By David Dombrowski
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
When David penned the words to Psalm 23, he attested in unquestioning words to the faithfulness of God. Verse 1 is one of the boldest statements found in Scripture because it testifies to the faithfulness of God from a man who had a unique relationship with the Lord. Here was a man after God’s own heart, a man who grew to believe that God is always faithful no matter what our position in life may be. God is glorious and never can too much be said to the glory and majesty of God. Or as Jeremiah so aptly put it, “This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23). God’s mercies are enduring.
So let us listen as David takes up his melodic harp. In verse 1, with song unwavering, David proclaims his trust and enduring assurance to the faithfulness of God. David had been a meek shepherd who watched his flocks day after day, caring for them. He knew that God is a shepherd too, looking after His own. What a wonderful God we have. And just as he cared for all of the needs of his flock, David looked to his Lord to be the provider for all of his needs. Verse 1, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” is a summation statement of all that follows in this psalm; yet this verse comes at the beginning rather than the end because each succeeding verse carries with it his resolute declaration to the faithfulness of God as the loving Shepherd who attends to all of the needs of His flock throughout our entire lifespan. Psalm 23 takes us through the sojourn the shepherd takes with his sheep to the mountain pastures and then back home again. I hope to describe the tone and testament to God’s character presented in this psalm.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Verse 2 then carries the message of God’s faithfulness found in verse 1 and renders it like the softer cords of a melody, alluding to the quiet love of the shepherd as he leads his sheep to green pastures bathed in the beauty of gently warming sunlight and soft breezes like a hand brushing over the tops of these slender grasses. To such a place, the shepherd brings his sheep to lay down if but for a little while to be renewed in the quiet confidence that gives strength – not so much in the physical event itself as in knowing and believing that the shepherd is there to sustain them. The shepherd then bids his sheep to come to the still waters; but more so than a bidding, he literally leads them to the still waters, which remind me so much of the living water Jesus offered to the woman He met at the well. The Word of God is life giving, like water to one who thirsts, in that it brings us to Jesus who is in the truest sense that living water springing up to eternal life. Notice again it says that the shepherd “leads.” The great wonder of the Christian faith is that it brings us to the Shepherd of our souls whose purpose is to guide us every step along our life-long journey. There can be no greater and truer comfort than knowing that Jesus is there guiding us. This quiet confidence is available to all who would be so bold as to yield their lives to Jesus by faith – trusting not in their ability to follow Him but in His ability to lead us. As the Scriptures say both implicitly and literally throughout the Bible, “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17), so too it is by faith that the Lord leads us. This is one of the great proclamations of this psalm – the Lord leads me; and He does so as we put our confidence in Him (not in ourselves) to do so.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Like the strummings of a melodic harp, we can hear the chords of restoration. Yes, there is nothing like spending the day under the watchful eye of the Shepherd of our souls. When we come to Him, He renews us and strengthens us. Nothing can really be compared to the work of regeneration God performs in us when we come to Jesus the first time; we are truly born from above at that time. Yet, Jesus then abides in us to continually renew and strengthen us. If you are a Christian who is feeling weary from the testings and trials of life, be assured that Jesus is knocking at your heart’s door to speak words of hope and comfort. Our journey may be difficult at times, but Jesus is there to renew us and bid us to go on. And on we go, from the pasture lands that feed us and the waters that restore our thirsty souls, on we go up into the hills. As Christians, no matter what station of life we are in, God has a call on each of our lives, and simply put, that call is to follow Him. And it is on the paths of righteousness that He leads us. Too often, we as Christians would want to get what we can out of life. There is the temptation to be selfish and self-centered. But God leads us on the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Our very lives should be a testament to the goodness and faithfulness of God. Today, there is much sin within God’s own flock. Let us remember that even though we are justified by the shed blood of Jesus alone, by faith alone, the fruit of our salvation should reflect the nature of God in our own character. That is why Paul said that the sins of immorality and ungodliness should not be named among us (Ephesians 5:3). All of us are being refined and renewed by the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, we must be holy for God is holy. Like beholding God in a mirror, we are being transformed from glory to glory.
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.
Verse 4 proclaims the secret for knowing God’s peace. One of the ironies of life is that those who have known suffering are oftentimes the very ones who have found the lasting peace that can only come from Christ alone. Here the psalmist declares his abiding faith, refined by God’s testings, by saying that he will not fear even under the shadow of death. David’s melodic harp continues on, and though the word “death” would ordinarily strike fear in the heart, somehow the music continues with beautiful cords beckoning our hearts to be still and witness the beauty of the Lord in the more trying moments of life. Up through the shadowy crags, the shepherd leads his sheep where predators often hide awaiting the moment when they can spring upon their victims. Yet, we learn here the secret of perfect peace in knowing that though danger may be near, and only God knows the outcome, we have hope and assurance that God is with us. The sheep know no fear when they know the shepherd is near; their hope and trust is that explicit. Is there any reason why we should not trust our Lord that fully? And, if there is a reason, what would that reason be?
His rod and staff, which are symbols of both his authority and ownership of the sheep, are also weapons of warfare, and hence bring a deep sense of comfort especially in this place of danger. Isn’t it true that God, who is mighty to correct and reprove His children, can by that same attribute bring comfort and peace as we know that no real harm can ever come to God’s people who put their trust in Him? Remember Jesus said: “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:4-5). Unfortunately, the fear of the Lord is being robbed from our present generation of young people. Emerging leaders have converged on them like wolves in sheep’s clothing encouraging them to break away from the moral restraints presented in Scripture as well as teachings on the atonement – namely the teaching that we are justified by faith through sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross – which teaching they find repulsive. The negative result from all of this is that our young people are being scattered from the watchful care of the true Shepherd only to have these false teachers spring on them with all of their mortally toxic teachings. One of the leaders being promoted today by those purporting to be officiating the way for our young people – to include Bill Hybels, Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, and Rob Bell – is “Christian” Rock star Bono of U2, whom many emergents view as their “prophet” and the main icon of their movement. In Bono’s rendition of Psalm 23, he alters the entire thrust and message of this beautiful psalm to something that sounds nothing less than blasphemous. For example, in the verse we are currently looking at, he alters the wording to say “I have cursed thy rod and staff, They no longer comfort me.”
I am so grateful that David, who was a good shepherd to his flock, became a shepherd to his people and pointed the way for us to see the true Shepherd of our souls. And here, there is great comfort in knowing God as He really is and trusting Him fully.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
The melodic music continues from the harp, not halting or wavering from its beautiful tones, as the psalm continues in its stirring message. The shepherd has now brought his sheep up through the cliffs and crags of the mountainside to a “table” where the sheep can stop again and feed on the gentle grasses. Though the enemy yet lurks on the fringes of this plateau, the shepherd’s watchful eye keeps them safe. They proceed to graze again while the shepherd tends to the sheep individually, bearing his horn filled with healing oil. What a blessing it is to know the care of the shepherd, anointing his sheep with healing oil. I also appreciate the fact that, while the last verse speaks of “the shadow of death,” this one speaks of renewal. We all face the prospect of something negative happening to us or those we care for, whether it be death itself or some kind of loss that makes our hopes and dreams seem unreachable and brings them to a grinding halt. But this verse demonstrates that we can go through the valley and come through on the other side. The strings of the harp now plucked to their most vibrant sound speak of those moments in life where perhaps all seems lost but then renewed hope rings out with a new beginning or a way to go on. It is the most joyous sound that speaks of God’s ability to take a difficult situation and bring light out of darkness and joy out of sorrow.
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.
Now we come to the sweet refrain upon the harp. We return to the familiar pastures that we call home. As if boasting before all who will hear, the sheep testify to the goodness and mercy of the Lord – whose mercies are new every morning; but also in their yearly transhumance, the sheep return to winter in their pastoral home on the valley below. If we boast, let us boast in the Lord, and this psalm is a vibrant proclamation to the faithful care of our Good Shepherd throughout the days of our lives. Surely, the joy in life is in knowing that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, and we can know the joy of salvation even now.
The music has now ended as the tone of the vibrating harp-strings fades away. No doubt, this was a song of rare beauty as we have as our witness words unrivaled by songwriter or poet. Yet, there is something even more precious to behold than mere words and melody in that this psalm is a testament to the relationship David had with his Lord that would be difficult for a commentator or theologian to adequately describe. And that is the matter that David was a man after God’s own heart; yet in this psalm, David invites us to enter into that same relationship with our Lord; there is no formula or code here, no ten-step plan – but an abiding relationship that comes from having a heart after God.
I should note here that God uses the difficulties that come our way in life to shape our character, but most importantly, He wants us to draw close to Him. Consider, for example, something I’ve been told has occurred: When a shepherd finds that he has an unmanageable sheep, he will take desperate measures even so far as breaking a leg of his sheep. He then carries the sheep on his shoulders until it is healed. The result of such a seemingly unreasonable act is that an emotional bond occurs whereby the sheep may become the most devoted and loyal, never straying far from his master. By modern standards, this may sound cruel, but at the same time, I find that much of the easy-going pop-Christianity we see today – where anything goes – is quite detestable and surely must be an abomination to God. On the opposite pole, nothing can truly compare with drawing near to God. None of the spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer can do this, but God draws us unto Himself in His own way. And the fruit of staying near to the Shepherd, if we allow Him to do His work in us, is that we have a heart after God. This is a place of staying close to Him, of being led by God on a daily basis. Are you aware of God orchestrating your life? By faith, you can trust Him to lead you on a daily basis, for the Word of God says “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). That means we can and should be trusting Him to lead us by the power of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. It is a journey on the paths of righteousness, past the meadows and quiet streams of renewal through reading His Word, up through the valleys of difficulties, to the table of restoration for summer feeding, then back to winter pastures in the valley below. God should be involved in the details of our lives throughout the year. For the Christian, there is no vacation from God, but at the same time, there is no better, no safer place, than to be near to God. Do you have a thirst for God? Seek after Him, with the Bible daily in your hands, and ask the Lord to lead you. The Holy Spirit is given to believers to be our Shepherd and guide through life with all its dangers and challenges. And as we come to trust Him more and more, drawing near to Him with every challenge we face, we will find that we too have a heart after God like David did.
David Dombrowski is chief editor at Lighthouse Trails and the author of several Lighthouse Trails Booklet Tracts.