Thoughts on the Shepherd Psalm

This is the best-known of the psalms, and perhaps the most beloved of any portion of Scripture. The familiar musical setting of it–and one for which the lyrics follow almost exactly the text of the KJV–was written around 1872 by Jessie Seymour Irvine. She lived in the town of Crimond, in Scotland, where her father was a minister. (The tune was named after the town.)

More recently, a Scottish woman and her daughter were discussing with a soloist the music to be used at the girl's wedding. They suggested this hymn. But the singer objected, saying it wasn't appropriate, because it was funeral music! The mother retorted that in Scotland it was sung at parties, picnics, bus runs, weddings and more.

Its message is universal. Little children love and learn it, but it still has much to teach those who are in their latter years. How sad for anyone to think that this beautiful declaration of faith is "inappropriate" to be used when a couple is exchanging wedding vows! Far from being funereal, the psalm is bursting with life, even as it takes us through the valley of the shadow.

David's early experience as a shepherd (cf. I Sam. 16:10-13) is used to illustrate the shepherd-care of God for the saints. And this latter restriction is significant–the psalm's message is for believers. The sheep are the people of God. It is those by whom He is recognized and obeyed as "the Lord" who can claim the blessings alluded to.

Here is represented the Shepherd's authority and revealed direction, His infinite wisdom and His powerful provision. This declaration from the heart of a child of God assures us of: rich nourishment, wise guidance, strong defense, and ultimate blessing–each of which is alluded to in the psalm.

When troubles come, and the enemy assaults us, it is so easy to get our eyes off God and obsess over our problems. But this psalm provides an antidote. The focus is on the Lord, and His care of us. As the Shepherd, He faithfully guards and guides the sheep, and provides for their wholesome nourishment. Even the ominous danger of the valley of the shadow is quickly dismissed in the confidence that He will go with us through it. The psalm begins with "the Lord," and ends with "the Lord forever." Let us keep our eyes on Him.

Vs. 1. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Word of God frequently uses shepherd imagery to describe the Lord's care of His own (e.g. Ps. 37:25; Isa. 40:10-11; Jn. 10:7-16; Heb. 13:20-21; I Pet. 5:2-4; Rev. 7:16-17). Under His shepherding, "I shall not want." This is not to say, of course, that all our selfish "gimmes" and cravings will be satisfied. The statement means that God's sheep will not "be in want" (NIV), they will not lack anything they need. For this reason, His sheep enjoy utter peace and contentment in His care.

If you wish to study further the work of the shepherd, and how that provides a wonderful picture of what the Lord does for us, read the devotional classic A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by Philip Keller. (Keller was himself a shepherd in British Columbia, Canada, and speaks from experience.)

In connection with the above verse, Keller comments, "It is a tragic truth that many people who really have never come under His direction or management claim that "The Lord is my Shepherd." They seem to hope that by merely admitting that He is their Shepherd somehow they will enjoy the benefits of His care and management without paying the price of forfeiting their own fickle and foolish way of life. One cannot have it both ways. Either we belong or we don't."

Vs. 2-3. 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.
Here is the leading of the Shepherd into green pastures, and beside still waters. It is a portrait of abundant provision for our spiritual nourishment, and for our restoration and refreshment. In soul weariness, He refreshes and strengthens us; in soul sickness, He heals us; and when we wander into the paths of sin, He draws us back, forgives and cleanses us. Truly, "my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:19).

"The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. [1] Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free from all fear. [2] Because of the social behaviour within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. [3] If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. [4] Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger" (Keller).

In the last clause of vs. 3, it is as though the psalmist steps aside from the symbolic, and addresses the Lord's spiritual guidance more directly. He leads in righteousness paths for His name's sake. That is, He does it for the honour of His great name, not because we have somehow merited it.

And the fact that there are righteous (or right) paths implies that there are also unrighteous or wrong ones. God guides us in the best way, avoiding those byways that would lead us into danger, and on to spiritual ruin. If we wander off–as sheep are prone to do–we put ourselves in peril. If we rebel against the Shepherd's direction, we fly in the face of our own best interests.

As a young man, Joseph Henry Gilmore preached on Psalm 23, and was deeply impressed by three words in the KJV: "He leadeth me." In 1862, He wrote a poem about it which later became a hymn. "He leadeth me, O blessed thought! / O words with heavenly comfort fraught! / Whate'er I do, where'er I be, / Still ‘tis God's hand that leadeth me."

It may be only later in life–or perhaps only in heaven–that we will be able to see how perfectly the Lord chose the path for us, and how wisely He turned us away from that which would harm us. But we can trust His judgment, even when these things are not evident now to our feeble sight. The guidance of the Lord is a frequent theme of Scripture. "As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Rom. 8:14; cf. Ps. 25:9; 73:24; Isa. 42:16; Gal. 5:18).

Vs. 4. 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.
The valley of the shadow of death includes what leads up to death (i.e. the dying), and indeed any serious threat or impending calamity. The valley of the shadow of death pictures a deep and dangerous gorge where death seems imminent.

The same terminology is used in Job of the experience of death itself (Job. 10:21-22; 38:17). The Hebrew word tsalmaveth means a deep darkness, or a death-shadow. There may be more than one of these in each life, dark valleys to be traversed before the final one. But we need to assure our hearts with the realization that many times dismal valleys lead on to richer pasturing beyond.

Until then, in the darkness, we are reassured of God's constant presence. And notice the sudden change from "He (vs. 2-3) to "You." It is at such times that God seems nearest of all. The Lord is no theoretical "He" but an ever-present "You," with whom we can have intimate communion.

And we do not pass through the valley of the shadow because, somehow, the shepherd has made a wrong turn, or has grown careless. Such times are a necessary part of His loving plan. All our experiences, both of the dark and of the light, will be worked together for our good and His glory (cf. Rom. 8:28). Whatever comes, He is still present with us. And His wise guidance and protection never cease.

Many commentators take the rod and staff to be, respectively, a club to beat off attacking animals, and the shepherd's crook to direct and guide the flock, as well as to rescue straying lambs. The rod also can be used to discipline the sheep. African herders can hurl their rods with great accuracy to drive a sheep away from a poisonous plant, or rocky cliff.

"I will fear no evil." this phrase originally captioned a paraphrase of the psalm now known as the hymn "In Heavenly Love Abiding." The poem, written in 1850 by Anna Laetita Waring, draws many ideas from the psalm. It says in part, "Wherever He may guide me / No want shall turn me back; / My shepherd is beside me / And nothing can I lack. / His wisdom ever waketh, / His sight is never dim; / He knows the way He taketh, / And I will walk with Him."

Vs. 5. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.
Sheep are often threatened by predators. The shepherd has to keep a sharp eye out for them, while the sheep are feeding. In Acts 20:29, Paul speaks of false teachers as "savage wolves [that] will come in among you, not sparing the flock." He calls upon the leaders of the Ephesian congregation to be alert as they "shepherd the church of God" (vs. 28). We too need leaders who are watchful of danger.

"Jesus has a table spread / Where the saints of God are fed, / He invites His chosen people, "Come and dine"; / With His manna He doth feed / And supplies our every need: / O 'tis sweet to sup with Jesus all the time! / ‘Come and dine,' the Master calleth, ‘Come and dine;' / You may feast at Jesus' table all the time; / He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine, / To the hungry calleth now, ‘Come and dine'" ("Come and Dine," by Charles Brenton Widmeyer, 1906).

Compare Psalm 78:19 that quotes the rebellious Israelites saying, "Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?" Unbelief says, "Can God...?" Faith says, "God can!" And though enemies may surround us, we are safe at His table, under the Shepherd's care.

The anointing oil used by shepherds not only has soothing and healing properties, it is a preventative, protecting the sheep from parasites. These can irritate the sheep, drain them of needed strength and vitality, and even bring disease. But God knows the danger to us, and provides that which will arm us against the threat they pose.

There is a further thought here if we think of the anointing oil as that which was applied to visitors in Bible times (cf. Lk. 7:44-46). Because they had journeyed in the hot sun and along dusty ways, it was a courtesy to anoint the heads of those who entered the home with olive oil. Also, they were given a cup of choice wine to refresh them, and the custom was to fill the cup until it ran over. This indicated the generosity and abundance of the host (cf. Jn. 10:10).

Perhaps we can think of the application of this to the work of the Holy Spirit. On this side of the cross, each believer is considered to be a priest of God (I Pet. 2:5, 9), ministering for God in the lives of others, and representing others before God's throne in prayer. And as Old Testament priests were anointed with oil in preparation for their service (cf. Lev. 8:12), so each New Testament priest is anointed with the Holy Spirit.

Some see the Spirit's anointing as a situational thing, to be repeated on request. Thus they may speak of specially anointed songs, or preachers, or anointed meetings. But that is not how the Bible treats it. The anointing seems to take place once, at conversion, and "abide" after that (I Jn. 2:20, 27). It seems, therefore, to symbolize the Spirit's permanent indwelling, and His presence, available to help and bless us at any time.

Vs. 6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever
This is so, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. In the dark valleys of life these things may not be immediately apparent, but from heaven's vantage point we shall each be able to see, as one song has it, that "Jesus led me all the way."

"The house of the Lord" simply represents where God is. The Amplified Bible has "the house of the Lord [and His presence] shall be my dwelling place." It is a picture of intimate and eternal fellowship with God. The word "house" (bayith, in Hebrew) is also translated "household" and "family" in God's Word. (It is used that way in describing the labours of a faithful wife and mother caring for her "household," Prov. 31:15, 21, 27.)

We look forward to a uniting of our spiritual family in the presence of the Lord (cf. Jn. 14:2-3; I Thess. 4:16-17). Further, it is possible the rendering should be (as the LXX has it) "return," rather than "dwell." Perhaps then it would relate to the words of the Lord Jesus, "He...will go in and out and find pasture" (Jn. 10:9). In the millennial kingdom, and on into eternity, there will be ready access to the throne of God, and continuing fellowship with Him.

This sixth verse of the psalm seems to lead into the theme of Psalm 24. A transient valley of shade lies between two lofty hills: Mount Calvary (Psalm 22), and Mount Zion (Psalm 24). But in company with the all-sufficient risen Saviour, we need have no fear of the journey from the cross to the crown. Though we might quibble with the particulars, we can at least appreciate the sentiment of commentator Guy King's words, "What lucky beggars we are!"