The Satisfying Shepherd (Psalm 23:1–6)

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One of the most recognisable rock anthems of all time is The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it is considered by many critics to be the greatest rock hit of all time. The lyrics speak of a person who can’t find satisfaction in life—particularly in the light of the increasing commercialism of the modern world.

Sadly, some fifty years later, it seems that Jagger still cannot find satisfaction. Jagger’s long-time girlfriend—despite the wealth and fame—recently committed suicide, an action that baffled Jagger.

Of course, Jagger is not alone in this quest for satisfaction. A great many people today can relate, sharing his discontentment, disillusionment and despair. This should not surprise Christians. We know that there is only one who satisfies: the Lord Jesus Christ. He is “the good shepherd” (John 10:11), “the great Shepherd” (Hebrews 13:20), “the Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4) who alone offers satisfaction to weary sheep.

Psalm 23 is perhaps the best known in all the psalter, and it celebrates the Lord who satisfies. It celebrates the Lord as the satisfying Shepherd. His sheep testify to this. In fact, their satisfaction is tied to His reputation (see v. 3).

My goal in this study is to provide something of bird’s eye view of the psalm; to, as it were, observe from the air a satisfied sheep. As we do this, we will no doubt be driven to seek after the satisfying Shepherd. We will consider the psalm under three broad headings.

The Relationship

David begins, “The Lord is my shepherd” (v. 1). He knew that the Lord was not only a Shepherd but his Shepherd. We learn here that satisfaction is dependent upon a relationship with the Shepherd. Let me make a couple of important observations.

First, there is the recognition here that we are sheep. The most basic characteristic of sheep is dependency. Sheep are necessarily dependent upon their shepherd because sheep are easily distracted, easily disturbed, highly defenceless, easily disoriented and easily discontented. We must confess our fleshly dissatisfaction if we will experience satisfaction in the Shepherd.

The apostle Paul understood the truth of this. Though he had a good deal going for him in terms of religious observance (see Acts 26:4­–5), he came to realise that he must count those things as rubbish if he would find satisfaction in the Good Shepherd (Philippians 3:1–11ff).

We should thank God when He brings to our hearts a sense of discontentment. Augustine famously said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” Augustine had much going for him humanly speaking, but if you read of his preconversion life you read of a man who was clearly restless, dissatisfied and discontented. God graciously brought him to the end of himself where he realised that he was a sheep in need of a shepherd.

Someone has somewhat unflatteringly noted that sheep are the dumbest of animals. That is true of us too. We need help to see our discontentment and to see the satisfaction that is available in the Good Shepherd.

Second, there is the realisation in this psalm of the fact that the Shepherd is sovereign. David writes, “The LORD is my Shepherd.” “LORD” is a translation of the Hebrew name Yahweh. When we grasp the sovereign nature of the Shepherd, all that follows in the psalm becomes easier to believe. Our Shepherd is able to satisfy us because He is the sovereign Lord of all. Isaiah saw the truth of this:

Behold, the Lord GOD shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as His counsellor has taught Him? With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him, and taught Him in the path of justice? Who taught Him knowledge, and showed Him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor its beasts sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless….

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He brings the princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth useless. Scarcely shall they be planted, scarcely shall they be sown, scarcely shall their stock take root in the earth, when He will also blow on them, and they will wither, and the whirlwind will take them away like stubble.

“To whom then will you liken Me, Or to whom shall I be equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, by the greatness of His might and the strength of His power; not one is missing.

(Isaiah 40:10–17, 21–26)

Knowing God is the means to real satisfaction. The author of Hebrews instructed his readers to be contend “for He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). Paul wrote, “And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Satisfaction for these writers was found in their relationship with God, not in any material possessions they might have.

Christians often ask the question in evangelism, “Do you know the Lord?” That’s a great question to ask! By asking that, we are asking, “Are you satisfied—that your guilt has been removed, that you have rest in Jesus, that God is satisfied?” After all, it is only in Christ that God is satisfied (Isaiah 53:10–11).

If the Lord is our Shepherd, He will truly be all that we want. In many ways, this is precisely the goal of the Christian life: finding increasing satisfaction in the shepherd. As John Piper famously said, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. This is the good fight of faith (Philippians 3:8–14).

I recently started reading Against Calvinism by Roger E. Olson, in which the author speaks against the very doctrines of grace that I and our church hold dear. Olson argues, in essence, that while God is sovereign, he has chosen not to exercise control of all things but has given a measure of control over to humans. What a horrific thought! Michael Horton, on the other hand, in For Calvinism argues that God is in control of everything—including salvation. Thank God for that glorious truth!

David’s Shepherd was the sovereign Lord, and he could therefore cry, “It is well with my soul because my Shepherd has saved, and will continue to save, my soul.”

The Results

Having explained the relationship that he has with the Lord, his Shepherd, David continues to speak of the results that flow from that relationship:

I shall not want. 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. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

(Psalm 23:1–6)

This is a description of what satisfaction looks like. David says, “I shall not want” (v. 1). This does not mean, of course, as I confusedly thought it did when I was a child, that David did not want the shepherd. “Want” speaks of lack. Because Yahweh was David’s Shepherd, he lacked nothing. He was perfectly satisfied. And he sets forth in vv. 2–6 three broad areas of satisfaction. As we listen to David’s testimony, let us pray that it might be ours too.

David was Happy

Because the Lord was his Shepherd, David was happy. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters” (v. 2).

This is a calming scene. When you picture sheep lying down in green pastures, it conjures up images of rest. Sheep that are hungry, disturbed and disoriented, they are not lying down. Only content sheep lie down.

When I say that David was “happy,” I am not speaking of a cheap, Osteenesque happiness. The word is usually translation in Scripture as “blessed” (see Psalm 1; Matthew 5:1–12; etc.). God is the blessed God—the ever happy God.

The feeding that the Shepherd provides for His sheep is this tending or grazing in green pastures. David further speaks of being led by his Shepherd “beside the still waters.” I recently spent some time with a seasoned pastor who had spent some time pastoring in Scotland, and who had a friend there who was a shepherd. His friend told him that sheep do not like to drink from running water because they don’t like the water in their nose. (I empathise!) The running water disturbs them, and so a shepherd will travel downstream where he will dam it up to stop the water from running so the sheep can drink.

This is what the Lord does. He securely feeds His sheep. He gives them what is best for their souls. He controls the landscape of their lives. He makes sure that they get what they need (green pastures) while delivering them from what they cannot handle (running water). This is perhaps the Old Testament counterpart to the wonderful promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

Spurgeon correctly notes that sheep do not worry about tomorrow. They are content under the safe eye of the shepherd to graze in the fields and to leave tomorrow’s worries till tomorrow. Sadly, we are often so concerned about tomorrow that we can’t even enjoy the green pastures today. May God deliver us from such undue worry. He is in control of the pastures and the streams.

I was recently driving—midwinter—from Durban to Johannesburg, and as I drove through Harrismith I noticed sheep grazing in brown fields. It occurred to me as I watched them that we are often colour blind. Sometimes we think that the green pastures are brown, but our Shepherd knows where to feed us. We may find ourselves in terrible trials of poverty, broken relationships or physical ailment. We think that these are brown patches from which we need to be delivered, but actually God knows that they are green pastures. God has placed us in those pastures to feed them.

At the same time, as I watched the sheep grazing I wondered where the shepherd was. He was invisible to me, but no doubt he knew exactly where the sheep were. While sheep are easily spotted in a country field, the shepherd is often hidden. There is a wonderful principle there: Though the Shepherd is invisible, He has placed us where we need to be for our welfare. He has not forgotten us! He knows what we need and places us wherever we are found. The pasture is always green when we have Him.

I was speaking to a brother recently who was telling me that his son was severely physically handicapped at birth. There had been no indication during the pregnancy that this would be the case, and it came as a great shock to the parents. The (believing) wife was so shocked at the physical defects that she became almost catatonic for three full days. She said nothing, and only stared blankly into space. After three days, he came into the room and greeted her as he had done for the preceding three days, and this time she opened her eyes, looked at her husband, and said, “Let’s call him Jonathan,” which means, “God’s gift.” She went through a dark period, but because she had a Good Shepherd she came to see that God had given her a blessed green pasture.

Our Shepherd feeds us in green pastures and leads us to still waters. He makes us happy.

David was Healthy

In v. 3, David speaks of the fact that he was healthy because of his Shepherd: “He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

“He restores my soul.” Is that not what the Christian life is about? The word translated “restored” is used in some interesting ways in the New Testament. It is used in 1 Kings 13:6 of restoring a withered hand. In Isaiah 52:8 it is used of restoring captives to their land. Isaiah 58:12 uses it of repairing walls. Daniel 9:25 uses it to speak of restoring a ruined city. In short, the word speaks of returning something back to its original state.

The goal of Christianity is to restore the fallen image of God in man back to its original state. It is about Jesus saving His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). The Good, Great, Chief Shepherd brings wandering sheep back so as to restore God’s image in them. But in fact He does so exceedingly. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Romans 5:20). How so?

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

(Romans 8:28–30)

Verse 28—God working all things together for good—describes the green pastures. Restoring the soul is the process by which God calls those whom He foreknew and justifies them to the ultimate end of glorification. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, and while that image is now marred in humankind, we look forward to a day in which we will be “conformed to the image of His Son.” If you are one of God’s sheep, He is at work in you right now to restore His full image in you, and that will ultimately look like Christ. That does not mean that we will be little gods, but we will be perfect as Christ is perfect.

David knew that his soul needed to be repaired, to be returned to its original condition, and he was confident that his Shepherd was doing just that. Jesus will save His people from their sin. Surely there is no better promise by which to live!

There is in fact a sense in which we will be even better off than Adam. Adam was not indwelt by the Spirit; we are. Adam was perfect; we will be Christlike. The process may be painful, but it is very productive.

We must remember that this restoration process is so much more important than our comfort. We all like to be comfortable. We do not like trials, and do not pray for them. But while God may often graciously grant us comfort, our need for conversion is far more important than our desire for comfort. We need to be returned, restored, Christlike. He will accomplish this, and that is why we can trust Him by the turbulent streams.

But what does a healthy sheep look like? David gives us two glimpses of a healthy sheep.

First, a healthy sheep is a holy sheep. As David writes, “He leads me in the paths of righteousness.” Our happiness is related to our holiness, which is in turn a measure of our healthiness. “The paths of righteousness” can literally be translated “the tracks of righteousness.” The term speaks of a well-worn, well-attested path. It is worn by the sheep who have gone before us and experienced the ministry of the Good Shepherd—saints of old like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, Samuel, Deborah, David, Isaiah, Joseph, Mary, Simeon, Elisabeth, Peter, John, Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, etc.

The Shepherds sheep hear His voice and follow Him to holiness. And in their holiness do they find their happiness. Those who rebel against God’s Word can never be truly happy.

Second, a healthy sheep is a holy sacrifice. All of this is “for His name’s sake.” The work of the pastor, argued William Still, is to prepare the sheep for sacrifice.

In ancient times—and still today, I suppose—the reputation of a shepherd was dependent on the health of his sheep. If he lost the sheep his reputation took a knock. The Lord Jesus has tied His reputation (“His name’s sake”) to the health and welfare of His flock. That means that there is a guarantee that His sheep will ultimately be presented holy.

I was recently visiting family in the United States, and on my way to the airport before returning home I asked my father-in-law if we could stop at a nursing home to visit the wife of a dear friend, who was killed some years ago in a motor vehicle accident in Ghana. When we arrived at the home and asked for Alice, we were directed to a room where she sat, completely unresponsive, staring blankly at a television screen. There was no indication that she was aware of our presence. I told her I love her and prayed for her, and as I walked away I thought again how much I hate sin and its consequences. But I was thankful at the same time for the gospel promise that one day Alice will be whole, in a glorified body. This is a promise because the Shepherd has staked His name on it.

Submit to the voice and the leadership of the Shepherd. Do not chafe against His restoring work of chastening. He simply wants you to be satisfied as you are sanctified so that you may ultimately be glorified.

David was Hopeful

Finally, David was hopeful.

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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

(Psalm 23:4–6)

These verses form a unit. They are not mutually exclusive from what has gone before, but there is a subtle shift from David speaking about the Shepherd (vv. 1–3) to him speaking directly to the Shepherd (vv. 4–6).

The basic point here is that happy, healthy sheep are hopeful sheep. The satisfaction of which David speaks in vv. 1–3 was not merely theoretical, it was experiential. And it was particularly experiential in difficult times.

David speaks of “the valley of the shadow of death.” Often when a shepherd moved his flock from one pasture to another it was necessary to lead them through shadowy valleys. Sheep, naturally skittish, might be afraid—if it weren’t for the sure guidance of their shepherd.

I don’t think that David is speaking here exclusively of death itself, for he speaks of the shadow of death. He is speaking, I believe, of difficulties in this life. Because he had learned to trust his Shepherd in the past, he could speak to and trust Him in the present and in the future.

Learning to trust God in the normal events of life prepares us to trust Him in more difficult seasons. We learn to “fear no evil.” Because we are satisfied, we need not be petrified. Trusting the shepherd in the green pastures prepares us to trust Him in the valley of the shadow of death.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about a year ago. When we visited my parents as a family recently, I was amazed to see hardly any mental deterioration, though physically he is a virtual invalid. He was telling my daughters about his experience with Alzheimer’s. When he was diagnosed, he began a support group in his church to help others who have the same diagnosis. He told them that he had had a rich life, and was thankful to God for many years of blessings. He feels no regret at being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Sadly, he has encountered many others in his church who are quite bitter about their diagnosis. Many of them are in denial, but they cannot get the help they need if they will not admit they have a problem.

One of my daughters said to me afterwards, “Grandpa can handle this because he prepared for it.” He spent a lifetime in green pastures preparing for the valley of the shadow of death. If you only get serious about satisfaction in the Shepherd when the crisis strikes, it’s probably already too late. It is far better to prepare in the green pastures when the streams are calm.

I recall visiting an old church member in the hospital on her deathbed many years ago. Her body was riddled with cancer and death was imminent. With a smile on her face, she said to me, “I can’t wait!” She was satisfied in her Shepherd and had no fear of the valley of the shadow of death.

In v. 5 David seems to switch his metaphor from that of a Shepherd to that of a Host: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” According to the custom of the day, an honoured guest was safe because the host was obliged to protect his guest at all costs. And because our Shepherd paid the ultimate cost, we are safe (see John 10:27–30)!

God identifies with His sheep as we live in a world surrounded by enemies. He is for us (Romans 8:31–39). That is why corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is so important. Corporate worship is the table that is laid before us. We are fed by the God of the universe. We fellowship with Him in the midst of His (and our) enemies. That should give us confidence to take risks.

I was recently speaking at a conference and made the comment that, if we really trust God, we will be willing to take whatever risks are necessary with the gospel—even to the point of death—to reach those whom God wants to save. At a Q&A session a little later that evening, someone asked me if I was willing to die for the sake of the gospel, and whether I had ever put that conviction to the test. I told him that I am willing to die for the gospel, but I am not aware of any time at which that conviction was urgently put to the test.

As I thought about the question in subsequent days, I realised that the conviction is actually tested in perhaps a different way. The test is not us verbalising our willingness to die but actually living for the glory of God. The test of death may come, but it will be proven in daily living for the Shepherd. That is where the strength is built to willingly lay down one’s life if it comes to that.

David closes in v. 6 with these well-known words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” The word translated “dwell” is substituted in some texts by the word “return.” We may be tempted to read “the house of the LORD” as heaven, but the term is used elsewhere in the psalter (27:4) to speak of the tabernacle. Because David had learned to be satisfied with his Shepherd—because of the Shepherd’s goodness and mercy—he was committed to keep seeking the Shepherd. He would keep returning to the house of the Lord so that it seemed as if He would dwell there forever. He wanted to be in the very place where he could best avail himself of the opportunity to fellowship and walk with the Lord.

Those who find their satisfaction in the Shepherd do so in the fellowship of the flock. A church may be housed in a building, but the people are the house of the Lord. We need to dwell with the house of the Lord as often as possible so that we may be reminded of His goodness and mercy all the days of our lives. Then we will become increasingly satisfied in and with Him.

The seasoned pastor that I mentioned earlier said that his shepherd friend told him that an isolated sheep is never a healthy sheep. Sheep stick together in a flock. If a sheep wanders off by itself, something is wrong.

In our day, isolation is a virtue. Even professing Christians somehow are tempted to feel that they have no need for the church. We get to know the shepherd best in communion with other sheep.

Augustine once observed, “He cannot have God for his Father who refuses to have the church for his mother.” Calvin added, “If we do not prefer the church to all other objects of our interest, we are unworthy of being counted among her members.” Again, “For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels.” Commenting on Calvin’s words, Joel Beeke writes,

For Calvin, believers are engrafted into Christ and his church, because spiritual growth happens within the church. The church is mother, educator and nourisher of every believer, for the Holy Spirit acts in her. Believers cultivate piety by the spirit through the church’s teaching ministry, progressing from spiritual infancy to adolescence to full manhood.

Though we may be satisfied in our Shepherd, we will never be perfectly satisfied this side of eternity. Let us therefore live in anticipation of great satisfaction to come. We will arrive at our destination.

The Requirement

David was happy, healthy and hopeful because He knew that He was the Shepherd’s. The Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep. He then took it back up for His sheep. Have you heard His voice? Then repent and return. Say with David, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Be satisfied today.