Author’s note: The following is a meditation on Psalm 23 that I gave at my dad’s funeral. It was adapted from a similar meditation from a book called “Sheaves of Friendship“.
It has been said that the 23rd Psalm is “the best-known chapter in the Bible… and the least understood”. Let us spend the next few moments exploring the immense wisdom and healing found in these six short verses.
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want
Instinctively, the sheep know the shepherd has made plans for their grazing tomorrow, so they lie in the fold with confidence. This Psalm does not begin with a petition asking God for something, but rather it is a calm statement of fact. “The Lord is my Shepherd.” He is our Shepherd, not was yesterday, or might be again sometime later, but is present at this very moment. Because of this we do not have to beg for things. The greatest source of human worry is about tomorrow, but as David puts it: “I shall not want”.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
A shepherd starts the sheep grazing about four o’clock in the morning because he knows that the sheep must not drink when it is hot, nor when their stomachs are filled with undigested grass. He makes the sheep lie down in green pastures so that their day can be peaceful and without worry.
Sometimes God puts us in a situation where we have no choice but to stop and take in our surroundings, so that He can make Himself front and center. Even someone on a sickbed can be blessed and see God’s grace, if they choose to.
He leads me beside the still waters
Sheep are naturally timid creatures and are especially afraid of swiftly moving water because they are very poor swimmers because of their heavy wool coats. Because of this, sheep will not drink from a moving stream, but only from still, calm waters.
This verse has a wonderful meaning for us: while God may put before us seemingly impossible tasks, He knows our strength and abilities, He understands the weight upon our shoulders and will lead us to places of nourishment and refreshment. This gives us confidence in knowing that even while we are resting, the Shepherd is working for our needs tomorrow.
He restores my soul
David knew that when the sheep started out in the morning, each one took a definite place in line and held that position all day. The only time they would leave it was to trot over to David for a gentle head and ear rub, and then being reassured, the sheep would take its place back in line.
When writing Psalm 23, David remembered the times he had been close to God, but then had gotten busy and felt no need for God’s presence. This pained him, and he repented and God, being ever merciful and loving, heard him, forgave him and restored their relationship. We all have times where we wander away from God, but not all who wander are lost as God is always ready to take us back and restore a proper life in us. “He restores my soul” can also be said as “He revives life within me”.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake
David knew that sheep have no sense of direction because they have poor eyesight. The fields he kept watch over were covered with narrow paths and while some of these paths led to the green pastures, others led to cliff edges, or blind alleys with no exit. The sheep were willing to trust the shepherd’s judgement, knowing he would lead them on the right path.
Following the Path of Righteousness means going through hard times and while God does not promise us an easy be life He does promise us strength and that He will always go with us. “He leads me” also shows that God won’t dictate that we follow Him, but here we should keep in mind Proverbs 3:6. “In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path”.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for You are with me
There is an actual Valley of the Shadow of Death in Palestine which leads from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and is a very narrow and dangerous pathway through the mountain range. I’ve walked part of this path myself and can you tell it lives up to its name, and yet the sheep are not afraid of this path because the shepherd is with them.
We have all come to dark places in our lives which we are compelled to pass through. Disappointment is one of these times. Loneliness is another. Death is another. While these times are difficult, when fear starts to creep in, remember that God is with you and that He will lead you through this time and restore you when it is over. There is power in His presence.
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me
Sheep are helpless animals and are easy prey to any wild beast. The shepherd carries a rod, which is more like a heavy club, and a staff with the end forming a crook. As noted before, where David tended flocks there were many paths with steep mountainous sides. Sometimes a sheep would loose its footing and hang helplessly on a ledge below. With his staff, the shepherd could reach down and lift the sheep to safety.
When we look at the world around us, there seems to be overwhelming evil in the world. It is very easy to fear what tomorrow will bring. It can be easy to sometimes feel helpless. But we must remember that God is ready and able to bring us through even the darkest times, reminding us of the beginning of the Psalm: “I shall not want”.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
In the pastures that David led his flocks to, there were poisonous plants that were fatal to sheep if eaten. Each spring, he would have to dig out and burn these plants before the sheep could find them. In this sense, the field became a prepared table for the sheep, with the enemies destroyed.
As we move through life, we will come across people looking to stop our plans and even destroy us. We sometimes wonder whether or not we will be able to hold out against their attacks. God knows what is coming and will work to bring us peace and rest, even in the midst of the worst of attacks, if we choose to take refuge in Him.
You anoint my head; my cup overflows
As the sheep grazed, sometimes their heads would be cut by the sharp edge of a stone, or briars and thorns would would get stuck in their wool. The shepherd would stand at the door to the sheepfold at night and examine each sheep and apply oil to any injured areas. He also had a large jug of water from which he would give each sheep a cool drink.In God, we have a Shepherd who also understands our hurt and pain, and who will tend to us in our times of need. As Psalm 137:3 reminds us: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life
Scholars aren’t sure when David wrote Psalm 23. It could have been when he was being pursued as a young man by King Saul. It could have been when his son Absalom was leading an open revolt against his kingdom. What we can be sure of is that when David wrote Psalm 23 he had seen tragedies and he had disappointments but he had also come to know God in a very deep way.
Knowing God in that same way can fill us with the knowledge that God will lead us through those dark valleys and into places and times that go beyond anything we can imagine or desire for ourselves. David believed God’s goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life and it did, and it will for us as well, if we focus ourselves firmly on God.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
David closes the 23rd Psalm with a mighty crescendo of faith as he declares “1 will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Isn’t that a wonderful thought? David didn’t have the insight we have. He never heard Jesus say: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
David knew God in a deeply profound way, and knew in his heart that, despite the dark times in his life, despite his own failings, God would lead him home because he had always fixed his heart on God. If we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we too can have that assurance that when our life is an at end, God will take us to be with him forever.