Psalm 23:1–6comment (0)
October 1, 2009
By Douglas Wilson
Related Scripture: Psalm 23:1–6
Explore the Bible
Associate Professor of Christian Studies, School of Christian Studies, University of Mobile
WHEN I NEED COMFORT
Psalm 23 is one of the most well known, beloved and quoted of the Psalms. These simple lyrics are a favorite for believers as they lay family members and friends to rest in the grave. In fact, God prepared me to receive the death of my father through this psalm. I was preaching a series of messages on these verses, and on one particular Sunday, my text dealt with the shadow of death. As I personally walked through the dark shadow of my father’s death, God’s presence truly comforted me. No doubt today’s readers are looking for some nugget of truth, perhaps some undiscovered concept long lost, some gem taken from the mines of experience and a life of study. But the truth is this is a simple, yet rich, song of intimacy between a man and God. Using imagery familiar to him and his people, David painted a picture of close communion between himself and his Creator. Though God is transcendent, He is personal and approachable.
God Provides (1–2)
As a child, I had no idea what the opening verse meant. I thought the song was saying God is my shepherd, but I do not want Him (from “I shall not want”). No one told me that the Psalmist lacked nothing because God was his shepherd. My hope is that readers will come away with a sense of urgency to tell family and friends that our Lord meets our needs and then show them how He provides.
The shepherd-king used a personal analogy to characterize his intimate relationship with the God of the universe. David is introduced first as a shepherd tending his father’s sheep (1 Sam. 16:11–13). He learned to guide the flocks and protect them from threats. The Lord — who covenanted with Israel to be its God — is identified as David’s protector and guide. Jesus revealed Himself as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). He also is called the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4).
W. Phillip Keller, in his book “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,” discusses the significance of the details in verses 1 and 2. He explains that sheep will not “lie down in green pastures” unless they are free from fear, conflict, pests and hunger. Neither will they drink where brooks rush by. The shepherd must protect his flock from drinking out of stagnant pools and be responsible for bringing it to quiet water.
God Comforts (3–4)
“He renews my life.” This is the comforting, refreshing work of His Spirit, promised repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. The reader may wonder why some versions use “my soul” and the Holman Christian Standard Bible translates the words “my life.” This term also is employed in Israel’s great commandment in which men are called to love God with all their heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6:5). Likewise the word is used when describing Adam’s first breath: “And the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). This illustrates the original word can mean life, soul or being.
“He leads me along the right paths.” The Lord never leads His people astray. From day to day and situation to situation, He directs our steps. Like sheep, we are “prone to wander,” but we can take every confidence that God will lead us in the right way. Why? For the sake of His name, the Lord gently guides us into His righteousness.
God Secures (5–6)
In these verses, David used new imagery and changed pronouns. Whereas the song begins with the analogy of a Shepherd, it ends with personal security, royalty and intimacy of a Friend. Instead of He, the song becomes more personal, directed to You. First You protect me when enemies pursue me. This brings to mind the cities of refuge, instituted in the Law as sanctuaries for individuals guilty of accidental manslaughter. Seekers of vengeance could not pursue a wrongdoer under this protection. Second You anoint my head with oil. Anointing was a prophet’s act of identifying God’s man to serve as king. Some interpret this line to refer to anointing a sheep in order to protect it from parasites. Finally the Lord’s self-revelation of being gracious and compassionate (Ex. 34:6–7) is echoed, with the king’s desire to dwell in the house of the Lord.