The Good Shepherd and the Gracious Host

  Psalm 23  

Few people fail to appreciate the simplistic beauty and comfort contained in the Twenty-third Psalm. Many of you know it by heart. I feel somewhat like a tourist guide standing before you at the edge of the Grand Canyon, attempting to describe its grandeur—or like a guide at the Louvre trying to convince you of the magnificence of the Mona Lisa.

While few of us understand the life of the shepherd in the ancient Near East, most have been able to grasp the message of comfort and assurance conveyed in the psalm. Especially in times of distress, such as the death of a loved one, we instinctively turn to the assuring words (in the KJV), “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The superscription (which is part of the first verse in the Hebrew version) ascribes this psalm to David. That makes sense, because David, in his youth was a shepherd. Like Moses, David’s days as a shepherd prepared him for his later role as shepherd of God’s people.

70 He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheep pens;
71 from tending the sheep he brought him
    to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
    of Israel his inheritance.
72 And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
    with skillful hands he led them (Psalm 78:70-72).

Psalm 23 is often called the “Shepherd Psalm” under the assumption that the entire Psalm presents the image of a shepherd and his sheep. I have however, concluded that David makes use of two images to picture the Lord’s care for his people—that of a good shepherd (vss. 1-4) and that of a gracious host (vss. 5-6). My purpose this morning is to help explore the imagery used to convey comfort and calm to the soul of those who are a part of God’s flock by faith in Jesus Christ and to see new ways in which the truth of this psalm can be applied to our lives.

The Sheep and the Shepherd (vss. 1-4)

We begin with the picture which is first and foremost, that of the Sheep and the Shepherd.

David begins: “The Lord is my shepherd” (vs. 1).

The shepherd was a very common image in the Ancient Near East. The Israelites themselves were identified as shepherds. Over time the term shepherd came to be used in the much broader sense of leadership of any individual or group. Jacob spoke of God as the shepherd of his life (Genesis 48:15). Kings were referred to as shepherds. David, as we saw in Ps. 78, was called shepherd as was the Messiah of whom he is a type (Ezekiel 34:23-24; Micah 5:4). And Jesus called himself “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

“I lack nothing”

When David called God his shepherd he meant more than God was his provider and protector. He meant that God was his king. And because God was his king, David lacked nothing. A good shepherd is all the sheep needs because a good shepherd, by his very nature, will provide for all the needs of his sheep.

Consider that. Those who have God as their shepherd have all that they need. You talk about counter-cultural! American consumer culture is built on the premise that you can never have enough. Watch any television program, paying special attention to the ads, and you will see it—your life is lacking something until you buy this—you need this to be popular, beautiful, happy. Psalm 23 runs counter to all that. “If the Lord is your shepherd, you don’t need anything else.”

Let’s be careful here, David is not saying that the Lord will give you everything you want. This is no proof-text for the prosperity gospel. He is saying that the Lord will provide his people with everything that he deems good for them. That is Paul’s meaning in Romans 8:28 when he declares that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him”. God may not give us everything we think we need—at times, in fact, he may withhold things which we think necessary for life—but, when he does, he does so with our greatest good in mind.

In verses 2-4 David describes the things which he, as God’s sheep will never lack.

Rest (2-3a)

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.

The green pastures and quiet waters may seem to speak of food and drink but, I believe, their primary application is rest. “He makes me lie down . . .” Sheep do not graze lying down. They lie down to rest after having been fed.  The abundant provision of “green pastures and quiet waters” to which the shepherd has led the sheep cause them to lie down and rest.

The first line of verse 3, “he refreshes my soul,” continues this image of the rest God provides his sheep. Literally it means “renews and sustains my life”. God provides for his sheep by providing for their physical needs of food and water and also by the rest necessary for renewal.

In Ezekiel 34:11-15 God promises to come to his people as their shepherd and give them rest.

11For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down,” declares the Sovereign LORD.

That there is a deeper meaning here than the provision for merely physical needs is suggested by the use of the same words in Psalm 19.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
    making wise the simple (Ps. 19:7).

  The shepherd provides his sheep with food, rest and refreshment; the Lord provides his people with his Word—the source of spiritual nourishment, rest and refreshment.

Guidance (vss. 3bc)

The second and third lines of verse 3 remind us that just as a shepherd leads his flock, so God guides his people.

He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.

One of the primary functions of a shepherd is to lead their sheep. He leads his sheep to the place of nourishment and rest. It often is necessary for the shepherd to lead the sheep for great distances to find pasture and water. Some of the paths are dangerous and should be avoided. So, it is the shepherd’s job to lead his sheep along the “right paths”.

The Psalmist is certain that he will never lack the leading of God in his life. We should have that same confidence when the Lord is our shepherd, because the shepherd always leads his sheep.

“For his name’s sake”

The last part of verse 3 gives us another reason for confidence that God will guide his people— “for his name’s sake.”  One commentator rendered that as “he acts for the sake of his reputation.” A shepherd is judged by the condition of his flock. God’s reputation is seen in his care for his people. We can be assured that God leads his people because their condition reflects on his care as their shepherd.

Oh, I know, you thought it was all about you. Sorry to disappoint. Paul says,

He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:5-6, 12).

He did it all—the plan of salvation— “for the praise of his glory.” The glory of God is the greatest good and the purpose of the entire universe. We are show pieces for his glory, so we can be assured that he will lead us “in the right paths.”

Comfort from his presence and power (vs. 4)

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

In verse 4 we see the dark side of this, Even though I walk through the darkest valley.” Sometimes to reach the “green pastures and quiet waters” the sheep must pass through dark and dangerous places. The “right paths” are not always peaceful paths.

Anyone familiar with the life of David knows that God did not shield him from every trial and tribulation. Though innocent, his life was sought by Saul. And David also suffered from the consequences of his own sin. Nowhere did God promise to David, or any other of his people, freedom from suffering, but we will never lack for the comfort of his presence and power.

“I will fear no evil.” God doesn’t promise that there will be no evil, only that we need not fear evil. We will always have the shepherd’s presence if we walk in his paths.

There is a subtle but significant change in verse 4. Did you notice the change in pronouns? In verses 2-3 it is “he” --he makes me lie down . . . he leads me . . . he refreshes my soul . . . he guides me. But, in verse 4 David changes to the more intimate “you” –you are with me, your rod and staff comfort me, you prepare a table for me. Someone has observed that God goes before us when the paths are smooth, but he stands beside us when the way is dangerous or frightening. It is his presence that dispels our fears “for you are with me.”

Further, his “rod” and his “staff” comfort us. There is some disagreement whether one or two objects are meant here, but certainly we know about the shepherd’s staff. It is both an instrument of protection and assistance. It is used to both ward off enemies and to assist the sheep. Whether the rod is meant as an instrument of correction as well is not clear.

While God may not use his power to keep us out of trials, his power will always be with us through our trials. “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

The Guest and the Gracious Host (vss. 5-6)

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

David has described his relationship to God using the image of a shepherd and his sheep. He now describes this same relationship using the image of a gracious host. The relationship of a host to his guest is even more intimate than that of a shepherd to his sheep.

Generous provision (vs. 5)

The duty of hospitality to travelers is well known in the Near East. According to the custom, once a traveler is received into the home, especially once food has been provided, he is cared for as if he were one of the family. That means that he is safe from any perusing enemies. There was no greater security in the Near East than to be offered hospitality. This was especially true if the host was a person of prominence and power. When the psalmist says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (vs. 5a), he is reflecting on this custom.

The anointing of the head was an extra measure of generosity. It marked the recipient as an honored and esteemed guest. That is the basis of Jesus’ accusation against Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:46, “You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Meaning that Simon did not treat him with honor, but the sinful woman had.

The cup is, likewise, a gesture of generosity. It is not half-filled but overflowing. David is not given leftovers but an abundance of the finest food and drink. Satisfaction, significance and security are all suggested by the image of the generous host.

Security (vs. 6)

Because of the generosity of verse 5 David can confidently sum up his security in verse 6,

Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

The thought that God’s goodness and love follow those who are granted the protection of God’s house could be discouraging-they follow, but never catch up--but the actual idea is that they pursue them. As a guest at God’s table David’s enemies no longer pursue him, rather God’s goodness and mercy do. God not only goes before us, leading us to places of rest and refreshment, but his goodness and love follow us from behind as well.

David is not a guest in home of the generous host for a day or two, he is a permanent part of the household. The old saying “Guests are like fish. They both start to smell after three days” is not the case here. David is not a guest for just three days. He is assured that he “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (vs. 6).  Here is confidence for both the present “all the days of my life” and the future “forever.” God’s care for us in the past is only a foretaste of his care for us throughout our lives and into eternity.

How can we be assured of the tranquility of soul which David expressed in this psalm? Only by being sheep of the Good Shepherd. To enjoy the benefits of the care of the Good Shepherd we must first be one of his sheep. As Jesus himself said,

27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27-28).

Those who enjoy the care of the Good Shepherd are those who know him, recognize his voice and follow him.

It is amazing to ponder that in order to become the Good Shepherd our Lord first had to become a sheep—the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. If you would experience the comfort and consolation of Psalm 23, you can only do so as a sheep, as a guest who has been invited to sit at the Lord’s table. Christian comfort is only for Christians.

One of the lessons of Psalm 23 is that every person who is one of God’s flock (by personal faith in Christ) is individually cared for as one of God’s sheep. Never forget that while you are one of God’s flock, His care for you is an individual type of care. David never lost his sense of individual care from the hand of his Shepherd.

Trouble and suffering tend to make us question this kind of personal and individual care. Some seem to feel that God cares about them only when everything is going well. In sheep-like terms, they think God is with them only when they are lying in grassy meadows alongside restful waters. However, once they find themselves in a dark valley they question his presence and care. David never lost his assurance of God’s care and His keeping. In fact, in times of distress, God’s care and keeping was more certain than ever. Let us learn that God never fails us, never leaves us, and never will forsake us.