Psalm 23:1-3 Want What?
They see David, a “young shepherd boy,” lying on his back in the pasture and pondering the things of God, when he probably wrote this psalm late in his life, possibly during the rebellion of Absalom (2 Sam. 13–19). In it, David deals with some of the difficult things he experienced during his long walk with the Lord. While people of all ages love and quote this psalm, its message is for mature Christians who have fought battles and carried burdens
Jack R. Lundbom suggests that the psalm is set in the wilderness at the time of David’s flight from Absalom (“Psalm 23: Song of Passage,” Int 40 : 6–16).
A fuller structural outline of the psalm includes an introduction establishing the shepherd images and the theme of trust (23:1), Yahweh’s leading his “sheep” into abundant life (23:2–3), Yahweh’s providing his “sheep” with secure life (23:4), Yahweh’s blessing of the trusting faithful (23:5), and a concluding expression of confidence (23:6).
This psalm is probably the best known passage of the OT. It is a testimony by David to the Lord’s faithfulness throughout his life. As a hymn of confidence, it pictures the Lord as a disciple’s Shepherd-King-Host. David, by using some common ancient Near Eastern images in Ps. 23, progressively unveils his personal relationship with the Lord in 3 stages.
In the verses that follow, the psalmist illustrates how the shepherd-God supplies abundantly all that his trusting people need.
needs of sheep. Sheep in the Levant grazed on the fertile grass produced by rain. In the summer and autumn they fed on weeds and stubble left over from harvest. Like camels sheep can go long periods of time without water and then drink as much as nine liters. In contrast to goats, who are quite independent, sheep depend on the shepherd to find pasture and water for them. Shepherds also provide shelter, medication and aid in birthing. In sum, they are virtually helpless without the shepherd. In an Old Babylonian text King Ammiditana claims that the god Ea gave him the wisdom to shepherd his people. He continues the metaphor by saying that he provides them with fine pastures and watering places, and makes them lie down in safe pastures.
How do you know if Jesus is your Shepherd? There are two tests. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice” (v. 27). Do you listen to his Word? And Jesus also said, “they follow me” (v. 27). Do you do what he says?
Many people have taken false comfort from Psalm 23. They want to believe that God is their Shepherd, but they do not listen to Christ or follow him. None of God’s blessings come to us except though Jesus Christ. Christ is the great Shepherd for God’s people. If you do not belong to Jesus, God is not your Shepherd. If you know Jesus and love him, Psalm 23 is for you.
The temptation in ancient Israel was to speak only about “our” God (cf. Deut 6:4), forgetting that the God of Israel is also the God of individuals. The contribution of this psalm lies, therefore, in the personal, subjective expression of ancient piety. For this reason Psalm 23 is such a popular psalm, because it permits each believer to take its words on his lips and express in gratitude and confidence that all the demonstrations of God’s covenant love are his, too.
Abel, the first martyr, was a shepherd (Gen. 4:2) and so were the patriarchs of Israel. Moses spent forty years caring for his father-in-law’s sheep, and David, Israel’s greatest king, served his father as a shepherd. The image of God as Israel’s shepherd begins in Genesis 48:15 (NIV) and 49:24 and continues throughout Scripture (Pss. 28:9; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Isa. 40:11; 49:10; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:11–15; Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34). The promised Messiah was seen as a shepherd (Ezek. 34:16, 23; Mic. 5:4; Zech. 13:7; Matt. 2:6; 26:3; Mark 14:27; John 10)
Sheep are defenseless animals that are prone to get lost, and they need almost constant care. You can’t drive sheep, as you do cattle; they must be led. The eastern shepherds know their sheep by name and can call them and they will come (John 10:1–5).
Four characterizing activities of the Lord as Shepherd (i.e., emphasizing His grace and guidance) are followed by the ultimate basis for His goodness, i.e., “His name’s sake” (cf. Pss. 25:11; 31:3; 106:8; Is. 43:25; 48:9; Ezek. 36:22–32).
The compound names of Jehovah in the Old Testament reflect the contents of this psalm.
“I shall not want”—Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord will provide” (Gen. 22:14)
“still waters”- Jehovah-Shalom, “the Lord our peace” (Judg. 6:24)
“restores my soul”—Jehovah-Rophe, “the Lord who heals” (Ex. 15:26)
“paths of righteousness”—Jehovah-Tsidkenu, “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 33:16)
It is amazing that Jesus should stoop to be our Shepherd. In the ancient world, being a shepherd was one of the lowest jobs. If a family had sheep, the youngest son was the shepherd—none of the older brothers would want to do it. When Samuel went to anoint David, David was the youngest of eight sons; they had to call him in from tending the sheep. Being a shepherd was a twenty-four-hour job. Summer and winter, rain or shine, you lived with the dirty, smelly sheep in the heat of the day and the cold of the night. No one in his right mind would want to be a shepherd.
However, God also does something that no ordinary shepherd can do: he shares a fellowship meal with his sheep (Ps. 23:5; Lev. 7:15–18; 1 Cor. 5:7–8). In the presence of enemies, these table guests are honored by anointing and overwhelmed by extravagance (Ps. 23:5; Eph. 2:7). They receive the “goodness and mercy” which form the core of God’s character (Ps. 23:6; Ex. 34:6–7). As the compassionate character of God is revealed in this precious psalm, we are prepared to see how the steadfast love of the final sacrificial Lamb enables wayward sheep to dwell with a holy God (Isa. 53:6). He was the scapegoat who carried away the sins of God’s people to provide goodness and mercy (Ps. 23:6; Ex. 34:6; Lev. 16:22).
When God’s people follow their Shepherd, they have all that they need and will not lack the necessities of life (37:25; Matt. 6:33; Phil. 4:19). Sheep will not lie down when they are hungry, nor will they drink from fast-flowing streams. Sometimes the shepherd will temporarily dam up a stream so the sheep can quench their thirst. You can read verse 2 “beside the stilled water.” In heaven, our Shepherd will lead us to fountains of living water (Rev. 7:17).
The word translated “lead” in verse 2 means “to lead gently.” You cannot drive sheep. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and follow him, just as we listen to Christ in His Word and obey Him (John 10:3–5, 16, 27).
If a sheep goes astray, the shepherd leaves the flock in charge of his helpers and goes to find the lost animal. (See Matt. 9:36; 18:12–14; and Luke 15:3–7.)
The “green pastures” are the rich and verdant pastures, where the sheep need not move from place to place to be satisfied (cf. Ezek 34:14; John 10:9). The “green pastures” were a seasonal phenomenon. The fields, even parts of the desert, would green during the winter and spring. But in summer and fall the sheep would be led to many places in search of food. God’s care is not seasonal but constant and abundant. The sheep have time to rest, as the shepherd makes them to “lie down.”
When we read, “I shall not want” (v. 1), some people think that means God gives us everything we desire. But the idea is not that God gives us everything we ask for; rather, he cares for us by giving us everything we need. Sheep are helpless animals; left to themselves they lack everything. A good shepherd knows what they need. If the God of the universe is your Shepherd, you will lack nothing.
David paints a picture of abundant life. First:
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. (23:2)
“He restores my soul” (v. 3). The sense of the word “restore” is to return or to bring back. As a Shepherd, Jesus brings his sheep back to God. This is another way of describing the ministry of the risen Christ in Psalm 22:27 where the same verb is used for those who return to the Lord.
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
23:2b–3a. A second blessing that comes from the Lord’s leading is spiritual restoration. As a shepherd leads his sheep to placid waters for rest and cleansing, so the Lord restores or refreshes the soul. Here the spiritual lesson is clear: the Lord provides forgiveness and peace for those who follow Him.
As the good shepherd provides his sheep with rest, verdant pastures, and quiet waters, so the Lord takes care of his people in a most plentiful way. He thereby renews them so that they feel that life in the presence of God is good and worth living. He “restores,” i.e., he gives the enjoyment of life, to his own (v. 3; cf. 19:7; Prov 25:13). The word “soul” is not here the spiritual dimension of man but denotes the same as “me” repeated twice in v. 2, i.e., “he restores me.”
23:3b. The third blessing that comes from the Lord’s leading is guidance in the right way (paths of righteousness). A good shepherd knows the right paths on which to bring the sheep home safely. So too the Lord loses none of His sheep, but guides them in the right way. He does so partly because of His reputation (for His name’s sake).
The word “paths” in verse 3 means “well-worn paths, ruts.” When sheep start to explore an exciting new path, it will lead them into trouble. “Do not be carried about by varied and strange teachings” (Heb. 13:9, NASB). God cares for us because He loves us and wants us to glorify Him (“for his name’s sake”)
The nature of the shepherd’s care also lies in guidance (vv. 3b–4b). In the previous verse the psalmist spoke of God as leading (“he leads me”). He develops the shepherd’s role as a guide only to conclude with another aspect of his shepherdly care: protection (v. 4c). He leads his own in the “paths of righteousness.” These paths do not lead one to obtain righteousness. “Righteousness” (ṣeḏeq) here signifies in the most basic sense “right,” namely, the paths that bring the sheep most directly to their destination (in contrast to “crooked paths”; cf. 125:5; Prov 2:15; 5:6; 10:9). His paths are straight
Although “paths of righteousness” may have an unusual ring to our ears, it can mean no more than the “right path,” that is, the one that gets you where you need to go.