Reflections on Psalm 23 —
We find contentment through humble submission to God, the Good Shepherd.
David gained widespread fame after his slaying of the Philistine Giant, Goliath. He became a phenomenally successful military leader in his day. Yet he is not known for his military prowess as much as his contentment. In this, David was remarkable. He always seemed to be OK with what God was doing. He had an uncommonly humble heart. David’s humility is reflected in his richly poetic Psalm 23, the most famous psalm of all.
In this psalm, David assumes the role of the sheep, a lowly creature known for its low intelligence and defenselessness. In a strikingly self-demeaning manner, he associates with the sheep and its utter dependence on the shepherd. It is a metaphoric depiction of his dependency on God. We might think it a sign of weakness, but for David, his dependency on God was his source of contentment–an elusive state of peace so rare in our world. For those struggling to find peace in their present state, Psalm 23 is worthy of consideration.
David’s life and writings teach us to never underestimate the value of humility–humility that is demonstrated by subjection to God’s leadership and authority in everything. We also learn that God is a Good Shepherd, a perfect name for one who is tenderhearted and kind to those under his keep. Far from the world’s notion that God is a hater and a bigot, we find God is quite gentle, compassionate, and considerate. In Psalm 23, David asserts it is in our best interest to assume the role of sheep, and to submit ourselves to the Good Shepherd’s watchful care.
The Good Shepherd
“The Lord is my shepherd…”
In Psalm 23, David demonstrates how God has exemplified the role of Good Shepherd in his own life. Lost in our non-agrarian society is the familiarity with the role of the shepherd. Having been one as a youth, David knew the life very well. He had spent countless hours in pastures, and he saw in his experiences uncanny similarities between his role and God’s.
The shepherd is a perfect characterization of God, for He is alert, mindful of the needs of His flock, and fiercely protective. God regularly uses the metaphor of a shepherd to describe His disposition toward His chosen people. He uses this metaphor to communicate His tender love, patience, and concern for His people. In certain periods of their history, the Israelites rejected God’s authority and as a result, wandered aimlessly or succumbed to adversaries. Often God used the expression like “sheep without a shepherd” to describe the exposed and hopeless state of His wayward people. Time and time again, God played the role of the Gentle Shepherd, coming to the rescue, tenderly gathering up His people in His arms much like a shepherd coddles a lamb (Isaiah 40:11).
God’s shepherding heart is manifest in His prescription for good leaders. Throughout history, God has sought gentle, humble people to lead His people because He cares deeply about their spiritual well-being. David himself was cited by God as a good shepherd (II Samuel 5:2). Jesus Christ is known as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-15), for unlike the religious leaders of His day, He goes to great lengths to protect His followers and He intimately knows the needs of each one. Leaders in the church are exhorted to be good shepherds themselves in like form, offering service not out of compulsion or greed, but willingly and eagerly (I Peter 5:1-4). Those who find themselves under the leadership of such men should consider themselves blessed.
Food for the Soul
“…I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul…”
David personifies himself as a sheep, and God, his shepherd. This arrangement sounds demeaning but it suited David very well. He says it best in the familiar line, I shall not want. As long as he felt close to God, he was happy. He had everything he needed.
People don’t say that these days. Discontentment abounds. We desperately seek happiness, going to great lengths to find it. We do not know the “secret of contentment” as Paul referred to it (Philippians 4:11-12). Ironically, Paul coined that phrase while imprisoned. Like David, Paul knew how to be content with God no matter the circumstance.
For David, contentment was only found when he assumed a humble, submissive attitude toward God. When it comes to satisfying the needs of the soul, there is only one way to accomplish that. It is not gold or diamonds, food, nor friends. The only one who can meet the needs of the soul is God. It is no wonder people are discontent, for the prevailing wind of society is to cut God out of the equation. In so doing, they eliminate the only remedy for a starving soul.
God is skilled at fulfilling the needs of the soul. He finds the green pastures and leads us by still waters–metaphorically describing the calming and satisfying effect He has on our inner self. When Jesus Christ came and manifested God on earth, He promised that any who comes to Him would never hunger, and whoever believes in Him would never thirst (John 6:35). This was a provocative statement full of symbolism referring to manna. Manna was the food God used to sustain 600,000 people in the wilderness of Egypt for 40 years. Manna was a mysterious wafery bread that appeared on the ground every morning, edible residue of the evaporated dew. Never before and never since has such a miracle occurred where hordes of people were sustained in a desert day after day. It was perfect symbolism for how we ought to live, in total dependence on God. By asserting Himself as the Bread of Life, Jesus identified Himself as the living manifestation of manna. He claimed ownership of the same power to miraculously satisfy our soul’s deepest longings. Jesus can fill up the soul unlike anything else, restoring it, giving it the rest that it needs (Matthew 11:28-29). All that is needed is daily, humble submission to Him.
When I am discontent, I often recall Jesus’ claim to be the “Bread of Life” and ask Him to help me. Reciting these words over and over doesn’t necessarily break the spell of discontentment. They are not magic words out of a Harry Potter episode. Rather, it is the re-alignment of my attitude toward Christ that is the key. I confess my discontentment to Him, and ask Him to commune with my soul, ridding me of the things that create discontentment–perhaps anxiety over some upcoming event, dissatisfaction with my circumstance, or disillusionment with some expectation I held dear. I don’t feel tingles or any sensory stimulation, but I know with certainty He accepts my invitation. When He comes, He cleans house. He sets things in order. He brings peace to my soul. It is often true that on those days, at some random time, I catch myself feeling happy for no particular reason. It is the feeling of my soul at rest. I am sitting in a green pasture, by cool water. I notice my Good Shepherd is nearby, watching, smiling. I have everything I need.
Paths of Righteousness
“He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
God guides us in paths of righteousness.
I find I am always searching for the perfect project to make me feel important, useful. I look for something righteous, some charitable enterprise like helping the poor, feeding the hungry, serving in Sunday School…that sort of thing. I can be downright unhappy if I’m not so engaged. In reality, any path God leads me down is a path of righteousness. It doesn’t have to be some great mission. The path of righteousness is a path of daily obedience, and close proximity to the Good Shepherd. When the disciples were rebuked by priests for picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus exonerated them because they were with Him. So an endeavor as simple as loving my wife today, or calling my son to let him know I care, can be the most righteous thing I can do.
God leads for His name’s sake. This is a subtle yet important statement. It tells us that God does things, not because we deserve it, not because He lives to see our every whim met, not as a reward for good behavior, but to uphold His reputation–i.e., the definition of who He is. This means there is purpose in His destinations for us. He will often lead us to places where we have to trust Him, where He can prove His unchangeable qualities. We can trust that He will not lead us astray into ruin and chaos without cause. He describes Himself as gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness (Psalm 103:8), so everything He does, every path on which He leads, is in keeping with this definition. He guides His flock on paths of righteousness, His paths, to demonstrate His love for us to the universe. This is an important point as we head into the next section.
Setting the Table
“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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”
David had his share of scary moments. In those times, he found comfort in God’s rod and staff. At first blush, it is ironic that these symbols of power and authority, often used to invoke fear, are actually sources of comfort to David. What this phrase suggests is that David has accepted the authoritative hand of God on his life. Rather than resist the notion of God’s sovereignty, David embraces it and finds confidence in it, especially in the dark valleys.
One thing about God is that He is not passive when it comes to our state of maturity. He will seek to develop character in His people. He wants us to be marked by signs of maturity, composure, and confidence, so that we stand out, clearly identified with Him. Sometimes the shepherd must intentionally lead his sheep through dangerous spots to get to the next fertile meadow or quiet stream. In the same way, God will sometimes lead us through some scary places. This suggests that hardships in life are not random. We do not enter life’s dark valleys by accident. We are led there.
God is author of circumstances, the Ruler of all things that test us. The evil, wicked, and destructive forces that meet us on our journey all bow to His authority, serving His purpose of refining our faith. His goal is not to torment us without reason. He is not some masochistic pain monger. He uses valleys to sharpen our faith, to reveal the depths of our iniquity.
Poor Job is an example. In Job’s story, God grants permission to Satan and his minions to wreak havoc on Job’s family, business, and home. The bulk of Job’s book describes how he worked through this confusing but necessary trial, discovering at the end a valuable state of humility that he never would have obtained without the trials God led him through.
Rather than argue over this point, I suggest the church embrace it. There is great confidence for the one who embraces God’s authority over destructive forces that assail us. The roots of faith grow deep for the one who holds fast to the truth that God is there in our trials, authorizing them, purposely taking us through trials to refine our faith in Him.
In the end, God wants to showcase His love for us. He “prepares a table” for us in the presence of our enemies. This word picture has always been curious to me. Only recently have I concluded it is sort of an “in-your-face” moment for God. The enemies referred to here must be the myriads of demons that love watching us squirm and suffer in our hour of need, for they seek our ruin. But God is the Great Host, lavishly setting the table for us in the very presence of those enemies. God can take a dire predicament, a lost cause, and turn it into a victory lap for Himself and those that hold on to Him through the trial.
“You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.”
In an act that signified David’s special standing as the next king of Israel, David was literally anointed by Samuel, God’s chief prophet. But in a figurative sense, David celebrates God’s anointing here in the shadow of death, a realization of his special place in God’s eyes in the midst of the trial. When a believer can consider himself blessed by God even when God takes him through a particularly difficult trial, he has attained an uncommon maturity of faith. We so often convince ourselves that the blessed Christian is the Christian without trouble. The truth is exactly opposite. The mature Christian is the one who feels blessed by God even when his burdens seem more difficult than those of his peers. This one will find within himself an inexplicable overflowing of gratitude in spite of the difficulty, like an overflowing cup.
The world marvels at such contentedness. It assumes a person can only be content when nothing is wrong. I resonate with the world’s view. I would love a new car, one that never breaks down. But the new car type of contentment is only as good as the first dent, the first scratch. Same goes for the other things our world counts on to bring contentment–vacation, new home, retirement, etc. The contentment we sense at God’s table in the valley of death is different than that. It is a contentment in the midst of chaos, a “peace that surpasses all comprehension” (Philippians 4:7).
Pursued by Goodness and Mercy
“Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
David began this psalm as the lamb following the Good Shepherd. But in the end, God flips it around; His goodness and mercy becomes the pursuer. They find the humble follower when he least expects it, showing up in the darkest places, on the loneliest roads.
As he reflects on all the benefits of being a sheep under the watchful eye of God, David concludes that it is always good to keep his soul close to God. He vows to make himself a frequent guest, showing up at God’s doorstep as often as possible. His work of ruling the kingdom would distract him and keep him busy, but the beautiful thing about God’s house is its accessibility. As Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is near.” God’s house is always just a prayer away, open 24/7. All that is needed to enter is a humble heart, the heart of a sheep dependent on the Good Shepherd.