By Javan Rowe
The level of despair I witness around me can be disheartening, especially when Christians appear among the hopeless. We express a hope for the future God has for us, while allowing feelings of regret and worry to linger. Difficulties overtake our emotions and we fall prey to fear and frustration. We fail to realize God has called us to more than this.
Most believers are familiar with Psalm 23. Its words provide hope to a seemingly hopeless world. This psalm has been memorized in Sunday school classes and recited at funerals. Composers have written songs and artists have painted works of art, all inspired by this poetic psalm. What is it about Psalm 23 that provides comfort to so many?
Our Shepherd Lord
We find comfort immediately in the opening passage, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 1:1). To depict God as a shepherd is to show that he condescends to us, making himself lower. After all, many people through the years have had a poor opinion of shepherds. Joseph explained to his brothers, “For all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34).
A shepherd is essentially lord over the sheep. He is supreme commander of the sheep. Despite how he may be viewed by the outside world, God is our Lord. We need not be frightened of this designation, though, because God is a loving Lord who wants the best for his flock. Psalm 23 is based on the fact that God is Lord and we are his sheep.
Verse 1 ends with the comforting thought, “I lack nothing.” This is deeper than our simplistic desires. We want the latest movie release on Blu-ray or the trendiest clothing styles. These kinds of wants are nothing more than frivolous desires to satisfy material lusts. God’s provision means we will lack nothing we truly need in order to live a full, godly life.
Without God as Lord, we have no hope that our deepest wants will be met. We will continue to strive in our own strength, only to find ourselves too weak and our problems too strong and numerous. God wants to take the reins from our hands and lead us with his divine strength, knowledge, and everlasting love.
The opening verse is crucial to our understanding of the psalm because our greatest comfort comes from knowing God is our master who cares deeply, is in control, and supplies all of our needs.
Following the Leader
Though a shepherd must undertake such tasks as feeding, sheltering, and guiding, he is primarily the leader. The psalm continues, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake” (vv. 2, 3). Whenever I read this passage, I imagine the Lord leading us through golden wheat fields and lush pastures, past flowing streams.
As the Lord leads, we need not worry about how to follow because he has given us his Word so we might recognize him and his call. A sheep knows the shepherd’s voice, and we must similarly attune our ears to pick up the tones of the Shepherd. He wants to make himself known to us, which is the greatest benefit of being a part of his fold.
Being a follower may sometimes be dangerous, especially considering the many false shepherds waiting for us to join their flocks. This means we must remain aware of whom we follow. God is the leader in whom we can trust, the one who brings great comfort in a confusing world.
God is a leader who cares intimately for his sheep. The Hebrew word for shepherd can also be translated companion or friend. It conveys the idea of nearness and deep concern for another. The prophet Isaiah described the tender care of God for his people with these words: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).
Armed to Protect
Part of the shepherd’s leading involves protection. David wrote, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:4, 5). This is the climax of the chapter, where resistance to our path is introduced.
We all experience difficulties—our own valleys of deep darkness—where we desperately need assistance. The Lord offers protection with his rod and staff. He shepherds us with the same protective care parents show toward their children.
A shepherd used his rod to protect the flock from vicious predators that roamed the countryside. We face similar dangers as believers: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan is seeking to infiltrate our defenses and snatch us away, but, thankfully, the Lord stands ready to protect us from all danger.
Often dangers do not come from outside, but from within. Sheep are not known for their intelligence, and are quite capable of getting themselves into danger. They wander off, get lost, and eventually find themselves ensnared in brambles and thickets, unable to escape. The staff was a long stick that was hooked at the end to pull sheep out of entanglements. In a similar way, the Lord protects us from our own self-inflicted injuries. Isaiah 53:6 says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” We were like lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, until God came with his staff, pulling us out of the brambles of sin, and nestled us in his arms.
Our ultimate protection came in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross. He revealed he was the shepherd of whom the psalmist wrote, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus laid down his life on the cross so we could enter into his sheepfold.
As a child, I was comforted by the thought of Jesus as my shepherd. I remember seeing pictures of Jesus holding a little lamb in his arms, protecting it. I felt secure, safe from any harm the devil or this fallen world worked to inflict on me. Even today, I am assured that though others may scatter when danger approaches, Christ stands ready to protect his sheep.
The resolution of the psalm, and probably the greatest comfort to us, is in the form of kingdom promises. The psalm says, “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5).
David was anointed by Samuel years before he inherited the kingdom. We experience a similar anointing upon salvation, where God makes us heirs of his kingdom. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and are adopted as God’s children. As his children and heirs, we have been given the Spirit as a down payment for this great kingdom we anticipate.
Though we wait to fully experience the kingdom, we are given glimpses into that kingdom today. The psalm promises, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6). Part of Jesus’ mission was to show us the Father and his kingdom. During Jesus’ ministry he performed many miracles, giving a foretaste of the time we will be forever free of hunger and sickness. God’s gifts of goodness and love bring the kingdom to us as we travel the road of sanctification in anticipation of eternity.
The psalm closes, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6). This life will one day end and we will dwell in Heaven with the Lord for all eternity. What was promised and anticipated will come to pass and we will receive the ultimate comfort that will never subside. Until then, we submit to the shepherd who leads us, protects us, and offers us his kingdom, both today and in the life to come.
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
Resources for Studying the Psalms
Crash Course on Psalms
by Christianity Today International
(Standard Publishing, 2009)
Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms
by Matthew Jacoby
(Baker Books, 2013)
The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary
by Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston
(Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010)
Psalms: Understanding the Bible Commentary Series
by Craig C. Broyles
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms
By Tremper Longman III, David E. Garland, Willem A. VanGemeren (Zondervan, 2008)