By Dr. Mark Scott
David’s music comforted King Saul (1 Samuel 16:23), but the lyrics of the shepherd’s 23rd psalm comfort us all. Who hasn’t been moved by the words of this most famous passage? It has been read at more funeral services than any other psalm. It underlines God’s comfort, provision, discipline, guidance, joy, reception, and affirmation.
This month we will hear from four of the most famous voices in the Bible. One was a king (David). Two were fishermen (Peter and John), and one was a tentmaker (Paul). The voices are distinct, but the theme remains constant for this quarter of lessons, and that theme is love. Brother Seth Wilson said the job of church shepherds (elders) was threefold: feed, lead, and guard. Those three words can be imposed on this text to expose the shepherd’s love.
The Shepherd Leads
It is not about the sheep or David. It is about the true Shepherd of Israel. The key line in the psalm is the first one, The Lord is my shepherd. He provides, he makes, he leads, he refreshes, and he guides. His care of his sheep is complete. Unlike the shepherds of Israel who took care of themselves (Jeremiah 23; Ezekiel 34), this good shepherd is totally focused on the sheep.
He leads them in such a way that they lack nothing. This is quite a statement in light of the neediness in the land of Israel. Rarely did people go to bed with their bellies full. He leads them in such a way as to make them lie down in green pastures (note also Mark 6:39). Is this a harsh makes (as in being forced) or a provisional makes? Israel knew little of green pastures in the south where David lived, so this was special and lush provision. The parallel line is next, he leads me beside quiet waters. Quiet waters could be stagnant, but in this case it means calm—not raging or dangerous. This shepherd leads in such a way that he refreshes the soul. In a stained world our livingness often needs a restart. Finally this shepherd guides his sheep in the proper direction. Notice that this is done to advance the shepherd’s name—not ours. It is all about the Good Shepherd.
The Shepherd Guards
Sheep need lots of protection. They have a knack for getting into trouble. The psalmist anticipates going through darkest valleys. What else could we expect in a fallen world? Even though the valley of death has been equated with death itself (and thus the use of this psalm at funeral services) David probably means what some would call “the dark night of the soul.” The figurative takes its meaning from the literal. David knew something about hiding in dark valleys (think of En Gedi in 1 Samuel 23:26-29). But the dark valleys of the soul are worse than the dark valleys of the Judean wilderness. However, the shepherd can cause the sheep not to fear.
Sometimes the way the Good Shepherd guards is with a whack on the head. Notice, your rod and staff they comfort me. Rods and staves do not seem like instruments of comfort. But the shepherd’s rod can protect, and the staff can rescue. God’s methods of guarding sometimes take a toll on us, but at the end of the day they show his love for us (Hebrews 12:5-11).
The Shepherd Feeds
Psalm 23:5, 6
The shepherd’s provision for his sheep has already been stated. In verse 5 the provision is spoken of as a banquet. This verse must be understood by its sociopolitical background. Socially speaking one has to think about hospitality in the ancient world. Whenever there were guests, the table would be prepared. Not to prepare for guests would be a major faux pas.
But politically speaking this table has been set in the presence of my enemies. David recognized his place as the anointed King of Israel. Remember that prophets, priests, and kings were anointed. God’s banquet for his sheep is one of great victory. No one can stand against the true Shepherd of Israel. He is victorious and is coming again (1 Peter 5:4).
The famous psalm ends with a twofold promise. God’s goodness and love will follow David, and God’s presence (dwell in the house of the Lord forever) will be existentially experienced. The house of the Lord for David was the tabernacle, but he probably is thinking of a bigger house than that (2 Corinthians 5:1-5; Revelation 21:3).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.