Psalm 23 is the best-remembered psalm in the Bible, but how much do we really know about it? It’s called “the shepherd’s psalm,” but it isn’t about sheep. How many people sit sheep down at the table and invite them to live in their house?
This psalm has a flow to it. It’s a journey, not a destination. It is really the journey of a Christian through life.
It begins with sheep grazing in green pastures, besides pools of still water. This is a rarity in the Judean hills. Sheep graze on them all through the year. Only occasionally is there a place where water pools, because the ground is hard and rolls off the side into the deep gullies. They are safe for grazing on top, but most of them are surrounded by cliffs and steep gullies, so a shepherd must keep them from falling off the sides. Sheep are dumb and shortsighted, so shepherds must guard them.
David intended this picture to remind us of ourselves. He is calling us dumb sheep---and so we are! If there is grass, we don’t notice or care about the dangers around us. This is not a problem, if we have a good shepherd, who can keep us enclosed in His protection. We can live in safely, but only under the shepherd’s eye.
Then David says, “He restores my soul.” What sheep needs its soul restored?
There was an interesting study done by some psychologists to test the effect of stress on sheep. They gave painful electrical shocks to sheep at regular intervals. At first, the sheep reacted with panic, but they soon adjusted and got used to it. Then the scientists started shocking the sheep at irregular intervals, so they couldn’t get used to it. As a result, the sheep became nervous and irritable all the time. They didn’t get better over time. Only when the sheep could graze in a peaceful, open field with no stress at all, did they slowly get better and calmer. You could say in that stress-free environment, they were restored.
Do you ever feel like those sheep? Life gives us several shocks, usually when we least expect it. The world feels unsafe and scary. As a result, we are anxious, nervous, and neurotic. Problems keep coming up and each one knocks us down. There is no place we are safe, and no time for our soul to be restored.
The reason that we find ourselves in such a bad place is usually because we chose to be there. The more bad decisions we make in life, and the longer we go without trusting God, the more we must worry about. Then we make the mistake of thinking we are strong enough to go without rest and can handle all that life can throw at us by ourselves. If we hold on to our pride and self-will, we will not be healed.
Imagine a stray sheep wandering alone in the desert. He’s starving without good nourishment. He’s dying of thirst, then a shepherd comes along and finds him.
The shepherd says, “Come with me. Join my flock.”
“Never!” the stupid sheep bleats back. “I’ll never submit! I’m doing fine by myself.”
Stupid sheep! But here’s the truth—that sheep is us. God offers forgiveness, leadership, relief, and love. He offers to restore our souls, but instead, we choose to turn it all down. No wonder we are in such a mess!
But when we join God’s flock and come under His care, we start to heal. He leads us to a place of peace and safety.
Without Jesus, we are lost. Until we accept His gift of leadership and forgiveness, we will never heal, but will remain in a place where the shocks come irregularly, and the pain never ceases.
The most important thing you will ever know about God is that He loves you and accepts you into his flock, just the way you are. When life beats us, He takes you to a place where your soul can be restored. This is the first part of the journey—the restoration of the heart.
But Psalm 23 doesn’t end there. We can’t live in green pastures and still waters forever. The world isn’t just made of green pastures and still waters. God wants us to be able to go anywhere, do anything and trust Him always. But this won’t happen if we stay in the safe places of life.
Christians often have a fortress mentality to life. God gives us a place of safety, and we are content to live there. We build walls to keep disruptive elements out, and to keep our enemies away. We are safe behind the walls of our defenses, but we are not free. God wants us free to go wherever.
So, God leads us away from the still waters and green pastures.
“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name sake.” Eventually, God leads us away from safe pastures into an unsafe world. The green pastures and still waters don’t last forever. When it is time, God leads us gently along the right path.
Which way do we go? There are so many paths off that hill, and most of them lead to disaster. Take the wrong one and you can wander off a cliff. But the shepherd knows the right way. Keep your eyes on the shepherd, and seek His wisdom, and He will help you find the right way.
Perhaps the most important skill a Christian requires is one that is never taught in church. How do we recognize the voice of the Shepherd? God speaks in the Scriptures, and we need to learn what it says and how to interpret it correctly. But God also speaks in our innermost heart and gives us daily guidance regarding the everyday choices of life. The Bible doesn’t tell us who we should marry, what school to attend, what job to take, or what car to buy, yet any of these decisions can affect our lives for years.
God can counsel us on every decision. But we must stay close and learn to listen to recognize His voice. God still speaks to us, but we must listen. We must spend time with Him daily. Only those who have spent much time with God in prayer and worship will be able to recognize His voice in a busy life. Martin Luther once said that his business was so pressing and his responsibilities so great that he had to spend four hours a day in prayer. We go the opposite way. The busier we get, the less time we spend in prayer. No wonder we fail to hear Him!
Just because we listen to God and follow Him doesn’t mean we won’t have scary times. Look what He says next, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
The “valley of the shadow of death” is a real valley on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is a very steep crevice and often fills with water. In ancient times, it was a good place for robbers and wild animals to hide. People traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho had to go through there, but no one liked it. Nevertheless, it was a place they all had to go through.
God has much more in store for us, but to get there, we must go through some scary places—childhood, puberty, school and college, marriage, parenthood, sickness, the death of loved ones, retirement, and death. Unless Jesus returns in our lifetime there is no way around these valleys. But God gives us this one great promise, “For Thou art with me.” You must go through them, but you don’t go them alone. His hand is with you all the way.
One misconception we have about this journey we are on is that Jesus is always gentle with us. He is gentle most of the time, but sometimes He can get rough! “Thy rod Thy staff they comfort me.” Sometimes he must yank us back into line or whack us to get us to move. But isn’t that what we want Him to do? If you ever raised a toddler, you know what David’s talking about. Sometimes the worst thing we can do is to be tolerant of error. But the shepherd knows what is right, and even his correction is kind. No matter how old we are, we can still be stubborn sheep and need to be brought back into line.
“Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” This phrase is clearly talking about a higher level of trust and growth than what we see at first—one that is only possible after we have endured a few shadowy valleys.
God doesn’t want us to spend our life only in safe places. There is no growth in that. He wants us to get out into the same world that gave us all those shocks, but He wants us to be able to take it. The enemies of God can be people, or it can be circumstances, but God wants us to be able to have a good time with Him wherever we are.
There’s a famous photo of men working on a skyscraper taking a lunch break on a beam thousands of feet in the air. They smile and joke as they eat their lunch. As a person with a fear of heights, this terrifies me. How can they rest so easy while in such danger? They can, because they trust.
Imagine God setting out a picnic for you in a clearing in a forest, with bears, lions, and wolves all around you. How easy would you rest? That’s the secret of trusting God. When we are young, we learn we can trust him in safe places. But when we grow old, we learn we can still trust Him when not everyone likes us, and not everything is safe. We learn that no matter what is happening around us, we are safe in Jesus.
“Thou anoint my head with oil.” It’s hard for us to imagine someone dumping olive oil over our head as a blessing, but the ancients loved it! It was a sign of joy, favor and blessing. You did it to your most special guests. While you are in the middle of your problems, God makes you one of his favored ones!
“Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Notice the progression in this psalm. In the first part, the psalmist feels blessed, because he is in a safe, green pasture. His circumstances gave Him a sense of comfort. But after following Jesus down the righteous path and through the shadowy valley, he has that same sense of blessing when surrounded by enemies. At first, we are blessed by circumstances, then we look to the Blesser, not the blessing, and follow Him where he goes. We endure suffering and pain until we can be blessed, even among our enemies. Finally, we are with Jesus forever in his house and are blessed many times over.
God has a great future for you. But this future only comes from following Him. Don’t become distracted by worldly concerns. Trust Him to take care of you, and He will.