The LORD Is My Shepherd | Psalm 23

The follow sermon was originally preached in 2015.


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Psalm 23 ESV

Thus far, we have discussed worship as a way of life and two reasons for worshiping God. The natural revelation of God (as displayed in creation) and the special revelation (as declared in Scripture) both guide our hearts toward worshiping the LORD. In viewing the glory and the goodness of God through nature and the Bible, we see the weight of our sin more fully, allowing us to pray alongside David for God to make our words and our thoughts acceptable to Him.

We now dive into, what is likely considered, the most popular psalm throughout the history of the church. This song of David boldly declares the LORD to be our shepherd, which means that God will be faithful to care and provide for him. As much as this is a psalm of faith, it is also a psalm against fear. David is essentially proclaiming here that he should not fear enemies, death, or lacking what he needs because the LORD is faithful to guide, provide, and protect him.

Throughout history, many have turned to these words for comfort in times of difficulty. When the shadow of death looms over, they recall this psalm. However, this psalm is not full of blanket promises for humanity in general; rather, only the people of God are able to truly call Him their shepherd. If God is our shepherd, we are then His sheep. We are helpless, defenseless, and not very intelligent, just like sheep. Fortunately, we have a very good Shepherd, who is faithful to care for us.

THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD // VERSE 1

This verse is likely one of the most popular verses in the entire Bible. The whole idea of it elicits comfort and peace, love and care. To be fair, that is David’s goal in writing this psalm. He is speaking entirely of the tender compassion that he receives from the LORD. Some scholars have even argued that David wrote this during the rebellion of his son, Absalom. We will never know for certain when David penned this hymn, but we do know that he expresses here a faith in God that transcends earthly circumstances. Let us, therefore, analyze these words.

Stating the LORD to be his shepherd is quite odd for David to say. Consider two factors. First, being a shepherd was a lowly task. David knew the work intimately. In 1 Samuel 16, we read of the Samuel the prophet seeking to anoint the next king of Israel. He goes out the household of a man named Jesse, who then parades all of his sons before Samuel. Personally, Samuel thinks that many of Jesse’s sons have the stature of a king, but God rejects all of them. Samuel asks if there is another son, and Jesse states that the runt of the brothers is watching the sheep. That son was David.

For David, the shepherd, to then become king was an outrageous turn of events. Similarly odd is that David would call the God of the universe a shepherd. However, this shows the character of God. Though God could certainly view the idea of shepherding His creations as beneath Him, He does not. This is evidenced by the fact that Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd.[1] By calling Himself a shepherd, God displays the humility that we see in evidenced in Christ: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[2]

Second, in calling God his shepherd, David is referring to himself as sheep. This too is rather odd. David, though he was king, had experienced the humbling role of being a shepherd; however, to call oneself a sheep is something else entirely. Sheep are dumb animals. Most animals are designed by God for survival; they have instincts and physicalities that allow them to traverse nature. Sheep, on the other hand, do not. They are soft, fluffy meals just waiting for wolves find them. Therefore, a shepherd is essential to sheep’s survival, as he is their protector and provider. Thus, for David to call himself a sheep means that he is placing his security and provision solely in the hands of the LORD, which interestingly enough is reflected in the next words: “I shall not want.” Why would David want of anything whenever he knew that God is his provider and protector?

HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN // VERSES 2-3

In these verses, David gives an allegorical picture of God’s provision for him as his shepherd. Note here that David is very much a passive figure. It is God who is making him lie down. The LORD is leading him beside still waters. God alone restores his soul. David places all of the effort and exertion upon the LORD, just as the burden of care was placed upon the shepherd, not the sheep. Let me now give a few thoughts upon these words.

First, notice that the LORD makes David lie down. There is a very common sermon illustration about shepherds breaking the legs of unruly sheep, so that they might learn to remain close to the shepherd. While that imagery sounds nice, there is no evidence that shepherds have ever commonly practiced breaking their sheep’s legs. However, the principle does remain that often we require God’s forced rest. Especially given the business of modern society, we must be vigilant to keep a regular Sabbath for rest, or else God, in His great love for us, will make us lie down.

In order to make his sheep lie down, a shepherd must make certain that the sheep are secure, fed, and united. If a sheep has even the slightest notion of danger, it will not lie down. If it worries at all for food, it will not rest. If there is any tension between the sheep, they will not rest among one another. Fortunately, the answer of each of these concerns is quite simple: the shepherd’s presence. When the shepherd is near, the sheep know they are safe. In his presence, they worry not for their next meal, trusting that he will provide them with green pastures and still waters. In his presence, any bickering ceases.

Notice that twice David mentions that the LORD leads him. Independence is the natural craving of the human heart because it means that “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”[3] Though we know that God provides rules and regulations for our own benefit, we innately desire to leave His fold. We will attempt to escape from every enclosure that the LORD places around us. Like a child that wants to play in the street, we will repeatedly flee from God’s guidance and protection. However, it is only under the LORD’s guidance that we are able to truly be secure.

Next, David claims that God restores his soul. The psalmist is likely thinking about his working with cast sheep. These were sheep that happened to roll over on their backs, so that they could no longer get back to their feet. If the shepherd did not restore the sheep to its feet, the sheep would either die from predators or from poor blood circulation. It is easy for us to apply this imagery to our lives. Whether because of sin or life’s difficulties, we are often in need to restoration. We find ourselves turned over with our lives upside down, and only the LORD has the power to place us back on our feet. Only He can restore our souls.

Finally, David notes that God, as his shepherd, does all of this for His name’s sake. This is an important reminder for all of us who are saved by God’s grace that the LORD does nothing for our sake. He did not save us for our sake. And He does not care and provide for us merely for our sake. We are not such valuable creatures that the God of who made us is required to care for us. Rather, God tends to us and saves us because of His name’s sake. God saves us for His glory, because He is good and loving. This fact does not make salvation less glorious but more.

THE SHADOW OF DEATH // VERSE 4

In the summertime, shepherds in ancient Mesopotamia would drive their sheep on a journey through valleys to the higher ground for grazing. The passage through these valleys was incredibly perilous. Though rain was infrequent, flash flooding of valleys was a danger whenever the rain happened to fall. Rock slides were a constant threat. Predators would lurk among the rocks and ledges, hoping to snatch away one of the straggling sheep. If the shepherd was not constantly vigilant, he would easily lose many sheep. For the sheep, they truly were valleys where the shadow of death loomed constantly.

Nevertheless, David is able to write with great boldness and confidence that he will not fear his journey through the valley. Why would David have no fear of death’s mighty shadow? God was with him. Sheep were only able to pass through valleys without fear because they trusted the shepherd’s protection. Likewise, our confidence must be placed entirely in God’s ability to keep us from death’s shadow in the midst of the valley.

But David finds comfort in God’s instruments as well as God’s presence. For a shepherd, his rod and staff were essential. The staff is the traditional long stick with the crook on the end that we might normally associate with a shepherd. The crooked end was used for guiding and rescuing sheep. The shepherd’s rod was a thicker stick that was made for defense and discipline. With the rod, the shepherd could ward off attacking wolves or he could correct a wandering sheep. For the Christian, both God’s guidance and His discipline ought to comfort our souls. Though it might be easy for us to imagine the guiding staff of God to be comforting, the disciplining rod is another story. We are thankful to God for His Word as a guidance and warning for how to live our lives, but as discipline, not so much. However, the book of Hebrews urges us to consider the discipline of God a matter of comfort because it means that we are truly God’s children. “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”[4]

A TABLE BEFORE ME // VERSE 5

While some have attempted to see this verse as continuing the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep, I believe that David is now speaking of God as a great host. In the ancient world, a traveler was completely at the mercy of the hospitality of people that he met, so hospitality was a primary virtue for most of ancient life. Such was the duty of hospitality that if a man was fleeing from enemies, the host would take it upon himself to make certain that the man was well defended so long as he was under his roof. This is the picture that David is painting. God is a great host who has prepared a banquet for him in the desert and in the midst of his enemies. David is confident that with God as his host he need not fear what his enemies might do because he is under the shelter of the LORD.

What enemies might David refer to? Throughout David’s story in the books of Samuel, we know that David was pursued relentlessly by Saul and later in his life by his own son, Absalom. King David knew what it meant to be hunted by physical enemies that wanted his blood. But he also knew spiritual enemies as well. As we will study in the next psalm, David was not above falling victim to the temptation of sin. I like very much what one commentator said (I can no longer recall who) that the enemies of a Christian are the sins of the past, the temptations of the present, and the fears of the future.

Many seeing David’s description of an anointed head as similar to the how a king, priest, or prophet may have been anointed for serve in the Old Testament. While certainly there may be an element of that thought here, David’s primary intention was likely of a host pouring perfumed oils upon the head of his guest, which was considered a great honor. Further, a cup that is constantly filled is also the sign of a very good host. Thus, the psalmist is stating that he can trust God’s provision for him.

THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER // VERSE 6

David declares emphatically here that surely (or perhaps, only) goodness and mercy (or steadfast love) will follow him the rest of his life. For to simply write the word follow does not do sufficient justice to David’s intention. We could easily see David saying that goodness and mercy will pursue him all the days of his life because the word in Hebrew is also used to describe how a predator hunts its prey. Throughout the world, many pursue happiness and joy, but often they are always one step outside of reach. David is declaring the opposite about himself. He is confident that he could not outrun the goodness and mercy of God, even if he tried! Perhaps we are able to see a New Testament parallel of this idea in Jesus words: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”[5]

I find it interesting here that David shifts his focus from his present life to his eternal security. David is not merely confident that God will provide for him in this life; he firmly believes that he will dwell with God forever. This thought ought to be the background of every Christian’s mind, at all times, and as a result, our eternal security and destiny must have significant implications to this life. When we are confident that we will dwell in God’s house forever, we then have hope in the midst of circumstances where the LORD does not appear to be providing. We must view all things through the lens of eternity because for the Christian, eternity is our goal and aim. 


[1] John 10:11

[2] Philippians 2:6-8

[3] From the poem, invictus by William Ernest Henley

[4] Hebrews 12:7-8

[5] John 10:27-29

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