Psalm 23 Part 1
A study of the 23rd Psalm
Psalm 23 is without question the most quoted Psalm and one of the best-known passages in the Bible.
While it is commonly used in the context of death and is quoted regularly at funeral services, Psalm 23 is not a psalm to die by, it’s a psalm to live by. It supremely maps out for us a beautiful picture of the Christian’s walk with our “Great shepherd of the sheep.”
It’s opening declaration, “The Lord is my shepherd” sets the stage for everything that will follow. Our Lord protects and guides us. He rules over our life as we, in turn, surrender to His will. He is good. He loves us. And will lay down His life to protect us from danger.
David is the author and was a shepherd himself. Therefore, the 23rd psalm is written from the experiential viewpoint of one who was intimately familiar with caring for sheep. Each verse springs from genuine knowledge of what it was to herd sheep, care for them, protect and guide them.
When we first meet David in the Bible it is as a young shepherd. He is called out of the field where he is busy herding sheep in order to be confronted by the Prophet Samuel with the life changing announcement that he had been chosen to be next king of Israel—the shepherd of a nation!
We also know from his own testimony that he had twice laid his life on the line when the flock was attacked by both a lion and bear, both of which David killed in dramatic fashion. Here he is a type of Christ, who willingly laid his life down for his lambs!
So it is this real-life shepherd—the “Shepherd King” of Israel—who pens the most famous psalm in the Bible and one of the most beloved poems in the world.
So, let’s begin with the first five words in verse 1:
23:1 “The Lord is my shepherd...”
The Hebrew word David chooses here for “Lord” is Jehovah. In the Psalms, Jehovah is often spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel, and Israel as His flock.
The Prophet Isaiah beautifully describes Jehovah’s shepherding care for the returning exiles in HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/isaiah/40-11.htm"Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”
Jacob speaks of “the God who shepherded me” ( HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/genesis/48-15.htm"Genesis 48:15; HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/genesis/49-24.htm"Genesis 49:24).
The title of shepherd is also applied to Bible rulers; and in particular to David ( HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/2_samuel/5-2.htm"2 Samuel 5:2; HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/2_samuel/7-7.htm"2 Samuel 7:7); and to the future king (Jesus) of whom David was a type ( HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/micah/5-4.htm"Micah 5:4; HYPERLINK "https://biblehub.com/ezekiel/34-23.htm"Ezekiel 34:23).
And Jesus used it to describe Himself: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
We notice in the opening verse that David is not speaking as a shepherd, but as a sheep; one of the flock. Notice how he speaks with a strong sense of pride and admiration. The Lord is MY shepherd. Not just A shepherd, but mine! He almost seems to be saying, “Look at my shepherd. Isn’t he incredible!”
David knew by experience that a sheep’s well-being depended entirely on who his shepherd was. Some shepherd’s were kind and gentle, fed their sheep faithfully, and cared for their safety.
David had observed that under the owner a sheep would either flourish or starve, struggle or rest, be safe or fall to wild animals.
We see in this opening verse that while all the universe is at our Lord’s beck and call, His focus is on the sheep of his pasture—you and me. And among all the adjectives with which He has named himself, he has chosen “shepherd” to be one of them!
Think about it. On the Cross, Jesus gave His life so that we might come under his benevolent care. He knew that we were under a cruel taskmaster—the devil. So he gave his very life to deliver us from such a cruel tyrant that he might shepherd us.
Isaiah painted all of humanity in shepherd’s terms: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6).
Isaiah points here to one of the main reasons we human beings are compared to sheep. Like sheep, we are fearful and timid, stubborn and often stupid in our decision making, and we have perverse habits that bring destruction to our lives.
The entirety of Psalm 23 describes how our own Good Shepherd spares no pains to see to our welfare. Let’s look at a few of these descriptions.
First, a shepherd in David’s time (and in ours) always marked his own sheep by cutting into their ear with his own distinctive mark. This is where the phrase “earmark” comes from.
He would take each sheep and lay her ear on a wooden block, then cut deeply into it with the razor edge of the knife. There was pain for both the shepherd and the sheep. But from their mutual suffering, an indelible, lifelong mark of ownership was made that could never be taken away.
Once this mark of ownership was cut into one of their ears, the shepherd could easily tell from a distance which one was his.
For we Christians, the mark of ownership is the Cross. It is that which identifies us as belonging to Christ. Jesus told His true followers, “Pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Just as the ear-mark on the sheep signified he was no longer his own, but would from then on serve his owner, as we pick up the Cross of Christ on a daily basis it says, “I am no longer my own. I belong to another—my Shepherd.” And his cross has cut a mark into my life, a mark of ownership!
The Bible teaches that when a person comes to Christ, he is no longer his or her own. “You are not your own; we are bought at a price” (the blood of Christ)—1 Cor. 6:19-20. We now belong to the Good Shepherd, who puts His mark upon us—the Cross of Christ.
In light of this let’s ask ourselves:
Do I really belong to Him?
Do I pick up my mark of ownership, the Cross, daily?
Do I have peace and freedom under this arrangement?
If so, then we can proudly say with David, “The Lord is MY Shepherd!”
And in light of the Lord being our shepherd, David next makes a powerful declaration:
“I shall not want.”
Not only is this a declaration of trust in the Lord’s provision in our lives, it is also a statement of contentment—I shall not crave or desire other things, for His provision is enough! My shepherd takes care of me. His provision is sufficient. I am content!
Now, keeping this in balance, David is not saying that he will never have a need, or go through trials, or experience lack. In other words, he’s not painting our walk with God as problem free.
One of the fallacies common among Christians today is the belief that financial prosperity is the mark of God’s blessing on their lives. This simply isn’t so.
Our world is filled with wealthy people that live wicked lives, and people of faith that have little of this world’s goods. James writes that often we see the poor of this world “rich in faith” (James 2:5).
For instance, Jesus tells the Laodicean church in Rev. 3:17,
“You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”
So we can be rich materially and still be miserable, poor and blind spiritually. Hence, it’s safe to say that David was not speaking directly to material prosperity.
David himself went through years of hardship, living sometimes hand to mouth while King Saul sought his life on a daily basis. Many believe he actually wrote the 23rd Psalm during this time.
So what David is actually saying is, “I shall not lack the expert care and management of my Master, no matter the circumstances.”
One thing that stands out in Psalm 23 is that in real shepherding of real sheep, it is the owner that makes all the difference. Jesus described the difference between a good shepherd and a hireling.
He said that when the sheep come under attack by a predator, the hireling will flee to save his own life. But the good shepherd will fight for them, just like David fought the lion and bear to protect his own father’s sheep.
Philip Keller, who was a real shepherd for many years, writes about his own sheep farm being right next to one that hired tenant sheepmen to care for the sheep rather than the owner himself.
He describes how badly they were neglected by the hireling. The land was neglected. He gave little or no time to the flock, leaving them to forage for themselves in summer and winter. They fell prey to dogs, cougars, and rustlers. They had only polluted, muddy water to drink. They were a pathetic sight.
If those sheep could have spoken, they would likely have said, “I would give anything to be delivered from this awful owner!” In all their pain and want, the hireling simply didn’t care.
Keller sadly remembers them standing in little knots, staring wistfully through the wires of the fence at the rich pastures on the other side.
Let’s stop here and think that this is a perfect picture of a lost and dying world under the harsh rule of an uncaring devil. They are famished for the green grass of God’s word and the quenching waters of His Spirit! They peer into the peace and contentment of the sheep in Jesus’s pasture and wish for the same!
This is why God has called the church to “let our good works shine before men” that they might see the blessing and peace our own Good Shepherd has given us; that He is a good owner!
Hence, one thing is certain: It is the boss, the manager, the Master in people’s lives who make the difference in their destiny!
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Jesus is the shepherd for whom no trouble is too great as He cares for His flock. He is the rancher who is outstanding because of his love for the sheep. He will, if necessary, be on the job 24 hours a day to see that they are properly provided for.
He is the owner who delights in his flock. For him there is no greater reward than seeing that his sheep are cared and provided for, content in his keeping and nourished in his love.
If necessary, he will (and did) give his life for the sheep. His eyes are always scanning the herd to watch for predators, and he will attack them if they attack his sheep.
Let’s stand and say together: “The Lord is MY shepherd, therefore I shall not lack the expert care and management of my Master, no matter the circumstances, and I shall be content in His care!”
NEXT TIME: He makes me lie down in tender pastures!