As the youngest of eight boys, David was assigned the chore of shepherding his family’s flock. Sheep are psychologically fragile animals. They follow the alpha ram in their midst with no discernment whatsoever. If the ram walks over a cliff to his death, the sheep will follow. Sheep are easily frightened and utterly helpless. Top heavy with short legs, if they get rolled onto their backs, they are unable to right themselves and will starve to death unless their shepherd comes to their rescue. Greedy and stubborn, they will push their way into all kinds of dangerous predicaments for one more mouthful of lush grass, only to then find themselves hopelessly snagged in a thorn bush or stuck down the side of some cliff. It’s very easy for them to get lost once they are separated from the flock. A shepherd must be constantly on guard to protect his sheep not only from their own stupidity, but also from predators like wolves and lions. Good shepherds are very protective over their flocks and they stay alert despite the long hours and travel. A lot of travel is involved, for once the sheep eat down a pasture, they need to be led to a new food supply. At night a shepherd will make a temporary pen for his sheep out of shrubbery or whatever he can find in order to keep the flock together. Since sheep are such poor conversationalists, a man could become bored stiff hanging out with his flock miles away from his home. But David was a musician and a poet, and he undoubtedly carried a small harp with him and used it to pass the time. His experience with driving off predators had also made him a crack shot. A wooden rod and a slingshot were his primary weapons against predators, but sometimes he was outsmarted and a crafty lion or bear would make off with one of David’s fluffy dependents in his mouth. In such a case, David would boldly charge after the animal and rescue his sheep using his bare hands. He describes this to King Saul in 1 Samuel 17:34-36:
“When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him.”
Understanding David’s personal history gives much more meaning to this psalm. David was a very good shepherd—he showed great love and concern for his flock. He was very protective over them and he wouldn’t hesitate to put his own life on the line to save one poor little lamb from becoming a lion’s lunch. When David then describes God as his personal Shepherd, we know he has a deep understanding of the loving qualities he describes God having. The Holy Spirit has used David’s shepherding work to help David really grasp how personal and deep God’s love for him is. Also, for a man with David’s background to identify himself as a sheep demonstrates great humility. David knows firsthand just how dense, helpless, and foolish sheep are. He knows that sheep are totally dependent on their human shepherds. Unlike dogs that live as wild or domesticated, sheep can’t survive on their own. They’re just too incapable. So when we find God constantly comparing humans to sheep in the Bible—well, there’s a lot of good reasons for that. It’s almost like God made sheep with all of their foolishness just so He could have a good animal to compare us to. But David doesn’t mind. He readily embraces the humble role as God’s fluffy halfwit in this psalm, and then he celebrates the wonderful peace and security he feels in the care of such a devoted Shepherd.
Yahweh is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.
David lived over a thousand years before the revelation of Christ. Yahweh is the only God he knows, and Yahweh is who he is talking about in this psalm (see An Introduction to the Gods of the Bible). Notice how he starts right off by saying that with Yahweh, he is never going to be lacking for anything. Yahweh is a Shepherd who always takes care of his sheep. David then emphasizes this point by describing Yahweh as leading him to green pastures and quiet waters.
Lying down: Sheep won’t lie down unless they feel safe. It doesn’t take much to make sheep nervous, so the fact that David describes himself as lying down in God’s Presence is a statement on how calming that Presence is. God isn’t forcing David to lie down here–lying down and resting is David’s natural response to feeling so at peace in His Shepherd’s wonderful Presence.
Quiet waters: Sheep won’t drink moving water—it scares them. This means that a good shepherd has to either find a source of still water, or dam up a pool of water from a moving source so that his flock can drink out of it. Here David describes Yahweh as a Shepherd who does all that is needed to make His sheep feel calm, safe, and satisfied.
He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.
He restores: David has already described God’s Presence as calming and restful. Now he adds a restorative element. God’s Presence energizes and refreshes his soul.
He guides me: David had great reverence for Yahweh, and he understood that Yahweh was involved in every aspect of his life. Notice how David describes Yahweh as leading him down the paths of righteousness. David understands that he isn’t just bumbling through life trying to make right choices on his own. Instead, God is guiding him and showing him which path is best. God is always leading us and telling us what He wants—He doesn’t expect us to read His mind. He communicates His desires for us in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways as we move through life.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
For a sheep not to fear in the face of obvious peril is a very strong statement on just how powerful his shepherd’s aura is. Here David describes himself as a sheep who feels so secure in God’s Presence that he can face life-threatening situations without being afraid.
The rod: The simple shepherd has two basic tools: a rod and a staff. The rod had many functions. It was used to protect: thrown like a spear or wielded like a club at predators. It was used to discipline: throwing it at wandering sheep would quickly chase them back towards the main flock. It was used to examine: the rod could gently part the wool of a sheep so that the skin could be examined for any wounds or problems. To be “passed under the rod,” was to be closely examined by a shepherd who was determined to find out the truth about the condition of his sheep instead of letting “the wool be pulled over his eyes.” In Ezekiel 20:37-38, Yahweh references this kind of close scrutiny as He says to His people:
“I will examine you as you pass under My rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. I will purge from you those who revolt and rebel against Me.”
A shepherd’s rod was always with him, and as a sheep who understands all the protection and care that that rod represents, David says that seeing a rod in Yahweh’s hand comforts him. He knows that His Shepherd is armed and ready to handle any situation that arises. The rod represents authority, power, discipline and protection.
The staff: A shepherd’s staff is a long walking stick with a hook on the top end. The staff often functions as an extension of the shepherd’s arm, enabling him to interact with specific individuals in his flock.The hook end of the staff could be used to lift sheep out of dangerous situations, as well as catch and pull certain individuals close to the shepherd’s side. The straight end could be used to untangle sheep from thorn bushes and guide them safely through treacherous terrain. Gently pressing the tip of the staff against the side of a sheep’s body tells the animal when to change course so he will stay aligned with the shepherd.The staff was constantly used to communicate the shepherd’s attentive care for each individual in his flock. Understanding this helps us see why David talks about Yahweh’s staff being a great comfort to him.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Before sheep can be let loose on an open pastureland, the shepherd must find and remove any poisonous plants that are growing in the area. He also has to clear debris out of pools of water, and repair earth dams he’s made around those pools. It takes work to prepare a good grazing area for sheep, and predators abound. But open fields where the shepherd can clearly see his flock are much safer than rocky places where predators can strike out from hiding places.
You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.
The oil: Sheep are horribly plagued by two dreaded enemies in the summer months: the nasal fly and a parasite called scab. Both of these especially target the head area. Harassment by these pesky attackers can drive sheep into frantic panic, cause them to bash their heads against rocks and trees to try and get relief, or run themselves into fatal exhaustion. The torment can become so severe that sheep will intentionally kill themselves to escape their misery. A good shepherd keeps a close eye on all the individual members of his flock to detect early signs of agitation, such as swinging heads or stomping hooves. Keeping a sheep’s head and face well rubbed with oil brings glorious relief to the animal. Terror is instantly changed to peace. In this psalm, David describes Yahweh as a Shepherd who is providing His sheep with this essential protection. We get the image of Yahweh gently rubbing oil all over His beloved sheep’s face while the animal sighs in relief. It’s a picture of tender affection and care. It’s also a picture of Divine favoritism, for when Yahweh chose an individual to serve Him in some special way–such as a priest, prophet, or king–He would often order that individual to have oil poured over their head as a public statement that He had set them apart for some special work. In his own life, David was physically anointed by Yahweh’s prophet Samuel to be king over Israel. So for him, the phrase has double meaning–it refers to essential sheep care and also to God’s special selection of specific humans. Put it all together and a man feels abundantly blessed.
The cup: An overflowing cup is a metaphor for abundance. In this psalm, David is describing himself as a sheep who is surrounded by lush grazing land and abundant water. All of his needs are being provided for. His glistening head is free of pesky insects. He knows there are predators around him, but he doesn’t fear them because his strong Shepherd is there with His mighty rod. He doesn’t have to worry about where he is or where he should go next because he’ll feel the guiding tap of that staff. He doesn’t have to fear being separated or lost because he knows the hook of that staff will pull him close again if he should ever start to wander. As a sheep, all of his needs are being abundantly taken care of by his wonderful Shepherd who is paying such close attention to him at all times.
Surely goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of Yahweh forever.
The House: David lived before the Temple was built in Jerusalem, so to him Yahweh’s “House” was the tent Tabernacle that had been constructed by Moses during the wilderness journey. David loved going to the Tabernacle to worship Yahweh through songs and sacrifices. “For one day in Your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else,” he says in Psalm 84:10.
To David, who had never heard of Christ, the ultimate image of spiritual joy was to eternally abide inside Yahweh’s holy Tabernacle and be forever near His glorious Presence. But while there was something wonderful about having a physical place where Yahweh dwelt on earth, David also understood that Yahweh’s Presence was with him personally everywhere he went. God is not confined to a Tent. He is an ever-present Shepherd whose deep love and devotion to His flock made David one very happy sheep.
Our mood has a lot to do with how we talk about God. David clearly wrote Psalm 23 when his trust in Yahweh’s goodness was feeling strong. Other times we find him crying out that this same Good Shepherd has utterly abandoned him in his hour of need. You can’t take the psalms literally–they’re more like emotional venting. When David is feeling up, he describes his relationship with Yahweh as sheer bliss. When he’s down, Yahweh feels distant, unfair, and inaccessible. Swinging through Psalms gives us a good reminder of how fickle our emotions are. If we try to use our emotions to guide us in our relationship with God, we won’t get very far.
Real soul peace is acquired through the exercising of faith, and faith is not an emotion. Faith is when we decide with our souls to trust in the truths God has taught us and in the fact of His goodness regardless of how we feel. Faith takes time to cultivate, and to grow strong, we need practice in trusting God when our emotions are telling us He’s far away or mean or disinterested in us. Many Christians shrink back from developing faith because they find the process too unpleasant. Yet the more faith we have, the more deeply our souls will resonate with the confidence David is expressing in Psalm 23. Soul peace is different than emotional peace. It is quite possible to have your emotions churning in distress while deep inside your soul is filled with joyful satisfaction. Because soul peace is so much more satisfying than emotional peace, God urges us to cooperate with His efforts to help us develop faith. It’s not a fun process, but the rewards are fantastic and they affect our eternal futures with God. Once faith becomes strong enough, we realize that Yahweh really is our kind and loving Shepherd and that we can totally trust Him to take care of us, even on our darkest days.
Analogies of Jesus: The Good Shepherd (John 10)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Faith Development: Basic Mechanics