Psalm 23 is one of the more popular psalms. It is short, so it lends itself to be more easily memorized than others (just wait until we get to Psalm 119!). It is also one of the more comforting psalms as it not only talks about the goodness of the Lord, but also how good He is to us. Just in its reading you can sense peace and comfort in the words as they roll off your tongue and invade your conscience. In believing that this psalm speaks truth, we are strengthened, comforted, and encouraged. But do we truly understand the meaning of these lines or is it comforting just because it is familiar to us. I believe that if we pause long enough to understand what David is writing, we can gain even more insight into how good God is and how much He truly loves us.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. 3 He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.
A shepherd is one who is always there, always conscious, always concerned for the needs of his flock. Jesus told Peter to “shepherd His flock” once He left the earth. In more original languages, the word “pastor” is synonymous with shepherd. We must recognize that these three verses are not separate thoughts, but related in a more cause and effect way. Because He is our shepherd, we shall not want. He provides for us and is very reliable in this. We must remember this fact for the times when we feel as though we are going without or we think that He has abandoned us. A child that wanders off in a supermarket might feel alone and abandoned by his or her parents but he walked away from his caretaker, not the other way around. When a child is “denied” a huge bowl of ice cream topped with syrup and accompanied by a sleeve of Oreos, he feels as though his parents don’t care for his needs when actually they know what he needs and are caring for him in a way he doesn’t even comprehend in that moment.
God only gives us what He knows is good and takes us where we need to be. Sometimes we read verse 2 and think that our lives will not or should not witness pain, suffering, discomfort, or any of the other struggles we experience. But we know this isn’t true because Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) In fact, the word tribulation comes from the Greek thlipsis which is the same word used to connote squeezing grapes to produce juice or wine. Our tribulation squeezes out our essence and makes us better. Our struggle with verse 2 is in our perspective, which verse 3 clarifies for us. Our still waters and green pastures are about our soul, not our outward condition. He restores our soul despite our tribulation and trials and suffering. The storm on the outside doesn’t affect the calm on the inside (think of Jesus sleeping in the boat which the disciples thought would be destroyed by the storm outside the boat).
In all this He guides us in righteousness. Once our hearts are calm and trusting in Him, knowing that He only gives us what is good and that He is always with us and for us, we are able to be guided in paths of righteousness. If our hearts are tormented, we cannot and will not listen to what He has to tell us nor will we be very obedient to what He tells us. When we feel in a state of crisis, all we can focus on is the crisis. He restores us from the crisis and then works in us through His own righteousness so we can bring Him glory.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.
When we talk about not fearing evil while walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we must understand a few key principles:
- The “shadow” is the threat or fear of death. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57 that death has been overcome my Christ. If we are saved and God is with us, we have nothing to fear. But this results in the aforementioned restoration of soul and walk in righteousness.
- God’s rod and staff generally aren’t very comforting when viewed from a worldly perspective. The rod and staff are shepherd’s instruments used to guide, protect, correct and discipline the sheep. Hebrews 12:5-9 reminds us that discipline from our Heavenly Father is good for us. The word “discipline” makes most of us shudder as we associate it with punishment, pain, suffering, or at the very least a “time out” to ponder what you have done wrong and what you must do to correct it. Yet we understand the importance of “disciplining” or “punishing” a child to teach him or her not to run out into a busy highway. Again, it is all about perspective.
- It is dangerous to go along with things simply for the reward. In Matthew 6:20 we think that Jesus wants us to focus on heavenly treasures. While God’s Kingdom does bring reward, our reward is in experiencing His presence every moment of our lives as a result of being obedient. Better than worrying about being obedient (another word that has a negative connotation for most), we should recognize that our reward for avoiding sin is simply not experiencing the destruction that it brings upon us. Often we think about God’s punishment for disobeying His commands (the angry dad concept) when in reality God gives us guidelines for life that keep us safe and bless us because He knows what sin does to us. He designed us to live free from sin, not to be ordered around because He has a God complex (think about where that phrase comes from and why we use it…our perspective of who and how God is has become skewed!). Verse 5 speaks of God’s blessing in our lives not necessarily as a reward for obeying Him, rather it is how things were originally intended to be! To us it seems as a reward because it is not currently our state of being because we allow sin to reign in our lives instead of living the way God designed us to live.
- A table before us in the presence of our enemies is akin to the aforementioned peace amidst the storm. We are blessed because of God’s love, not because of our current situation. If God’s love for us was based upon what was going on around us, then we would certainly never receive His blessing. Unfortunately today, many see their outside situations as a punishment from God or even as a cause for disqualification from His love, mercy, and grace. This is purely a lie from the devil! He has anointed us (an honorary symbol of love and affection) and poured out His blessings so that we cannot even contain them all. His blessings are not a result of our current condition, rather the positioning of our hearts towards Him. I liken it to a cup wanting to be filled with something. If it is upside down, thrown on the floor, covered, or otherwise not in a position to be filled, would you pour something out over it anyway? Would you pour juice into a cup lying on its side or first correct its positioning so that it can properly receive what is ready to be poured out? I’m not talking about how clean the cup is or what it appears to be worthy of on the outside, rather I am talking about whether our hearts are positioned towards God or not. Jesus warns us about false purity when He is yelling at the Pharisees and Scribes in Matthew 23:25-26.
6 Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
When we experience these things, then our faith is secured and emboldened, knowing that God’s love and peace will always be with us. This is not to be confused by the thought that we must earn God’s favor or maintain ourselves pure to deserve His blessings; we cannot do this on our own nor sustain it with our own strength. Rather, we will be able to trust in it and know that this is who God is and how much He loves us (Hebrews 11:1-2, 12:2-3). Verse 6 is not so much a result of these things, rather a synopsis of the previous 5 verses. It is a conclusion he makes (and so should we) based on all that God has done, does, and will do for us.