Vs. 1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Vs. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Vs. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Vs. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Vs. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Vs. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
There is something special about this well-known Psalm. Most people can quote it or are at least familiar with its verses. Why is it when compared to the other 149 Psalms this one in particular stands out?
Is it the brevity of its six verses? That cannot be the case as there are nine other Psalms that are shorter (Psalms 131, 133 & 134 with only three verses and Psalms 43, 70, 93, 100, 125 & 127 with 5 verses each).
Or could it be that this Psalm “resonates” with something hidden within the human spirit? Could it be that the words of Psalm 23 come alive when read and draw its reader into its message?
One thing is for certain the 23rd Psalm touches on six themes or six threads instrumental to living life. They are: Purpose, Posture, Purification, Protection, Providence and Pursuit.
Purpose: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Vs. 1)
At the onset, the psalmist makes a statement of faith and an expression of confidence in God. The Psalmist is sure of who he is and the God in whom he serves. He has purpose. Life is difficult without embracing a purpose for living it. And the proclamation of purpose in verse one sets the stage for the rest of the Psalm. He settles the issue of who is in control – the Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is all he needs.
Posture: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (Vs. 2)
Submission to being shepherded by the Lord leads the psalmist to good places – green pastures and still waters. The opening six words are the translation of a single Hebrew word that means to crouch or to lie resplendent as an animal would in a relaxed position. The word “leadeth” refers to being guided, lead or carried.
The full meaning of this verse in essence is the Lord’s posturing of His people in places of contentment and peace. And only the Lord brings peace:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6
There is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked. Isaiah 48:22
Purification: He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Vs. 3)
The Lord always has our best interests at heart. A restoration that includes the total person – our soul.
The word “righteousness” is the Hebrew root word צָדַק [tsâdaq] to be (make) right, cleanse, clear one’s self, be righteous, turn to righteousness. The paths of righteousness are the places where character, integrity and temperance are forged. To be righteous is to be like Him – upright, uncondemned and above reproach.
Living on a path that leads to the good things of God. What are they? Let’s start with having a “good conscience”. Who does not want a clear conscience? A mind unclouded by guilt, shame, remorse or regret. Don’t we all want that? The great Apostle Paul thought so:
And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men. Acts 24:16
The path of righteousness purifies and emboldens one for the challenges awaiting in the next verse – the upcoming valley of death. The Lord never releases one into battle unprepared. Walking the paths of righteousness is needed for preparation for the valleys encountered in life. And they will come. And the worst one of all – the valley of death.
Protection: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Vs. 4)
The full canvas of life is not complete without including the greatest fear and mystery of all – death. But, there is hope in God even when confronting this last conquered enemy. The soul’s cleansing along the paths of righteousness in the previous verse brings a peace that even death’s shadow in verse four cannot rattle.
The rod symbolizes God’s Word. The Word corrects, rebuffs and oftentimes hurts. One purpose of pain is that it gets one’s attention like nothing else will. Dark valleys demand careful footing and focus to avoid the dangers of snakes scorpions, jagged rocks, steep crevices, robbers, fear, uncertainty and the like.
This writer of this Psalm referenced in another one of his writings the corrective mechanism that is the Word of God:
Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word. Psalm 119:67
The staff symbolizes God’s comforting Spirit. The staff’s hook is used to bring the sheep back into fellowship with the remaining flock. It is the father’s staff that brought his lost son, the prodigal, back home.
Providence: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. (Vs. 5)
Other than sleeping, you are never more vulnerable than when sitting down during a meal. This verse is an assurance only God can supply; to fearlessly sit down to a meal in the middle of a battlefield symbolizes extreme safety and courage.
The Lord’s rod of correction of the previous verse is followed with application of the salve of healing and rest. It is said that shepherd’s during this time would rub a sheep’s face with oil to ward off insects, bugs and parasites. The oily sheen could also prevent lice from burrowing into the sheep’s ears, which could be fatal.
God’s anointing gives His people protection over demonic activity, over the oppressive and tormenting spirits of this age whose purpose is to sidetrack one off the path of righteousness to one defined by fear (the opposite of peace). The anointing privileges God’s people with authority over their enemies. The Lord is a superabundant supplier of our needs. His providence is sure even in the most extreme conditions.
Pursuit: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Vs. 6)
Imagine this scene, a leopard crouching on a tree limb high off the ground, his tail and whiskers twitching at the ready to spontaneously pounce on an approaching prey.
This is what is meant by the word in Hebrew translated as ‘Shall follow’: Heb. רָדַף (râdaph) – to run after, chase, follow after, pursue. This is the Lord’s desire towards those who follow through on the commitments they make in verse one – to hunt them down with His goodness and mercy, awaiting an opportunity to shower His love upon those who call upon His name.
And that is not the end of the story. This pursuit is not a one way street, it is two-fold. This overwhelming sense of well-being has built-in staying power. The recipient of God’s goodness and mercy experiences an appetite and desire to come back for more. Thus, the heart declares the words “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever”. Yes, upon tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord one becomes “hooked” and wants to come back for more – for ever.
To be pursued also means being valued and having value. And living is easier when it is valued and brings value. Such is the Kingdom of God. For the kingdom to have value is to know of its value, both here and in eternity.
Jesus compared the Kingdom of God as a field of hidden treasure and as a merchant seeking valuable jewels. Things of great value. Exciting things. Things that make grist for big dreams. Pursuit involves risk and adventure. And who does not like a little spark of adventure in their life? The Lord knows what He is doing.
The Cycle Is Unbroken
It is God’s nature to approach creation in cyclic patterns (e.g., the sun’s rising and setting, ebbing of the tides, flowing of the rivers, circuitous wind patterns, etc.). He often finishes up at the same place where He started out.
The tree of life in Genesis appears again in the last book of the Bible, The Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:14). Rivers flowing out of Eden appear again in Heaven (Rev. 22:1). The first Adam is superseded by the last Adam, Jesus Christ, the one sitting on the throne in Heaven (Rev. 4:2).
The Lord is at the center of the Psalmist’s view in verse one and appropriately completes the cycle with the Lord back at the center in its concluding verse. The Psalm speaks of a continuum of life ebbing and flowing from verse one through verse six and back again to verse one. Is this why Psalm 23 is so memorable and life changing?
A similar pattern is seen in the “Lord’s Prayer” of Matthew 6:9-13:
Vs. 9 Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Vs. 13 For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
The prayer is bookended with the Father, Heaven and eternity in view. At the onset, the majestic kingdom of God and the holiness of His name is to be at the forefront of our prayers. The prayer concludes and cycles back to Jesus’ opening words: God’s kingdom, His power and glory. The cycle is completed.
In conclusion, these six short verses contain all the ingredients needed for a balanced, fulfilling, meaningful, prosperous and contented life.
The most famous Psalm establishes a pattern God designed for one to follow – that the Lord be in the midst and center of our life. Psalm 23 pulsates with heart rhythm, God’s nearness in each verse energizes its cadence and is cyclic in nature as are life’s most dynamic and majestic forces.
Psalm 23 – Purpose, Posture, Purification, Protection, Providence & Pursuit. Be Blessed in Jesus.