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Psalm 23

November 21, 2005
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“The Lord is my shepherd…”

If God is my shepherd, then I’m His sheep. I’ve met a few sheep. I don’t really like them. They aren’t too smart and they stink. Besides that, what does a sheep have to offer? When a sheep makes a gift, either of meat or fleece, the sheep loses. Moreover, some sheep are mean! I’d really rather be some creature more glamorous than a sheep. I like adventure, and all a sheep ever does is follow its master or wander in utter terror. God, can I please be a sheepdog? Can I be an assistant to the great Shepherd? Can I be something besides a sheep? I don’t think I make a very good sheep. It sounds kind of dumb, doesn’t it? But then, sheep aren’t too smart, and I guess that proves that I am indeed just one of the sheep.

A friend pointed out that sheep have good characteristics too. Sheep are loyal. They are wise enough to recognize their master’s voice and follow Him. They produce an abundant supply of wool, enough for themselves and more to share. Sheep are cute! Lambs are fun to watch as they bound around the pasture and learn to do all the things sheep do. Sheep do not pose an immediate threat to other animals—they are peace loving.

“I shall not want.”

The Hebrew word for this phrase is echsar, which means that nothing will be lacking in my life. The two parts of verse one are tied together in a very short phrase. You could reconstruct the sentence to say, “If the Lord is my Shepherd, I need nothing else except what He provides for me.” Quite literally, if you find yourself constantly lacking what you need to live as your shepherd demands, you might want to check out my Shepherd.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness…”

David, the author of this Psalm, once wandered in the fields near where I live. Green pastures are rare indeed. A green tuft of grass is the best you can hope for in most places. A shepherd would have to know the land well to keep his flock in green pastures. It isn’t a rocky hillside. This sheep gets to lie down and rest in a green pasture, and it’s not a one-day stopover.

Still waters are not easily available in a desert or a dry wilderness. Sheep won’t drink from running waters, and still waters will soon dry up in these arid hills. The shepherd has to know the land extremely well to find still waters. He may dig a well and fill a pool with cool water from deep in the earth.

Hebrew poetry uses a form of word art known as parallelism. One form of this poetry makes a statement and then repeats the same thought in a different way, perhaps using a completely different approach. I think that’s what David did with verse three. I believe he is saying that the green pastures of verse two compare to the restoring of our souls in verse three. Leading us in paths of righteousness could then be associated with leading us beside still waters. The Bible often refers to Scripture as water. Paul tells us we have been cleansed by the water of the Word (Eph. 5:26). I think that David may be showing us that God’s paths of righteousness are Scripture.

“Your rod and your staff…”

David sees our good Shepherd with two implements in His hands. A shepherd might normally have one of these but why both? A rod was used as a weapon to defend the sheep. Here, it could be a symbol of power, like a scepter. The rod is not for the sheep, however. The staff is for the sheep. The shepherd might pull a lost lamb back from the edge of a cliff with his staff. It seems like David saw the good Shepherd as having two roles. He is both the Shepherd who walks with the sheep and rescues them with His staff, as well as the warrior-king, ruling by might and power with His rod. In verse five, David makes three rapid references to ancient customs, each worthy of further study.

“You prepare a table for me, before my enemies”                                           (translated from the Hebrew by Jay P. Green, Sr.).

In Israel, you might be reminded of the ancient custom known in Arabic as sulka. Let me give you a fictitious example: You are driving down the road, and a donkey steps out in front of you. The donkey is killed but you are unharmed. You’ve destroyed the working animal of a Bedouin, and he has a legitimate right to seek revenge. There will be bloodshed if nothing is done to prevent it. A table is prepared. You are invited to sit, facing the injured party. You must offer restitution. Traditionally, you would offer an apology, a huge sum of money, and anything else you could think of. Your offer will be refused, but you must not accept the rejection, for a price must be paid. Eventually, both you and your adversary will reach an agreeable figure, and the dispute will be resolved—never to be mentioned again.

Here is a picture of a peace treaty that can work! Don’t forget, our good Shepherd is in charge of the table, and He will guarantee that a fair price is paid.

“You anoint my head with oil…”

No, God is not anointing you as the assistant king, but He is pouring out a blessing on you. He may be calling you to a specific work. He is showing the world that you are special in His eyes. The oil also hints at a transfer of authority, healing, and preservation.

“My cup runs over.”

It’s a tradition of Judaism to fill the cup until it runs over when preparing the blessings for Shabbat (the Sabbath). This shows that there is more than enough. It also hints that there is no need to struggle for any further possessions, but rather we should rest. The customs of the Shabbat blessings are most likely older than the Psalms, so David was probably referring to the Shabbat. In summary, verse five says that we have peace, made possible by the intervention of the good Shepherd, blessings from His anointing, and rest.

“Goodness and mercy will follow me…”

Do these chase me with the intention of blessing me, or are they the result of my passage? The Hebrew word for “follow” (pronounced yardefoony) can also be associated with persecution. If goodness and mercy are following me, it seems clear that those behind me will benefit from my passage. God’s rescues are limitless. His blessings will catch up with me, but they will continually follow me as well.

“I will dwell in His presence all my days.”

How richly David ends this Psalm. The good Shepherd enables me to follow Him, and I can follow Him all of my days. I’m still not sure I like the idea of being a sheep, but I sure do like the Shepherd.

Psalm 23 – A Psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths
of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, 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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord.

By Tom Brimmer, Odained Minister and Israeli Tour Guide

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