These days many are concerned, some bordering on anxiety, about the spread of the Coronavirus, not only for personal health reasons but also for personal financial reasons, some have lost jobs, some have lost their 401k or their IRA due to the stock market crash just as they were preparing for retirement, even worse, some have lost loved ones. And many are wondering what life will look like when we come out on the other side of this. Psalm 23 is always a classic psalm to go to for comfort and encouragement. A reminder that for God’s people no matter where we are or what we are going through, we are never alone. The Good Shepherd is always there beside us, leading us, caring for us.
Psalm 23 begins with the words: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” It’s worth noting that the psalm begins and ends with God. “The LORD is my shepherd” and then again in v.6, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Thus, the psalm from beginning to end is ultimately not about us but is about God and his amazing care and concern for his sheep. In biblical times, kings of nations were often referred to as ‘the shepherds of their people’, yet at the same time real shepherding was considered a demeaning task and was often delegated to the lowest member of the family. Thus, the paradox of God is that he is great Shepherd in that he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, yet in his incarnation he “came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). In the fullest and truest sense, God is the Shepherd of his people.
Knowing this truth, the psalmist then says, “I shall not want.” This is not to say that God will give us whatever our hearts desire. Rather, it is to say that God will always do what is best and most needful for his people. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” Notice: food and drink. Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” and “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (Matt. 4:4; John 6:54). The Good Shepherd has indeed provided his people with the necessities of life--true life—the person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Yet so often like sheep, who are not known for their intelligence, we don’t feed on Christ as often as we should, and we don’t drink deeply enough from the cool and refreshing living waters of God’s word. When this happens Christ does for his sheep what any good shepherd would do—“He makes me lie down in green pastures.” In biblical times, shepherd were nomads. They did not keep their sheep in fenced lots and bring truck loads of feed. Instead, they led them to the green pastures and the still waters. Sometimes they had to walk great distances and there would be times when their sheep would become weary and need to rest. However, if the sheep were frightened or anxious about something in their immediate environment, they would not lie down, even though they needed to rest. Thus, the shepherd would force them to lie down and rest. Sometimes God does this very thing with us. God will cause us to go through a difficult or tragic event in life as a way of forcing us to our knees in prayer or driving us to his Word for guidance. Sadly, too often the only time we spend adequate time in prayer and in His word is when tragedy befalls us. But he allows these tragic events to come into our lives because he is the good shepherd and, when needed, will make us lie down in green pastures so we might find rest for our weary souls. It may be that God is using this current pandemic to do this very thing for his people. I cannot recall the last time I have heard of so many churches calling for days of prayer and fasting. Many Christians are spending more time in prayer and more time in God’s word than they have in quite some time.
“He restores my soul” (v.3). I once read that sheep can sometimes become “cast-down”. This sometimes happens when sheep have not been shorn for a long time and they become top heavy. Then sometimes when they’re asleep, they can easily roll over into a shallow depression in the ground and get stuck on their back with their feet straight up in the air. Of course, this is a dangerous and vulnerable position for the sheep to be in. They become easy prey for wolves and if they stay that way for too long, their feet can become numb, as the blood rushes to their heads. Thus, it’s important that the shepherd find that cast-down sheep and restore him by rolling him over and gently rubbing each leg to restore circulation so the sheep can stand on his own strength. This is precisely what Jesus did for Peter. In John 18, Peter denies Jesus three times. Then in John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me?” Three times Peter replies, “Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus, being God, knew that Peter loved him, so why ask him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” For each time Peter denied Christ, Jesus restored him to the place where he once was. When you have been cast down by life or sin, through some fault of your own or by something beyond your control, the good shepherd will always restore you because you are his sheep and he genuinely cares for you.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” From the original Hebrew, this line can either be rendered “he leads me in right paths” or “he leads me in paths of righteousness.” Either way, we know from scripture that God leads his sheep down not only morally right paths (i.e., paths of righteousness), but also leads us down the right paths regarding events in life (“for all things work together for the good of those who love God”, Rom 8:28). The question is ‘why?’ Answer: “for his name’s sake.” Those who have placed faith in Christ are a part of God’s covenantal people to whom he has made particular promises. God will always keep his promises. Thus, no matter what you’re going through in life, whether you’re going through good times or tragic times, whether you’re worried about the coronavirus or worried about your neighbor because of the coronavirus, know that if you have placed faith in Christ and are trusting in the good shepherd to lead you, then you are always on the right path. You are always where God wants you to be, and there is no better or safer place than that.
A second important lesson from psalm 23 is God will never abandon you. “Even 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” (v.4). Again, the phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” can simply be rendered as “the darkest valley.” In biblical times, a shepherd sometimes had to take his sheep through dark and frightening valleys in order to get them to the green pastures and the still waters which he knew they needed. When he does this, it is not to frighten them but because he knows it is the path that must be taken. Nevertheless, even though sheep would not ordinarily go into a dark valley on their own, being the timid creatures they are, they will follow their shepherd through the darkest valley and will not be afraid. Why? Two reasons.
First, “For you are with me.” The sheep have spent so much time with the shepherd, they have come to know him so well, and have come to trust him so completely that they know the shepherd is the one person who would never hurt them, and who will always lead them in the right and best direction. They trust him so completely they will follow him anywhere. In biblical times, shepherds spent so much time with the sheep that they only needed to get up and start walking and the sheep would just follow. They trusted the shepherd. Are we trusting the Shepherd? When we go through the dark valleys of life are we able to say, “I know this must be the right and best path for his glory and for my good because I trust the Good Shepherd”? Or, do dig in your heals and say to God, “What are you doing?! Where are you taking me?! This can’t possibly be the right direction!” Trust the Good Shepherd and know that when God leads you through the dark valleys of life it is because he is leading you to green pastures and still waters which are on the other side.
The second reason the psalmist will not fear the dark valleys of life is because “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The rod in biblical times was more of a club, about 24” long, made of hard wood, heavy on one end and narrow on the other. It could be carried in the shepherd’s belt and was used as a weapon to protect the sheep from predators and thieves. Thus, we should find immense comfort in knowing that God will always come to the aid of those who are his. Furthermore, the shepherd’s staff was a long walking stick, which sometimes had a curve on one end that the shepherd would use to gently bring the sheep back into place when they were wandering too far off or were wandering into danger. Sometimes the shepherd’s staff would have a sharpened point on one end, which the shepherd would use to jab the sheep in the rear when they refused to go where the shepherd knew they needed to go. Sometimes God jerks us back into line through some difficult event in life or jabs us in the rear to make us go somewhere or do something that is outside our comfort zone. Yet, David says God’s staff brings him comfort. David understood, probably better than most, that when God brings difficulties into your life in order to bring you back into line, or to make you step out in faith and do something you don’t want to do, he does it because he loves you. During this pandemic, God is probably doing a thousand different things in the life of every believer—and it is all for their good and his glory.
A third lesson of great comfort we gain from this psalm is that God is your source of strength in life. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v.5). Here the imagery slightly changes. God is still depicted as the shepherd, but David is no longer depicting himself as a sheep but as weary traveler fleeing from his enemies. In biblical times, shepherds were known for their hospitality. Thus, for someone who had been traveling and was weary from the journey, a shepherd’s tent was a sight for sore eyes. The traveler knew all he had to do was approach the tent and the shepherd would take him in, prepare a table of food before him (even as his enemies approached), would anoint his head and sun-chapped lips with oil, and fill his cup to overflowing with cool water.
David understood the shepherd’s tent to be none other than the very presence of God. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (v.6). There are times when living life in a fallen world can be exhausting. There are times when all the stress and pressure and uncertainty of life can make it difficult to press on and continue forward. This may be one of those times for you. If so, then seek comfort and rest and safety and reassurance and food and nourishment for your weary soul inside the tent of the Good Shepherd—in the presence of the living God.