You could subtitle Psalm 23 “A Year in the Life of a Sheep.” I am persuaded that this psalm pictures for us a journey from the fold, through the valley up to the table land, and then back down again to home in the fold. Some interpreters think that v. 5 shifts the metaphor from a Shepherd and his sheep to the Lord and His worshippers in the temple. I am unconvinced.
As we began to see last Sunday morning, this psalm is a wonderful picture of the Christian life. To be sure, the Christian life does not always follow these stages precisely, but there are certain stages and experiences in the Christian life that this psalm walks us through as God’s sheep.
It begins with the relationship between the sheep and their Shepherd in v. 1a. There is a point at which we enter into relationship with the Great Shepherd. The second part of v. 1 highlights the resolve of the sheep that we can go through life completely confident in the Shepherd so that we will not lack anything. In v. 2, David speaks of the rest of the sheep: The sheep can rest because they are confident in their Shepherd. Then v. 3 highlights the restoration of the sheep who become complacent and begin wandering from the Shepherd.
The second half of the psalm highlights three more experiences of the relationship between the Shepherd and His Sheep.
Reassurance from the Shepherd
David speaks in v. 4 of the reassurance that he experienced from the Shepherd: “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.” In the first half of the psalm, he spoke of the Shepherd in the third person (“He,” “His”) but he now begins speaking to the Shepherd in the second person (“You,” “Your”).
This section flows neatly from the second. Perhaps the sheep who has wandered and has been restored finds himself in need of reassurance, and that is precisely what he receives in this verse.
The phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” literally speaks of deathly darkness. It describes deep darkness. It is used in Amos 5:8 of the deep darkness of the night. Jeremiah uses the word figuratively of distress (13:6) and of extreme danger (2:16). Job spoke of the “land of darkness” (10:21) as the abode of the dead. As Ross notes, the writer is using the idea of this valley as “an image of life-threatening experiences or difficult places.” In the midst of such danger, the Shepherd is with His sheep.
Have you ever been in such a dark valley? If you have, and you are a sheep of the Shepherd, you can take great comfort that the Shepherd is with you. There are at least two ways, according to this verse, that the Shepherd reassures us.
He Fellowships with Us
First, our Shepherd reassures us through fellowship: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me.”
As a Christian, you will walk through valleys. Christians do not go from one mountaintop experience to the next. Shadowy valleys are a reality. We would love to go from one victory to the next, from one glorious experience to the next. But that is not the reality in which we live and walk. But, as the psalmist has said, we need not fear in those times of distress, for our Shepherd is with us.
A lot of shepherds have written books on Psalm 23. One of those was Philip Keller, who says that the picture here is of the Shepherd taking the sheep through the valley to get to the mountaintop. The valley will have some steep crevices and cliffs. The sheep will be understandably nervous, but in reality he has the guarantee of the Shepherd’s presence with him.
Keller has observed that, as frightening as the shadowy valleys can be for the sheep, there is also a sense of refreshment about them, because the shade provides some coolness and therefore a sense of relief from the hot sun. Patches of green grass and streams are also generally found running through valleys, he tells us. Though the sheep are afraid and perplexed in the valley, they can also find sustenance and relief. Even in the darkest of times, the Shepherd gently leads and provides for us. We may experience trials we have never experienced before, but even in those times we need not fear evil for our Good Shepherd is with us.
Of course, this is not the only place in the Bible where God promises to be with His people. Similar promises are found in Genesis 28:15; Exodus 3:12; Isaiah 7:14 (“Emmanuel”); Matthew 28:20; Romans 8:31–39; and Hebrews 13:5–6. Throughout Scripture, we are promised that the Shepherd is with His sheep.
He Fights for Us
Not only does the Shepherd fellowship with His sheep, but He also fights for them: “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
The “rod” was a piece of wood that was whittled into a slender stick, and was sometimes used as a weapon. Keller tells us meeting shepherds who had trained themselves to use their rod as a spear, flinging it at anything that might threaten the sheep.
Of course, the rod is also a symbol of authority. Think of Moses’ rod, which was a clear symbol of His authority. When God called Moses, it was his rod that He turned into a serpent. It was the rod that Moses raised over the Red Sea when God parted it. Moses was initially too afraid to follow God’s leading to Egypt, but God used the rod as a symbol of God’s authority, whereby Moses led the people out of Egypt. The rod was, as it were, God’s assurance of His blessed presence with Moses.
As we go through tough times, we know that our Shepherd will care for us because we have His rod (His Word), which gives us comfort. How do we know that He is with us? How do we know that we need fear no evil? Is it not because we have His rod?
A shepherd’s staff was in many ways emblematic of the shepherd himself. The crooked end of the staff was used to guide and draw the sheep back when they were in danger. In this context, the staff seems to be a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the staff of God who draws all the sheep together. Some of the sheep gathered may be in the dark valley, but as the Spirit gathers us together in the body, He comforts us. We are reminded that there is no need to fear evil.
The staff was oftentimes used to give a sense of connection to the sheep. Keller, in particular, speaks of watching shepherds guiding their flocks and holding the staff out to touch the sheep, simply to give them a sense of assurance that He is with them.
My father died a few years ago, just shy of my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. I recently called my mom because, in the same week, it would have been their anniversary and my father’s birthday. She told me that it had been a difficult week for her. In addition to the emotional turmoil, her garage door and her dishwasher had packed up. She testified, however, that the Lord had been good to her. He had been with her through it all. She was walking through the valley, but she was comforted that her Shepherd was with her. And she knows this because she knows His promises in His Word and is filled with the Spirit of God.
The Lord fights our battles for us. One thinks of the story of David and Goliath. David experienced a great victory there, but David is not actually the hero of that story; God is. God was the one who gave the victory—and David understood that: “The battle is the LORD’s, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:47). Yes, we are to stand against the wiles of the devil, but we are to stand strong in the Lord and the power of His might, not our own.
Revelations of the Shepherd
In v. 5, David speaks of fresh revelations of the Shepherd: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.” The Shepherd has led His sheep through the valley, fighting off enemies on the way. But now He brings the sheep to the table land, where He has prepared a meal for them.
A good shepherd prepares the table land before he leads the sheep there. He knows that there will come a time when they will need to be on the table land, and so he goes there ahead of time to prepare it for them. He knows that there will be snakes and poisonous plants in the table land, and so he goes there ahead of time to make the place safe for the sheep. When the sheep get there, they can indeed feast, because the shepherd has prepared it for them.
David has now had a fresh revelation of the Lord’s goodness, and he knows that a feast is prepared for him. Have you not found that? Have you not experienced dark times and found yourself wondering if the sun will ever shine again on you? You wonder if you will ever smile or laugh again. But soon you come through the valley and you find that a feast has been prepared for you on the table land. There is wonderful, fresh revelation of the glory of God.
God has foreordained the way for us. He knows every trial that you will experience. He knows every failure you will experience. He knows every sin you will commit. He knows and is in control of all that, and He is committed to bringing us through it all to the feast He has prepared. The enemies want to discourage and frighten us. They want to tempt us to take our eyes off of Christ. But He brings us to the place of feasting.
Not only does the Shepherd prepare a feast for us, but He also anoints our head with oil. During the summertime, sheep often experience problems with insects. One particularly problematic insect is a nasal fly, which will lay its eggs in the sheep’s nose. This will cause such irritation that sheep will literally bash their heads against rocks or trees to try and dislodge the larvae. The anointing oil serves to protect the sheep from such pests.
When circumstances and people bug us, we need a fresh anointing. The Spirit must fill us and anoint us to help us against things that bug us.
Shepherds are also known to oil or grease the heads of rams because, during mating season, rams will try to show off their superiority by engaging in head-butting contests to impress the ewes. The oil or grease will make the heads slide during such displays of power and so the rams will not injure themselves.
The Spirit of God anoints our relationships, because sometimes we are prone to butt heads with others, even though we are feasting. Even when we experience God’s blessings, we are tempted to be at odds with others, and so the Spirit anoints us.
In addition to all of this, “my cup runs over.” David’s Shepherd has so blessed him in times of difficulty that the cup of blessing and fresh revelation overflows. There are, of course, times when the cup does not seem to overflow. In fact, there are times when the cup seems pretty empty. But is it not a wonderful thing when God gives you a special blessing, when the cup of His blessing overflows in your life?
Rewards from the Shepherd
The final experience of David was the rewards he received from His shepherd: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” God rewards us with his covenantal lovingkindness.
Our Shepherd both leads and follows us. He compasses us about in order to care for us. There is nowhere we can escape from God. He is all around His sheep, protecting, guiding and rewarding them.
Goodness and mercy can be pictured as two sheep dogs, chasing after the sheep and guiding them in the right direction. God’s goodness and mercy cover our guilt. They follow us on our journey, guiding us to where God wants us to go. This happens “all the days” of our life. He gets us to the reward, not only by leading us, but by following us there.
Sometimes we wander, but God’s goodness and mercy lead us home. Indeed, the goodness of God leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). God’s goodness experienced brings us to a point of repentance and guides us home where we belong. And when we get home to where we belong, goodness and mercy remain with us.
The goodness and mercy that follow us need to be so experienced by us that we express it to others. If we really have God’s goodness and mercy following us, it must dominate us. There is nothing uglier than self-righteousness. But as God’s goodness and mercy follow us, our lives will display that to one another. We will be willing to forgive one another. We will be kind to one another. We will help others in their guilt by being good to them and helping to restore them.
At a recent funeral held at our church, the brother in law gave a eulogy for the deceased, and told how his pastor had counselled his people to live such a life that, at their funeral, no one will have to lie. If goodness and mercy are following us, that will be true. If we are really living in the light of the Lord as our Shepherd, it will show in the way in which we treat others.
God’s goodness and mercy will lead us home. We will receive our eternal reward from our Good Shepherd. In light of that, let us stick close to Him and close to one another. May the Lord make us a people who increasingly testify, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want—for He is all I want.”