The Sheperd Psalm
1. The Lord is my shepherd. It should be the subject of grateful admiration that the great God allows himself to be compared to anything which will set forth his great love and care for his own people. David had himself been a keeper of sheep, and understood both the needs of the sheep and the many cares of a shepherd. He compares himself to a creature weak, defenseless, and foolish, and he takes God to be his Provider, Preserver, Director, and indeed his everything. No one has a right to consider himself the Lord’s sheep unless his nature has been renewed, for the scriptural description of the unconverted does not picture them as sheep but as wolves or goats. A sheep is an object of property, not a wild animal; its owner set great store by it, and frequently it is bought with a great price. It is well to know, as certainly as David did, that we belong to the Lord. There is no “if” or “but” or even “I hope so” in this sentence. We must cultivate the spirit of assured dependence on our Heavenly Father. The sweetest word of the whole is my. He does not say, “The Lord is the shepherd of the world at large, and leadeth forth the multitude as his flock.” If he is a Shepherd to no one else, he is a Shepherd to me. The words are in the present tense. Whatever the believer’s position, he is under the pastoral care of Jehovah now. I shall not want. These positive words are a sort of inference from the first statement. When the Lord is my Shepherd he is able to supply my needs, and he is certainly willing to do so, for his heart is full of love. I shall not lack temporal things: does he not feed the ravens, and cause the lilies to grow? How, then, can he leave his children to starve? I shall not lack spiritual things; I know that his grace will be sufficient for me. I may not possess all that I wish for, but I shall not lack. Others may, far wealthier and wiser than I, but I shall not. “The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” It is not only “I do not want,” but “I shall not want.” Come what may, if famine should devastate the land, or calamity destroy the city, “I shall not want.” Old age with its feebleness will not bring me any lack, and even death with its gloom will not find me destitute. I have all things and abound; not because I have a good store of money in the bank, not because I have skill and wit with which to win my bread, but because The Lord is my Shepherd. The wicked always want, but the righteous never; a sinner’s heart is far from satisfaction, but a gracious spirit dwells in the palace of content.
2. The Christian life has two elements in it, the contemplative and the active, and both are richly provided for. What are the green pastures but the Scriptures of truth—always fresh, always rich, and never exhausted? When by faith we are enabled to find rest in the promises, we are like the sheep that lie down in the pasture; we find at the same moment both rest and refreshment. It is the Lord who graciously enables us to perceive the preciousness of his truth, and to feed upon it. How grateful ought we to be for the power to appropriate the promises! There are some distracted souls who would give worlds if they could but do this. They know the blessedness of it, but they cannot say that this blessedness is theirs. Those believers who have for years enjoyed a “full assurance of faith” should greatly bless their gracious God.
The second part of a vigorous Christian’s life consists in gracious activity. We are not always lying down to feed, but are journeying onward toward perfection. What are the still waters but the influences and graces of his blessed Spirit? His Spirit attends us in various operations, like waters—in the plural—to cleanse, to refresh, to fertilize, to cherish. They are still because the Holy spirit loves peace, and sounds no trumpet of ostentation in his operations. He may flow into our soul, but not into our neighbor’s, and therefore our neighbor may not perceive the divine presence. Our Lord leads us beside these still waters; we could not go there of ourselves, we need his guidance. He does not drive us. Moses drives us by the law, but Jesus leads us by his example, and the gentle drawings of his love.
3. He restoreth my soul. When the soul grows sorrowful he revives it; when it is sinful he sanctifies it; when it is weak he strengthens it. He does it. His ministers could not do it if he did not. His Word would not avail by itself. He restoreth: do we feel that our spirituality is at its lowest ebb? He who turns the ebb into the flood can soon restore our soul. Pray to him, then, for the blessing. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. The Christian delights to be obedient, but it is the obedience of love, to which he is constrained by the example of his Master. He is not obedient to some commandments and neglectful of others; he does not pick and choose, but yields to all. Observe that the plural is used—the paths of righteousness. Whatever God may give us to do we would do it, led by his love. Some Christians overlook the blessing of sanctification, and yet to a thoroughly renewed heart this is one of the sweetest gifts of the covenant. If we could be saved from wrath, and yet remain unregenerate, impenitent sinners, we should not be saved as we desire, for we mainly and chiefly pant to be saved from sin and led in the way of holiness. All this is done out of pure free grace, for his name’s sake. It is to the honor of our great Shepherd that we should be a holy people, walking in the narrow way of righteousness. If we be so led and guided we must not fail to adore our heavenly Shepherd’s care.
4. This has been sung on many a dying bed, and has helped to make the dark valley bright times out of mind. Every word in it has a wealth of meaning. Yea, though I walk, as if the believer did not quicken his pace when he came to die, but still calmly walked with God. To walk indicates the steady advance of a soul which knows its road, knows its end, resolves to follow the path, feels quite safe, and is therefore perfectly calm and composed. It is not walking in the volley but through the valley. We go through the dark tunnel of death and emerge into the light of immortality. We do not die; we do but sleep to wake in glory. Death is not the goal but the passage to it. The storm breaks on the mountain, but the valley is a place of quietude, and thus often the last days of the Christian are the most peaceful in his whole career; the mountain is bleak and bare, but the valley is rich with golden sheaves, and many a saint has reaped more joy and knowledge when he came to die than he ever knew while he lived. And, then, it is not “the valley of death” but “the valley of the shadow of death,” for death in its substance has been removed, and only the shadow of it remains. Someone has said that when there is a shadow there must be light somewhere. Death stands by the side of the highway in which we have to travel, and the light of heaven shining upon him throws a shadow across our path; let us then rejoice that there is a light beyond. A shadow cannot stop a man’s pathway even for a moment. Let us not, therefore, be afraid. I will fear no evil. He does not say there shall not be any evil; he had got beyond even that high assurance, and knew that Jesus had put all evil away; but his fears, those shadows of evil, were gone forever. The worst evils of life are those which do not exist except in our imagination. We feel a thousand deaths in fearing one, but the psalmist was cured of the disease of fearing. “I will fear no evil, ” not even the Evil One himself; I will look upon him as a conquered foe, an enemy to be destroyed, for thou art with me. This is the joy of the Christian! The little child out at sea in the storm is not frightened like all the other passengers; it is asleep in its mother’s bosom; it is enough for it that its mother is with it; and it should be enough for the believer to know that Christ is with him; thy rod and thy staff, by which thou governest and rulest thy flock, the ensigns of thy sovereignty and of thy gracious care, they comfort me.
Many people profess to receive much comfort from the hope that they will not die. Certainly there will be some who will be “alive and remain” at the coming of the Lord, but is there so very much of advantage in such an escape from death as to make it the object of Christian desire? Those who “shall be caught up together with the Lord in the air” will lose that actual fellowship with Christ in the tomb which dying saints will have, and we are expressly told they shall have no preference beyond those who are asleep. Let us be of Paul’s mind when he said that “To die is gain,” and think of “departing to be with Christ, which is far better.” This psalm is as sweet in a believer’s ear now as it was in David’s time.
5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. The good man has his enemies. He would not be like his Lord if he had not. If we were without enemies we might fear that we were not the friends of God, for the friendship of the world is enmity to God. Yet see the quietude of the godly man in spite of, and in the sight of, his enemies. How refreshing is his calm bravery! When a soldier is in the presence of his enemies, if he eats at all he snatches a hasty meal, and away he hastens to the fight. But observe: Thou preparest a table, just as a servant does when she unfolds the damask cloth and displays the ornaments of the feast on an ordinary peaceful occasion. Nothing is hurried, the enemy is at the door, and yet God prepares a table, and the Christian sits down and eats as if everything were in perfect peace. Thou anointest my head with oil. May we receive a fresh anointing for every day’s duties. Every Christian is a priest, but must go day by day to God the Holy Spirit. A priest without oil misses the chief qualification for his office, and the Christian priest lacks his chief fitness for service when he is devoid of new grace from on high. My cup runneth over. He had not only enough, but more than enough. A poor man may say this as well as those in higher circumstances. A man may be ever so wealthy, but if he be discontented his cup cannot run over; it is cracked and leaks.
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. This is indisputable, and therefore a heavenly Surely is set as a seal upon it. This sentence may be read, “only goodness and mercy,” for there will be unmingled mercy in our history. These twin guardian angels will always be with me. Just as when great princes go abroad and must not go unattended, so it is with the believer. Goodness and mercy follow him always—the black days as well as the bright days. Goodness supplies our needs, and mercy blots out our sins. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. A servant abideth not in the house forever, but the son abideth ever. While I am here I will be a child at home with my God; the whole world shall be his house to me; and when I ascend into the upper room I shall not change my company, nor even change the house.
Spurgeon, C. H. (1993). Psalms. Crossway classic commentaries (88). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.