Theme: The Shepherd’s Safety and Provision
In this week’s lessons we see how Jesus, as our shepherd, gives us everything we need in this world as well as in the world to come.
Scripture: Psalm 23:1-6
4. I shall not lack safety. This is because “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” (v. 4).
This verse is often used to comfort those who are dying, and it is not wrongly used in this way. God is certainly a source of comfort in a person’s dying moments. However, this verse primarily speaks of the shepherd’s ability to protect his sheep in moments of danger. The picture, as Keller points out, is of the passage from the lowlands, where sheep spend the winter, through the valleys and then to the high pastures where they go in summer. The valleys are places of rich pasture and much water, but they are also places of danger. Wild animals lurk in the broken canyon walls. Sudden storms may sweep along the valley floors. There may be floods. Since the sun does not shine into the valley very well, there really are shadows which at any moment may become shadows of death.
It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” The Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain top experience. God gives us valleys also, and it is these valleys with their trials and dangers that build character.
Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to it? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep or calm their anxieties. Many commentators on Psalm 23 have noticed that the second person pronoun “you” replaces the third person pronoun “he” at this point. Earlier we read, “He makes me lie down… he leads me beside quiet waters… he guides me.” But now, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.
5. I shall not lack provision. The twenty-third psalm also mentions the shepherd’s provision for the physical needs of the flock, saying, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5).
Some commentators think this represents a change in the psalm’s basic image, passing now from that of a shepherd guiding his sheep to that of a householder welcoming a guest to his table.7 This may be, particularly since the poem ends with the psalmist dwelling “in the house of the LORD forever.” But on the other hand, Keller may be right when he sees this as the shepherd’s preparation of the high table lands or mesas where the sheep graze in summer. A good shepherd will prepare these before the sheep arrive, removing physical hazards, destroying poisonous plants and driving predators away. Keller also has a chapter in which he describes how ancient shepherds used a mixture of olive oil, sulphur and spices to protect their sheep from insects and promote healing from infectious skin diseases.
In biblical imagery oil and wine also speak of joy and prosperity, since olives and grapes take time to grow and oil and wine require time to prepare. In periods of domestic turmoil or war these tasks were not performed.
Moreover, oil and wine were highly valued in the dry barren lands of the Near East. In Palestine, where the sun shines fiercely most of the year and the temperatures continually soar up into the hundreds, the skin becomes cracked and broken and throats become parched. Oil soothes the skin, particularly the face. Wine clears the throat. When a guest arrived at the home of a friend, hospitality demanded the provision of oil and wine so the ravages of travel might be overcome. David spoke of this somewhat differently when he prayed, “O LORD, … let your face shine on your servant” (Ps. 34:14, 16). A shining face was the face of a friend. In another passage David thanks God for “wine that gladdens the heart of man” and oil that “makes his face shine” (Ps. 104:15).
If we will allow God to lead us where he will, we will find that a table has been prepared for us, our heads have been anointed with the purest oil and our cups have been filled to overflowing with the wine of true joy.
What is a more accurate explanation for the “valley of the shadow of death”?
Explain the imagery of verse 5 in the context of the shepherd and his sheep. What else does oil and wine represent in their broader biblical use?
Reflection: What valley has the Lord taken you through, and how did it refine your Christian character? And if you are in a valley now, what does the Lord want to accomplish in your life through it?
Key Point: It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” The Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain top experience. God gives us valleys also, and it is these valleys with their trials and dangers that build character.
7See John Stott, Favorite Psalms, Selected and Expounded (Chicago: Moody, 1988), p. 32.