Once More With Feeling
The women of Israel came out to welcome their returning, victorious army. They cried, “… Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7).
Here was hyperbole, but that did not lighten the blow to King Saul’s pride. The former shepherd lad turned warrior was now receiving more accolades from the women of Israel than the king himself (1 Sam. 18:8). From that moment on, King Saul, with a major flaw in his character, determined that David must die — the “giant killer” was a threat to his throne. As a result, David was forced to flee from the presence of the king and his soldiers. Eventually he made his way to the springs of En-gedi (1 Sam. 23:29). Here in the Judean wilderness, near the shores of the Dead Sea, is a beautiful oasis with springs of fresh water, food in abundance, and caves in which David and his valiant men could hide for a time. King Saul, upon hearing of David’s camp, armed three thousand choice soldiers and went to seek David at En-gedi (1 Sam. 24:1-2).
It is not hard to envision David looking down into the ravine from his place of concealment. From within the cave he could see the soldiers of King Saul. The sun reflected off their shields and helmets as with their swords and spears they thrust at the underbrush, looking behind rocks and among the bulrushes. David knew full well that if the soldiers found him, his life would be taken. One false move — one sliding rock — one reflected beam of sunlight, and that would be the end. If, at that moment, you saw David’s face, you might well have seen fear etched deeply into it as he viewed the scene below. But just then there was movement — a blur at first, and then it came into full view and clear focus. There, across the ravine, on the slopes on the other side — a herd of sheep was peacefully grazing. And nearby an alert shepherd was looking on protectively. See again the expression on David’s face. Only an instant has passed. But this time, instead of a look of fear, there is the appearance of calm resolve — even the glimmer of a smile on the tanned, bearded and ruggedly handsome face.
For at that moment, David was reminded of the years he shepherded his father’s sheep and of his faithfulness to them. Now the words came almost effortlessly. They seemed to issue from deep within his soul. They were almost a whisper. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps. 23:1). David knew what it meant to be a faithful shepherd; now he would learn what it meant to be a helpless sheep.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this event or one like it formed the background for the immortal twenty-third Psalm.
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD (v. 1a)
Here is simplistic profundity. To say, on the one hand, the Lord is my Shepherd, is to say, on the other hand, I am the Shepherd’s sheep.
If the former is true, so, too, is the latter. It is impossible to have one without the other. They are mutually inclusive. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I am the Shepherd’s sheep. And, make no mistake about it, the sheep is among the most helpless of all creatures. Its bite is not dangerous its claws are not sharp. It can’t run fast — climb good — swim strong — camouflage its presence — or dig a hole. It has no odor to drive away an antagonist — no venom to poison — no horns to buck — no needles to repel. The sheep is not only a defenseless animal, it is also a dumb one. Left to its own devices, it will not long survive. The sheep is totally dependent upon the shepherd.
The moment a person acknowledges that the Lord is his Shepherd, he must also acknowledge his own frailty and total dependence on the Shepherd. If the Lord is truly one’s Shepherd, no room for self-pride remains.
I SHALL NOT WANT (v. 1b)
Here is perfect provision. These four words are predicated upon the truth of the opening statement of the Psalm. If a man or woman can truly say, The Lord is my Shepherd, and I am His sheep, then he or she can say, I shall not want. Such a person can rest in the absolute certainty of perfect provision for all of life. There is no promised provision for luxury. There is promised provision for necessities. Using the continuous analogy of the shepherd and the sheep, the rest of the Psalm is a commentary on that glorious truth. The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.
HE MAKETH ME TO LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES (v. 2a)
Here is divine direction. The land of Israel has been landscaped by its Creator with almost endless mountains and hills, with lush green fields and barren desert. The sheep, if left to its own devices, will often bypass the fertile fields of grass to wander into the desert to perish. The wise, caring shepherd finds it necessary to make the sheep lie down in green pastures. There they find sustenance for life s journey. Many times the child of God would wander off into the barren deserts of this world to perish were it not for the faithful Shepherd, who makes His sheep to lie down in green pastures. The Shepherd always knows what is best.
HE LEADETH ME BESIDE THE STILL WATERS (v. 2b)
Here is careful protection. The sheep is a poor swimmer, and rapid running water poses a great danger. During Israel’s rainy season, the narrow ravines and wadis of Israel become torrential bodies of cascading water. The unsuspecting sheep coming to quench his thirst can be caught up in the rapid current to be dashed against the rocks or carried downstream to quickly tire and drown.
The caring and wise shepherd will use rocks to dam up a small body of water alongside the rapidly running wadi. Then he will bid the sheep come to drink at the “still” water. How very often the child of God is attracted to the fast-paced pleasures of this world with little awareness of their hidden rocks and treacherous currents. The faithful Shepherd bids us come aside to drink at the still, safe and life-sustaining water which He alone can provide.
HE RESTORETH MY SOUL (v. 3a)
Here is satisfying comfort. David is among the most gifted and versatile men of the Bible shepherd, general, king, poet, musician. He was the sweet psalmist of Israel. He knew from experience that sometimes the sheep became restive and fearful. They can sense nearby danger. And often the shepherd had to sing to the sheep or play on his flute. His very presence and assuring voice calmed the fearful heart. In the midst of danger, the shepherd gives comfort and restores the soul. The redeemed of the ages have often testified of experiencing the still small voice of God most clearly in the night and amid the adversities of life.
HE LEADETH ME IN THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE (v. 3b)
Here is divine reputation on the Iine. Every shepherd knew that he had a reputation which he must defend at all costs. David knew that better than most. As a shepherd lad, he fought a lion and a bear which were attacking the flock (1 Sam, 17:34-36). If the sheep perished because of lack of power, wisdom or courage on the part of the shepherd, other sheep would not be entrusted to his care.
The Great Shepherd has a reputation which He must defend at all costs. For that reason He declared, “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28). And again, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). If any sheep perished over the centuries because of failure on the Shepherd’s part, other sheep would not entrust their lives to His care. He leads His sheep in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. His reputation is on the line. He will not fail. What comfort this affords to the troubled soul.
YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL; FOR THOU ART WITH ME (v. 4a and b)
Here is the calm within the midst of the storm. This verse does not speak of death. The inspired penman does not address that theme until he reaches the last verse of the Psalm. The analogy of the shepherd and sheep continues. “The valley of the shadow of death” is literally the valley of deep darkness. It is the narrow ravine through which the sheep must pass. It is a place of great danger. Along the sides ravenous beasts wait in ambush. If the shepherd does not stay on the alert — if there is one careless moment — the animals of prey will attack. But even in such circumstances, David proclaims, “… I will fear no evil.”
THY ROD AND THY STAFF THEY COMFORT ME (v. 4c)
Here is protection at its strongest. For should a wild animal attack, the shepherd is ready. In hand is his rod — a long stick with a heavy knot at the end. And with this weapon the shepherd will fight off any intruder which endangers the flock. With the staff (the familiar shepherd’s crook), He guides the wayward sheep to safety.
THOU PREPAREST A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES (v. 5a)
Here is a banquet at a most unlikely place. The valley of deep darkness is a place of special danger because of lurking animals. It is also the place where the grass is greenest. The topsoil washes down the sloping hills to the narrow valley below. And here, too, the water is most plentiful. The shepherd bids the sheep eat and holds the enemy at bay. It is a banquet with the enemies looking on — licking their chops — but impotent to act under the watchful eye of the good shepherd.
How many of the Lord’s sheep in the midst of adversity — surrounded by adversaries — have experienced their greatest spiritual sustenance.
THOU ANOINTEST MY HEAD WITH OIL (v. 5b)
Here is the balm of Gilead (Jer. 8:22). The shepherd often carried oil as a healing agent. If the sheep cut itself against a sharp stone or thornbush — if an animal attacked and broke skin before being run off — then the shepherd would apply the oil for medicinal purposes. And who among the true flock has not at times had his soul pierced only then to experience the healing ministry of the Holy Spirit of God.
MY CUP RUNNETH OVER (v. 5c)
Here is an acknowledgment of the abundant life. When running water was not available in the dry season, the shepherd had to revert to a well. Once the bucket was filled, the sheep would come to drink. As they dipped into the filled container, the water would overflow. This is perhaps the imagery intended by the Lord in His statement, “. . . I am come that they might have life, and that they might have if more abundant\y” (Jn. 10:10) — that is, overflowingly.
SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE (v. 6a)
Here is blessing par excellence. Sometimes when this verse is read, it sounds like three little elves are following behind. And their names are Surely, Goodness and Mercy. Of course, that is not what the psalmist is saying, “Surely, wrote David, two things, God’s “goodness and “ God’s “mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” There is no promise here of an easy life. No hint of power, fame, health or wealth is made. If one reflects on it, something of far greater value is promised — it is the abiding presence of God’s goodness and mercy through all of life. What bestowed gift can be greater than that?
AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER (v. 6b)
Here is an acknowledgment of eternal life. It is now, for the first time, that an inference to death is made. For the child of God, death is, in the words of the songwriter, “stepping on shore and finding it Heaven., . touching a hand and finding it God’s . . . breathing new air and finding it celestial.”’
The Lord is my Shepherd — I am His sheep — therefore, I shall not want.
In life, His goodness and mercy shall follow me; and in death, I shall dwell in His house forever.
One day a teenager from a little village in Scotland left home to make his way in the world to find his place in the sun. With the passing of years, he became a world-famous Shakespearean actor. At the pinnacle of his fame, he.returned to his home to visit family and friends. For the obscure community, it was an exciting and proud time. A party was thrown for the entire village. After eating, partying and reminiscing, someone suggested that a contest be held. Their notable actor and the elderly local pastor would engage in a contest. Each was to quote a portion from one of Shakespeare’s plays. The pastor, with some embarrassment, confessed that he had not committed any of Shakespeare’s writings to memory. But someone remembered that long years before their returned favorite son had memorized the twenty-third Psalm in Sunday school.
And so it was agreed that they both quote this familiar biblical text. The pastor went first; slowly and tenderly he quoted the Psalm. Now it was the actor’s turn. He began, “The Lord is my shepherd . . ,” and with great expression and perfect gestures, with masterful inflection and flawless diction, he quoted the entire Psalm. When he finished there was a moment of awkward silence. What eloquence. Everyone knew who the winner was. The contest was embarrassingly one-sided. Once again the actor stepped to the microphone. With genuine humility, he made this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, I know the Psalm — the pastor knows the Shepherd.”’ Today, millions of people can quote the Psalm — far less truly know the Shepherd. How goes it with your eternal soul? Can you say, The Lord is my Shepherd — l am His sheep; therefore I shall not want, neither in life — nor in death?