing [Mark 6:13] [James 5:14] and was poured on the head to make Atonement for one being cleansed from disease [Leviticus 14:18, 29] .

The lesson here is that anyone anointed with oil has received the Lord’s blessing. Once a sheep and follower, he is anointed with oil to become a shepherd, priest, king, and healer. Notice in the second part of the verse he possesses a cup. This cup was filled to overflowing while he was eating and drinking at the Lord’s table. The overflowing cup signifies the teacher has accepted the blessing given him, an abundance meant to overflow to others. His life has been transformed. So he goes forward with gratitude and enthusiasm with the intent of bringing that same happiness and peace to others.

“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 23:6]

Goodness and mercy are attributes of the Lord. This verse tells us wherever this newly ordained shepherd goes, the Lord goes with him. The shepherd lives where the Lord lives. The two are one in being.

Psalm 23 then is an allegory that utilizes the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep to describe the process of transforming one’s being. This process begins with a sheep, which represents a human being, accepting the direction and guidance of his shepherd, whom we are told is the Lord.  The sheep recognizes his dependence upon the shepherd much like little children seek the direction of adults to satisfy their hunger for knowledge. However, the psalmist is expressing through the allegory a much deeper meaning. The sheep represents a person recognizing the need for the Lord’s guidance in discovering who they really are and why they are here.

The psalmist then takes us through a transformative process. First, as a shepherd gently and lovingly tends to the needs of his sheep, the Lord prepares people for retraining by establishing a bond of trust helping them to relax and achieve readiness for learning.  He then shows them the path of righteousness, training them in a new way of thinking. This learning is then reinforced by giving them the work and responsibility of a shepherd. Here the Lord is sharing his life with them, transforming them into an extension of himself. Thus the Lord and the person (i.e. the Shepherd and his sheep) become unified in purpose and in being, permanently joined together as one for eternity. 

Thus the transformation is complete. The person, who once thought he possessed a separate and independent identity of his own, now comes to realize that he jointly shares his true identity with the Lord himself. He has indeed become a new person.