The 23rd Psalm is one of the most familiar and beloved psalms in all of Scripture. It has been recited at countless funerals to give comfort and hope to the bereaved. It has been used in some of the most beautiful music ever composed. It has been the inspiration for great poetry. Something proves itself great when it passes the test of time. For three thousand years, these words of King David have inspired people who don’t even live where sheep are raised.
David was a shepherd before he was king. This was dangerous and difficult work. Sheep are extremely nearsighted and cannot defend themselves. The role of the shepherd was to protect the sheep. David tells us that on least two occasions, he had to kill wild animals who were trying to attack the flock with only the shepherd’s sling, the same weapon he would use against the mighty Goliath.
Shepherds did not graze their flocks in any land that was suitable for farming. Every square inch of farmland was taken for raising staples like wheat and barley. The shepherds were banished to the desert areas. The desert areas in Judaea were very rugged with hills and twisting canyons. To the untrained eye, all looked barren and dry. This land looks like the badlands in South Dakota or even the surface of the moon. There was a sameness about the look of the place. Rain rarely visited the wilderness, and then only in a small area of it. The shepherd had to know where the “green pastures” were. And these “green” pastures moved with the rains.
Here in America in Southeast Tennessee where we live, it is easy to imagine that the green pastures were lush and everywhere to be seen, seeing we live in a subtropical rain forest. However, David’s green pastures were individual shoots of grass. It would be hard for the untrained eye to see any green at all. The place where the rain had visited looked just as barren as the rest of the landscape. It is only the knowledge of the shepherd which kept the sheep fed as the shepherd had to lead the nearly blind sheep there.
Another characteristic of the desert was when and where it rained, it rained excessively. Dangerous flash floods from a storm that was miles away could send a deadly rush of water down on the unsuspecting sheep. The shepherd also had to be careful where he watered the sheep. The water had to be still for the sheep to safely drink. The shepherd was then responsible to protect the sheep in the presence of wolves, hyenas, bears, and lions as the sheep safely grazed. The shepherd needed to know the best paths to take the sheep from one pasture to another and where to find water that was safe to drink, the things that refreshed and preserved the sheep.
David saw the Lord as being his shepherd. It was He who kept David safe from his enemies. In saying the Lord was a shepherd, David was then seeing himself as a dirty and blind sheep who had to depend thoroughly upon the Lord for his survival. In other words, David knew that he had to listen to his Shepherd’s voice and follow Him wherever He led. Staying within earshot of the shepherd and obeying His voice was his only hope for survival in the wilderness of life. He needed to be fed and led by the Lord and drink from His saving and refreshing Word. He needed to be on the path that leads to righteousness, because that is the path the Lord Himself walks.
David is an example of one that lives by faith in the Lord, the same thing the Lord expects of us. This does not mean that David was perfect and more than sheep are perfect. This is why the shepherd had a staff by which he corrected the sheep. It was not David’s knowledge that kept him safe, it was the Lord’s knowledge that did which He revealed to David through the Word. This he does for us as well. We can trust in His care for us and feed where He leads us. Sometimes it is hard to find those green pastures when our life is so dry. But rest assured the Lord does. Even if our pasture is the scattered grass on a barren hillside, we can trust that the Lord will keep us. And when the grass is exhausted in one pasture, He will lead us to another. And we can safely drink, even when the floods of life rush about us.
Just who is David’s Shepherd? Who is this Lord who keeps Israel? The tenth chapter of John tells us the answer where Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd. The 23rd Psalm points to the day in which this Psalm would take its ultimate meaning. Jesus is the one who came to lead us through the dangers of this world to a land mush more lush than David’s green pastures and to that sparkling river we all sing about that is set before us in Heaven. It is in this house that we will be forever. It is this promise that leads us through the “valley of the shadow of death”.
This Jesus, like the good shepherd put his life on the line for his sheep. In Ancient Israel, the shepherd lay down at the opening to the sheepfold. No enemy could get to the sheep as long as he was there. This put the shepherd’s life at great risk. And so it was for Jesus. He laid his own life down in the presence of His and our enemy. One of the most remarkable things Jesus did on the night of His arrest was to command the Roman soldiers and Temple police to let his sheep go. By all rights, they should have been arrested and crucified with Jesus. His demonstration of power by having the soldiers fall on their backsides helped vouchsafe the disciple’s escape from death. He showed that it was His enemies who were indeed helpless in His presence.
Yet Jesus did allow Himself to be arrested. There were other sheep he needed to gather into His fold. Some of them may have included the very mob who came to arrest Him. And he had to save us and all who have put their trust in Him as a sheep puts his total hope into the shepherd. This is what our Shepherd did for us.
So let us listen for His voice. We have been saved by His death and given hope by His resurrection. But this is still a dangerous world. His voice is our comfort and our sole means of protection. We cannot save ourselves. Neither are we able to keep ourselves out of danger. It is Jesus who knows all, not us. Because He knows all, we can rest in Him and His promises. Whatever comes our way, we can take hope and refuge in Him. No enemy can seize us out of His hands.
The Lord was David’s shepherd. Is He your shepherd? The promise and comfort this psalm affords are only for his sheep. You need to become one of His sheep to benefit from His care. The good news is that he will receive you if you come. He has promised that he will not cast a single one out who comes to Him. He is the one who will leave the ninety and nine in the sheepfold to search for the missing sheep. Perhaps you are that sheep. Perhaps you have strayed from the fold and are alone out in the wilderness. Listen to the Master’s voice this morning and come back to the flock and safety.
Perhaps you are struggling today and need encouragement. Your life does not seem so green. You are like the deer in the wilderness which is panting after the waterbrooks. Jesus provides more than bread and drink. He is bread and drink Himself, the One whose body was broken and blood poured out for our refreshment, the One who was born and placed in a feeding trough, the Lamb of God who is our Shepherd.