A Meditation on Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will 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;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Psalm 23 has always had a powerful effect on the English mind. Though it is, to my knowledge, never quoted elsewhere in Scripture, Psalm 23 is easily in the most famous psalm among English-speaking people. Our hymnals usually carry at least two adaptations of it.
The central image of the psalm is powerful. David considers himself as a sheep—and before we consider ourselves in the same way, we must stop to consider what an otherworldly thing it was for David, that lion of a man, to describe himself as a sheep. It is strange to picture David as such a weak and docile creature—David, who as a shepherd himself fought wild beasts to recover lost sheep—David, who slew the giant, Goliath—David, that decisive warrior who conquered Israel, then the Philistines, then Israel again—David, that paragon of ancient masculinity, with his many wives and the many sons they bore him. Him, a sheep?
That is precisely the relationship that David envisions with the Lord: he is a sheep, and the Lord is his shepherd. The Lord supplies his need; he cannot do it himself. The Lord tells him where to go, where to lie down, where to eat, where to drink. David is entirely submissive before God. The ancient world considered such submission and dependency to be effeminate. No king is his right mind would publicly imagine himself in such a submissive state. Yet David, the man of God, does so.
David understands the nature of God’s provision for him. “He restores my soul,” in other words, David’s life, which does not consist merely in food and drink, rather, “He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.” The way of the Lord, righteousness, the glory of God’s name—this is life for David. This is the restoration that God offers.
David’s imagery invites us to imagine along with him. As we read David’s words, we should see ourselves as sheep. It may not be a flattering image of yourself: coarse, stubborn, dimwitted, supremely helpless and totally at the mercy of our Master’s will. That is one way of seeing it. But David’s words don’t necessarily invite us to dwell on that aspect of life as a sheep. Instead, he invites us to consider what a great Shepherd we have, how wise and how benevolent He is.
Perhaps the most powerful image of the psalm comes near the middle: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We have all seen that dark valley, and we have seen many walk by its way. It seems to us an altogether terrible thing. No earthly king would willingly enter that valley. Yet as a sheep, David can face even death, because our Shepherd watches and protects His flock. So likewise we take comfort in the leadership of our Lord, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
It is hard to tell whether the psalm pulls us out of the dream at the end, so that David presents us a second, human image: a man sitting at his table, head annointed with oil, cup overflowing. That’s a pretty natural reading of the text, but it is by no means required. Perhaps instead of two images, the first ovine and the second human, we are presented with only one. It may strike you as silly to imagine a sheep seated at a kingly feast, the shepherd anointing his head with oil, an upraised cup in the sheep’s hoof, but it is no more ridiculous to imagine a sheep as a king than it is to imagine the king as a sheep. The image, if that’s how we are to interpret it, points to the Shepherd’s superabundant grace. His love is so great and His blessings so lavish that even His lowly sheep bears a crown.