I was recently asked to preach on this Psalm. It’s one of my favourites, and I thought I would share my notes with you. I hope you find them interesting. Usually when reading the Bible, it would be a mistake to focus too much on individual words unless you’re reading it in the original Hebrew. However, this Psalm is so well known, and the truths are repeated in the rest of scripture, so I think we are safe to dissect the passage and still understand what the author was trying to say:
Psalm 23: 1-6
This Psalm was written by David, who had been a shepherd. The themes would be very relevant for him, because our relationships with God are a personal thing (isn’t that amazing!) One thing I love about this Psalm, is that the author started to write in in the third person, referring to God as ‘The LORD’ and ‘He’. About half way through, this changes, and he starts to talk to God, using ‘You.’ This happens to us, doesn’t it? We start to read the Bible, or think about God, or what he might want, and gradually, hardly noticing, we start to actually talk to him directly.
When I was little I was very confused by this Psalm, as it begins: ‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.‘ I understood that God was the shepherd, but not why I wouldn’t want him! Later of course I realised it meant ‘I shall not want for anything else.’
The LORD is my shepherd: LORD denotes Yaweh, “I am” the eternal God (written in capitals). We can never know God so he kindly gives us analogies we can relate to.
No uncertainty—the LORD is my shepherd (not ‘I hope so’)
Personal, God cares about individuals—the LORD is my shepherd.
Cows know owner (I learnt a lot about cows before writing my farm books). They know owner because listen to his voice. We are like sheep to their shepherd.
Present tense—whatever has gone before doesn’t change what is now. We all have things we regret, but God is interested in the ‘now’ of our lives. WE tend to worry about our past, and be anxious about our future. But the Bible tells us that God will cancel out our past because of Jesus’ sacrifice, and none of us can know what the future holds. It is the ‘now’ that matters. Are you being kind today, being humble, being fair?
Because the LORD is my shepherd, I therefore will not need anything else. I don’t think this can mean physical things, because some Christians are starving, or living in war zones. I think it means that if we have the spiritual side of our lives sorted out, then we can trust that everything else is part of God’s will—if we suffer, or go through pain, then it won’t be for nothing, it will be part of the bigger picture, part of God’s eternal plan. God is enough. Sometimes we need to remember that, to focus on God more, to try and see today in the light of eternity.
My animals expect me to feed them. Do we expect to receive from God? Do we come to church expecting to hear God’s voice?
Spurgeon said the ‘green pastures’ represent Scripture. They are where we rest, they show God’s abundant love for his people—always fresh, abundant, never exhausted. We can read the Bible over and over, and so many times we find something new, it speaks to us in a new way, we understand a little more of God.
He maketh me lie down—God doesn’t want us to be always struggling, striving away at life. He wants us to come to him, give up our worries, rest in his promises. It will be alright, because God is our shepherd.
Still waters are like the Holy Spirit, who sometimes works quietly: a dove, not an eagle. Sometimes/often we don’t notice what God is doing, we don’t see his Spirit working in us or in others. But those waters are there, still waters run deep, afterwards we sometimes look back, and realise that God was at work, things did work out right.
God leads us. We aren’t driven along, we are given someone to follow. (Chickens cannot be ‘driven’ but they will follow if I have food!) Jesus leads us by his example, we can see how to live by looking at how he lived. We see God in other people, and that is an example for us to follow too. It’s much easier to copy than to decide for ourselves (like the chickens wandering all over the garden) so we need to choose carefully who we will copy. WE have to allow ourselves to be led.
Sometimes we want to know the whole route, all at once. But usually God leads us step by step. I need to be asking each day, ‘What does God want of me today?’ Sometimes Christians get in a muddle about this, they agonise over ‘being led’. A little like the joke of the man who needed saving and prayed to God, then ignored the police/firemen/lifeboat that came to rescue him! We ask God to lead us, but he has given us a brain, surrounded us with wise people—following God does not have to be via a thunderbolt!
God ‘restores’ our soul because it needs restoring! We get it wrong, we do/think/believe the wrong thing, over and over. God restores us, again and again. ‘Restores’ is an active verb, God keeps on restoring us.
He restores my soul. Not me, not yoga, not a holiday! God does it, because he is our shepherd—he wants to take care of us. We need to remember to pray, to ask him to restore us, to let him guide us, to accept his forgiveness.
He leads me in paths of righteousness (or ‘right paths’). We should be obedient, follow what we know is right. WE don’t pick and choose which commandments we will follow, we obey all of them. We belong to God, we need to behave accordingly. We MUST be kind, be humble, be just.
We don’t run, or slip or struggle our way through the valley of death, we walk. It is a calm thing. We don’t walk alone, God is with me. We don’t wander aimlessly though the valley of death, we walk through it, death is simply on the way to where we are going.
Corrie Ten Boom told a lovely story about when she was young, and was frightened of dying. Her father reminded her, that when they caught the train, he would give the young Corrie her ticket right at the end of the journey, just before she needed it—the rest of the journey he kept it safe for her. He said that God is the same with death, he doesn’t make us ready until we need to be ready. . . If we’re scared, we’re probably not going to die today! God gives us what we need when we need it. This Psalm reminds us that when the time comes, God will be there.
When I had brain surgery, my walk to the operating room was terrifying, but I felt ‘wrapped in warm cotton-wool’—God was with me in a whole new way, because that’s what I needed at that time.
It is only the shadow of death we walk through, God removed the actual permanent death when Jesus rose. The valley is often a peaceful place—when my Dad died, it was a peaceful, Godly thing, a becoming more soul and less physical.
I will fear no evil, not because evil doesn’t exist, but because God is stronger, and he is there, protecting me. Most of our fears are in our head: the interview, the being alone, the being ill, the missing the bus—these things are rarely as bad in real life as we fear they will be! When we walk with God, we don’t need to fear evil, he has it sorted, we can trust him. God is with me. All the time.
The rod and staff which are used to keep the flock in order: for discipline, they are the things that comfort when things are tough. Knowing that God is in charge, is mightier than anything we will ever face, is to have true comfort when we need it.
‘You prepare a table for me’: one translation has ‘furnish and decorate’ a table—God doesn’t skimp when he does something for us. He treats us as special. We prepare a special table for Christmas, or a party—it shows that something is special. The Psalmist is saying that God treats us as something precious, something worth celebrating.
‘You prepare a table’ implies something normal, not rushed—a meal is eaten slowly, in a calm way. God is preparing something we can enjoy, we don’t need to feel tense about it.
‘In the presence of my enemies’ for David, his enemies were very real—they wanted to kill him! This verse was literal for him. I don’t really have physical enemies, but I do have fears, anxieties, temptations, and they are very real to me. I think this verse shows that even though those things exist, God still treats me as something precious, and the way God treats me is what I should be focussing on, not the negative things.
‘You anoint my head with oil’ signifies that we are made special. A king was anointed with oil, a priest was anointed with oil, it signified something special, a change. We need to allow God to anoint us, to change us, to make us something special.
‘My cup overflows’ shows that God gives us more than we can even hold! God gives generously. Look at how many acorns an oak produces, how many eggs a chicken lays, how many pips are in an apple: way more than are needed! God gives to us extravagantly.
“Surely goodness” when I was a child I thought ‘surely goodness’ was a special type of goodness! But it means that ‘because of all this, then for sure goodness and mercy will follow me. Certainly these things will be in my life.
We can almost imagine them as two angels, watching our back, all the time. All the days of my life—so, the bad days as well as the good days, those two angels will be there.
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. We live there, not a visit, but living as children who have every right to be there. Forever.
I hope you feel encouraged today, whatever your day might hold.
Thanks for reading. Take care.
Love, Anne x