Perhaps the best-known passage in all the Bible is the Twenty Third Psalm which we want to call the Shepherd’s Psalm. What are the reasons why it has thrilled the souls of believers down through the centuries? Can we examine it briefly together to see if God will again speak to our hearts? Indeed this should be our purpose for the Good Shepherd said that one of the characteristics of the sheep is that they hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27).
One of the precious things about the Psalm is its position in relation to the one before and the one immediately after, for in Psalm 22 we have the Cross, in Psalm 23 the Crook, and in Psalm 24, the Crown. In the first we have the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep, in the second, the Great Shepherd who in resurrection is the leader of his people, and in the third, the Chief Shepherd who is coming again. Again, in the first we have the Saviour, in the second the Shepherd, and in the third the Sovereign. In the first we are appropriating the cross of the Saviour, in the second we are appreciating the care of the Shepherd, in the third we are anticipating the coming of the Sovereign.
We should also note that in Psalm 23 there is a full cup and that in Psalm 22 there is also a full cup for there it is the cup which His Father had given him to drink, even as he asked, "...shall I not drink it?" It is easy to see that Psalm 22 is the foundation for Psalm 23.
What is the setting for the psalm? Was David one day with the sheep, keeping watch over them, and thinking of all the requirements of the sheep, of the things they needed for their sustenance? And did his thoughts then turn to his responsibilities as a shepherd to meet the needs of these sheep? Was David, as he meditated upon these requirements and responsibilities, then directed in his thinking to the fact that he had a lot of things in common with the sheep? And did he then think that the One who was his Shepherd was none other than the Lord Himself?
We want to divide the psalm into three parts: verses 1-3, Thinking About the Shepherd; verses 4-5-Talking to the Shepherd; verse 6-Thinking About a Sure Future.
THINKING ABOUT THE SHEPHERD
"I shall not want" Here the Psalmist is talking about what the sheep have been given, that is to say their provision. "He that spared not his Own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). What has He given us? Or should we not rather ask, what has he not given us? "I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:28). Will you start a list of all the things we have been given, even as the old hymn exhorted, "Count your many blessings; name them one by one..."?
From what the sheep have been given he now turns to where the sheep have grazed-their pastures. "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." What a beautiful scene as we behold the sheep grazing in these fields of tender grass. But what is it like with us? Are we feeding upon the pastures He has provided for us? Is the Bible a living book to our souls, the place to which we daily go with the anticipation of having our souls fed with food convenient for us? Have we strayed into other sources of soul satisfaction and as a result are unhappy and unproductive in our Christian lives? All sheep require food and young sheep especially need to be fed for theirs are growing bodies. Perhaps David marveled at the way some of the sheep had grown! Would our Shepherd be pleased with our rate of growth? Have there been yearly increments in our spiritual stature or are we stagnant, showing the evidences of lack of appetite for the Divine things?
"He leadeth me beside the still waters." He turns his thoughts to the way the sheep have been guided - a look at their paths. The direction these sheep of David were taking, was always under the guidance of the shepherd. Taking any other course would have been to their detriment and it is so with us for He has promised to guide us with His eye and He has told us of the sorrows that will be ours when we choose a course outside His will (Psalm 32:8-11; Isa. 50:11).
As he continues to meditate upon the attributes of the Shepherd, he thinks of how the sheep are governed, for he writes, "He restoreth my soul." This is what brings the sheep back after they have gone astray. It is the pull upon the heart strings as one thinks of the joys that once were his and of the place he had in communion with the Father. The Hebrew writer quoted the words "I will never leave thee..." This word "leave" was used of letting animals range at large, of leaving them to fend unattended on their own. This our Shepherd can never do for He has promised to bring us back, to restore us to Himself. Are we currently at the highest point of our Christian experience? If not, we must cry out for His restoring grace.
TALKING TO THE SHEPHERD
From describing the attributes of the Shepherd, he now turns to address the Shepherd. He turns first to the Presence he enjoys for he writes, "for thou art with me." This is the peculiar joy of the believer as he knows in some degree the experience of the two on the Emmaus Road for as they communed together, "Jesus himself drew near and went with them" (Luke 24:15). Our difficulty in our present society is that we are so busy with important things that we do not take the time for the essential thing of enjoying His presence with us and as a result we go through the day and the days without walking with Him!
"Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." This is the protection he experiences. He is comforted by the rod and also by the staff. It may seem strange to us that the rod, that which is sometimes used in discipline, would be a comfort. Had David already known the experience of which we read, "Before I was afflicted, I went astray but now have I kept thy word" (119:67). Was he comforted by the fact that he would know the chastening hand if he went astray and that he would thereby be brought back?
He now talks to the Shepherd about the prepared table at which he is entertained. "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." At the table he is secure for it is prepared by the shepherd even though it is in the presence of his adversaries. At the table he is strengthened, for the oil with which he is anointed would no doubt be a picture of the work of the Holy Spirit. "Though our outward man perish our inward man is renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16). This is His work. At the table he is satisfied for he says "My cup runneth over." What a privilege of being at the table-secure, strengthened, satisfied!
THINKING ABOUT A SURE FUTURE
He has outlined the attributes of the Shepherd and then he has addressed the Shepherd directly. He now takes up that which will accompany him on his way to the Shepherd’s house. "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life".
He then turns to that which awaits him - "I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever." This is his eternal prospect. While he knew not all the truths that Paul entered into when he wrote, "...having a desire to depart and be with Christ which is very far better" (Phil. 1:23), he still had assurance that he would get to know the Shepherd better bye and bye. We are the sheep of His Hand (95:7), we are the sheep of his Pasture (100:3) and He is our Shepherd!