Along with John three sixteen these are surely the most famous verses in the Bible. But I want suggest that they are also very much misunderstood. We haven't understood these verses until we see that they promise that we will have troubles in life; we haven't understood these verses until we feel a renewed sense of peace and confidence; we haven't understood these verses until they point us to the cross; we haven't understood these verses until our greatest hope lies beyond this brief journey; and we haven't understood these verses until we acknowledge that they point to the magnificence of God the Son.
1. Who is my shepherd?
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
For his name sake (1-3).
In the book of Isaiah we read that God tends his flock like a shepherd. 'He gathers the lambs in his arms and he carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young' (40:11). It is a very intimate picture. In ancient Palestine the shepherd lived with his flock and was everything to it. The shepherd guided the flock, protected them and looked after them when they were ill. God loves us so much that he wants us to enjoy an intimate relationship with him.
Then along come Jesus, such a compassionate and courageous man, and he takes this title of shepherd for himself. In John's gospel we read that Jesus is our good shepherd. The reason Jesus so often takes titles that the people used for God and applies them to himself is simply because he is God the Son. Jesus gathers lost sheep and brings them into his flock, he takes broken sheep and binds up their wounds, he takes distressed sheep and holds them to his heart, he takes weary sheep and restores their souls, he knows his sheep by name, and had promised that he will never leave us.
Note where our good shepherd guides us: in paths of righteousness, for his name sake. In ancient Palestine the shepherd did not drive the sheep from behind but instead he went ahead of the sheep and they followed him. When we follow him, when we keep in step with the Holy Spirit whom he has given us, then we will live lives that bring him glory. When Christians talk about guidance they generally are thinking of such questions as 'what job should I do?' 'should I marry?' 'where should I live?' But to God those aren’t the biggest issues for our lives! His guidance is primarily about who we are rather than just what we do! His call is to live a life that honours Jesus. Everything else is secondary!
2. Will he be with me?
'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' (4).
There is nothing here that promises you, me or anyone an easy life! There are events that cause the psalmist to need to have his soul restored, there is the valley of the shadow of death and there is mention of evil and enemies. Being a Christian is no bed of roses! We follow the good shepherd who endured suffering in his life so that he would know glory in the life to come.
In this verse we read of the valley of the shadow of death (or the valley of darkness). Christians know what it is to loose loved ones. Christians get sick and die. Some Christians die at the hands of their enemies. However, we have a comforter, we have a Lord who watches over our circumstances, and we have a saviour who has passed through death and removed its sting.
David Watson was a well known speaker who died of cancer in 1984. He wrote about his struggle with that disease in a book entitled “Fear no evil.” In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid. Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves. In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm:
Even though I walk
through the valley Of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me . . .”
3. Where will he take 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 love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever (5-6).
The picture changes in the last two verses. God is no longer pictured as a shepherd but as a host. The host is putting on a feast. A meal is spread out on a table. Enemies are defeated. It was customary for an honoured guest to have their head anointed with oil. There is plenty to drink.
When I read these last two verses I think of Jesus. Who went through the suffering of the cross and then was raised in glory to the right hand of God the Father. Jesus who set the pattern of suffering followed by glory!
This life is a mixed bag. There are times of happiness and sorrow. There are both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death. There are opponents and calm waters. Yet our hope lies beyond the brief and fading life. We are sustained by God's presence and anticipation of our heavenly home. I don't think we will ever thrive in the Christian life until our sights are set on the world to come. We tend to be so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good. One day we will share in a heavenly feast and dwell with our Lord for ever!
Writing on this psalm Sinclair Ferguson tells the story of the first physician to die of the AIDS virus in the United Kingdom. He was a young Christian. ‘He had contracted it while doing medical research in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In the last days of his life his powers of communication failed. He struggled with increasing difficulty to express his thoughts to his wife. On one occasion she simply could not understand his message. He wrote on a note pad the letter J. She ran through her mental dictionary, saying various words beginning with J. None was right. Then she said, “Jesus?” That was the right word. He was with them. Ferguson points out, ‘That was all either of them needed to know. That is always enough.’
If all you want is an easy life then don't follow the way of the good shepherd, he leads us in paths of suffering now and glory to come. If all you want are the riches of this world then don't follow the good shepherd, his greatest riches await the end of the journey. If all you want is popularity then don't follow the good shepherd, for his enemies seek to harm his flock. However, if you want something far greater—the shepherd who travels with you and ensures you make it home—then this psalm is for you!