The Shepherd’s PsalmPsalm 23Theme: Our Provider.This week’s lessons remind us that Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. LessonWhat is it that those in the care of the Good Shepherd shall not lack? First, we shall not lack rest. This is because “he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters” (v. 2).
Phillip Keller is a pastor and author, who for eight years was himself a shepherd. Out of that experience he has written a helpful book entitled A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Sheep do not lie down easily, Keller says. In fact, “It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.”1 But the interesting thing is that only the shepherd can provide the trust, peace, deliverance, and pasture that the sheep need.
It is interesting that the Psalm begins with rest. It is a reminder that the Christian life also begins with resting in God through Christ.
Secondly, we shall not lack life. This is because “he restores my soul” (v. 3). Since the word translated “soul” is actually life, the words probably mean “the Lord restores me to physical health” (or salvation).
In the book on this Psalm that I referred to earlier, Phillip Keller explains this by the situation known to shepherds as a “cast (or cast down) sheep.” What happens is this: “a heavy, fat or long-fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably in some little hollow or depression in the ground. It may roll on its side slightly to stretch out or relax. Suddenly the center of gravity in the body shifts so that it turns on its back far enough that the feet no longer touch the ground. It may feel a sense of panic and start to paw frantically. Frequently this only makes things worse. It rolls over even further. Now it is quite impossible for it to regain its feet.”2 The only one who can restore the sheep is the shepherd.
Sometimes we are spiritually on our backs, quite helpless. But Jesus comes to us when we are in this condition, and restores us. He gets us going again.
Thirdly, we shall not lack guidance. This is because the Lord “guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (v. 3).
Sheep are probably the most stupid animals on earth. One aspect of their stupidity is seen in the fact that they so easily wander away. No other class of livestock requires more careful handling than do sheep. A shepherd who will move them from field to field yet always keep them near an abundant supply of water is essential for their welfare.
Like foolish sheep, we stray by sinning, but God leads us into upright paths.
Fourthly, we 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 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 to the high pastures where they go in summer. The valleys are places of rich pasture, but they are also places of danger. Wild animals lurk in the broken canyon walls. There may be floods. Since the sun does not shine into the valley very well, there really are shadows that 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.” The Christian life is not always tranquil. God gives us the valleys with their trials to 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. Notice 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.
1 Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 35.2 Phillip Keller, Ibid., p. 61.
What things do those in God’s care never lack?
What four requirements must be met before sheep will lie down and rest?
What analogies do you find between sheep and shepherds and your own walk with God?