In A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, Phillip Keller analyzes the psalm from both his perspective as a shepherd in Africa and later as a lay minister. As the psalm follows a flock of sheep through a year of care, Keller helps us understand the goodness of our Shepherd as the rural culture of biblical times would have understood the story.
He explains the psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd–
David, the psalmist and a shepherd, understood how much his people and we are like sheep. He’s proud and jubilant that our Shepherd is the one who created the immense universe and yet He cares about and for each of us. As Jesus asserts that He is the Good Shepherd, we learn that this guardian and guide of ours is willing to die for us. We belong to Him because He created us and because He bought our redemption with His death. He is a shepherd of compassion and integrity.
I shall not want–
The author suggests a double meaning to these words. I shall not lack anything (though tribulation will come our way) but also, if I accept the Lord as my shepherd, my contentment should be obvious to others. I don’t need to pursue my own desires.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures–
Sheep only are willing to lie down if they are free from fear, tension from the dominance of flock mates, aggravations from parasites and insects, and hunger. Only the shepherd can alleviate these needs: he protects, rebukes contention, applies oil to prevent infestation, and provides rich, lush fields through hard work in the typical dry lands where sheep flourish. Simply seeing him in the field will calm them. Like the sheep, we have our fears, our fights for status, our petty irritations and challenges, and a spiritual hunger. Through His Spirit and His Word he calms our fears, encourages love, guides us through our challenges, and delights in being with us, satiating our hunger.
He leads me besides the still waters–
A good shepherd brings his sheep to pasture while the grass is still heavy with dew. He leads them away from polluted puddles and guides them to fresh water. He maintains the streams and pools of his land so that they are clean and safe for his flock, or labors to draw heavy buckets of water from wells. Our Good Shepherd satisfies our thirst by drawing us to Him. Like sheep led to grass while dew is still heavy, we are encouraged to turn our thoughts to Him before our day begins, studying his Word and conversing with Him.
He restores my soul–
We are not always at peace. Sometimes we are downcast and disheartened. Sheep, too, are frequently “cast,” which means they lie down and either because of the hollow they choose, the heaviness of their fleece, or being overweight, they flounder with legs up and unable to right themselves. Left this way they can die quickly from abdominal gas buildup or predators. When we find ourselves to be helpless, unable to recover from a mistake or sin, our Shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to search for, find, and set us lovingly back on our feet. He restores our souls!
He leads me in right paths for His name’s sake–
Sheep tend to stay in a rut. They will follow the same path, drink in the same spot, and forage down to the roots rather than move on. Left long in the same area, they will devastate the land, pollute the waters, and beat paths into gullies. If the shepherd rotates them through different pastures, they enhance the soil and the fertilized grass can regrow.
Our Good Shepherd also wants to lead us in healthy ways. However, like sheep, we would rather stay in our ruts than allow ourselves to be led. In order for us to enhance His Kingdom, we need to love our Lord and others. And by love He means self-sacrifice. He leads us to fresh experiences of service, humility, acceptance, and trust through the enabling help of his Spirit.
Yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil for you are with me–
As summer comes, shepherds drive their sheep through valleys to reach higher ground. The going isn’t easy; it is uphill, and often fraught with danger from storms, flash floods, and predators, but it’s the fastest way to reach the better grazing. We too may want to move to “higher ground” with God, but we forget that the way to higher-ground, closer relationship is through our struggles up the valley. Yet He is with us as we walk through the valley. When faced with true death, either of loved ones or our own, we have faith that we pass through it into eternal life. Our struggles and sufferings become the road to God. We have no need to be afraid. In fact, when we have passed through the valleys, we can become encouragers to those still struggling through their own valleys.
Your rod and your staff they comfort me–
A shepherd’s rod was a strong club for redirection or protection for the flock. The rod symbolizes the Word of God. We take comfort and assurance from His Word that He is all powerful and will lovingly redirect us onto the right path.
The staff with its hooked end was used to rescue sheep trapped in briars or struggling in water, as well as to move a newborn lamb closer to its mother without the risk of the shepherd’s scent on the lamb causing the mother to reject it. The staff symbolizes the Spirit of God, reminding us of God’s comfort, consolation, and tenderness. The Spirit draws us together into an intimate relationship with our parental God and with other members of His flock.
When we truly believe that we can trust our loving Shepherd, the rod and the staff are comforts.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies–
In the highlands, or table lands, flocks spent the summer on land the shepherd had prepared for them by removing poisonous plants, seeking out snakes, and adding salt and minerals to the soil. The sheep and shepherd spend days and nights together, away from their farm, and the psalmist reflects this intimacy as his words change from sheep boasting about their wonderful shepherd to praise spoken directly to the shepherd. Though grazing was rich on these table lands, predators stalked the flock and were kept away only by the vigilance of the shepherd.
We take comfort knowing our Good Shepherd has gone before us, and knows of every danger we will encounter, praying for us like He did for Peter that we might not fail in faith. Because of the predator of Evil, it is wise for us to walk closely to Jesus. Work to always know Him better through the Word, the Church, prayer life, sacrificial love, and holy mentors.
You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows–
Summer flies and pests torment sheep. Nose flies can lay eggs that will become parasites that drive the sheep mad. Also, affectionately rubbing heads, sheep infect each other with scab. To protect the sheep, a conscientious shepherd will repeatedly anoint their heads with oil, which repels the insects and infection and brings them relief.
Haven’t we all had pesky irritations that prevented us from being our best? Haven’t we or our children “put our heads together” with people who do not believe as we do and come away exposed to destructive thoughts? We too need the balm of the Holy Spirit to calm our minds and refocus our beliefs. Rather than frustration demanding our attention, we can, through the Spirit who comforts, claim the fruits of joy, contentment, love, patience, gentleness and peace.
Not only will our own cup be full, but it will overflow for the good and blessing of others.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life–
As the shepherd has diligently cared for the flock, the sheep trust him and don’t fear for the future. We too know our Good Shepherd showers goodness and kindness upon us daily and we must trust He will continue to do so all the days of our lives, no matter what difficulties lie ahead for us.
Yet, perhaps the psalmist meant more. Sheep enrich the lands they travel through. Perhaps we, by being so tenderly loved, by having our cups overflow, will also provide goodness and mercy to others. Goodness should follow us wherever we go and whatever we do, a legacy of blessing for our fellow sheep.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long–
In the fall the sheep return from the tablelands to their homeland, full and healthy and ready for winter. The speaker sheep proclaims how proud he is of his shepherd. Shepherds also take pride in and joy from their flock’s well-being.
We too should take pride in belonging to our Shepherd’s fold, “enfolded” by His love, and being welcome to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. We should be like the boasting sheep. Our love and contentment should proclaim to the world how good our Shepherd is.
With a loving Good Shepherd to watch over us, what or whom should we fear?
Thank you for reading these weekly Lenten posts. I hope they have helped you. May the Easter season fill you with new courage!