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Psalm 23 -- The Shepherd

The Lord is my Shepherd. I have everything I could ever need.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Psalm 23

The relationship between a shepherd and his sheep can really bring out the richness of this psalm. We bring as much to our relationship with God as a sheep does to the shepherd (not much), but that doesn’t stop the Shepherd from guiding and serving and protecting us in this life (and even more in the life to come).

Getting Started: Things to Think About

You have several different ways of taking this lesson, so take your pick of which starter works the best for your group.

Directions. Bring to class as much of these as you can: (1) a compass, (2) a hand-written paper map, (3) a nicely published map, and (4) a GPS. Then, when you ask your group which form of directions makes them to most comfortable, also include (5) no directions at all, and (6) a local expert in the passenger seat telling you where to go. I know which one makes me the most comfortable: the expert in the passenger seat! I feel better when I don’t really have to think—just listen and obey. They can get me around traffic, back on track if I make a wrong turn, and show me what to watch out for. That’s what the shepherd is for the sheep in these verses: someone who takes all the pressure off. In our trip to Honduras, we are always accompanied by a local guide and a security guard. It makes such a huge difference in productivity and confidence knowing that we didn’t have to worry about where we were or if we were safe. We could just get to work! I’m sure people in your class have had similar experiences, either on mission, vacation, or work.

The Big, Bad Valley. We’ve all heard the worst things about the valley in Psalm 23. As we will see inside, this phrase should actually just be translated “a dark valley” (not as poetic, I know). That’s still super-dangerous for sheep—a flash flood, hidden predators, washouts that you can’t see. So why would the shepherd lead them that way? Because it’s still the best path to where they’re going. The other paths are either impassable (cliffs, gullies, and briars) or even more dangerous (mountain ridges, riverbeds). Ask your group to think about valleys they have walked through or are walking through now. Does it change their perspective to think of it as God walking with them on the best path to get to where they’re going? Sometimes it makes me shudder to think about the alternatives, but it really helps me to think of God picking out this way as the best way to get to where I’m going, and I still have eternal life in heaven to look forward to.

A Really Sobering Thought Exercise. Here’s a powerful way to break out of a rut, but it’s pretty scary, so approach this very cautiously, if at all! If any of you think you’re feeling sorry for yourself or are doubting God, just do this: read Psalm 23 in the negative. Read every single phrase in the negative. That is absolutely soul-crushing, horrifying even! Ask your group which phrase makes you feel the worst (for me, I can’t get past “The Lord is not my Shepherd”). Then we should have a greater appreciation for the fact that Psalm 23 is true for all Christians, and our hearts should break for non-Christians who really don’t have the Lord for a Shepherd.


This Week's Big Idea:

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller

Keller wrote this book from his experiences as a shepherd. Some critics have said that he embellished his tales more than a little, but I still find it a fascinating look into what David might have been thinking when he wrote this Psalm. Because you have heard this psalm so many times and know what you think of it, and the leader guide gives good stuff, I want to try to give you something different.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

Keller recalls a field next to his that was neglected; the sheep were gaunt and restless. His sheep, on the other hand, were calm and well-fed. Why? Because he (their shepherd) took good care both of his sheep and of their pasture. Sheep, he says, are some of the most destructive creatures when left to their own design. They overgraze out of habit, eating in the same place where they relieve themselves, attracting and spreading parasites. The shepherd has to continuously guide them to new locations to keep them healthy. It takes a lot of work! But when the Lord is your Shepherd, you don’t have to worry about that. He always cares.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.

Keller says that sheep are unbelievably skittish. They won’t lie down if there is fear or tension in the flock (either from predators nearby or rivalries between dominant males). They won’t lie down if they are uncomfortable due to pests. And they won’t lie down if they are hungry (they keep looking for things to eat). They will instead push themselves to dangerous exhaustion. It is quite a feat for a shepherd to finally get his flock to lie down. But the Lord can do it. (I sure hope you see the countless applications in that idea!!) As far as the water goes, if a sheep gets thirsty, it will drink anything, including stagnant, polluted puddles. Conversely, a raging river is too dangerous for a sheep because of its thick coat.

He restores my soul. He leads me on right paths for His name’s sake.

Sheep are some of the most helpless creatures. If they lose their footing and fall over, or if they get too comfortable and their legs fall asleep, their extremely thick fleece prevents them from being able to right themselves (it’s called being “cast”). A shepherd is always looking for a “cast” sheep because they can die rather quickly if left exposed—not just from predators but from lack of blood circulation. Keller said he was constantly counting his sheep, knowing that any missing were likely helpless, upside-down somewhere. He would find it, set it on its feet again, and then massage its legs to get the blood flowing before it ran off. Is that not a great illustration of what we need as sinners? And the right paths—sheep are notoriously stubborn and habitual. They will wear a path out until it becomes dangerous or barren. A wise shepherd has to be looking out for the safest, most beneficial paths for the sheep to take.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil . . .

Keller says that David is imagining the spring move from the lowlands where the winter pastures are to the cooler, safer highlands for the summer. The trip would inevitably include some dangerous stretches and some dark valleys—flash floods, avalanches, predators, washouts. But it was also priceless time for the shepherd with his sheep because they were alone together, and the shepherd could build the trust necessary for the sheep to listen and obey him. After a time or two, the sheep would follow without hesitation. This is interesting: Keller doesn’t see the dark valley as a bad thing. He said that the valleys were still safer than the mountain passes, for at least there would be water, vegetation, and no chance of falling off a cliff. So even though it seemed dark and scary, it was actually a better path!

For you are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me.

Why would skittish creatures do dangerous things? Because they are not afraid. They trust the shepherd. And the shepherd carries a “rod” which is really a kind of club. When a sheep leaves the path, he can throw it to scare the sheep back. A well-thrown club is a good deterrent for a predator. Also, he will use it to inspect the sheep (“passing under the rod”), pushing the wool around to check for parasites and injuries. The staff is unique in that it only works for sheep—it is ineffective on any other animal. Sheep are stubborn. To reach that last piece of grass, they will one step too far from the path, or push one step too far into some brambles, and get stuck. A staff could gently drag a sheep back from danger. A shepherd could also use it to prod a sheep one direction or another.

You prepare a table for me in the midst of my enemies.

Here is where Keller drifts away from most scholarship on the psalm; he keeps the shepherd metaphor going. He sees this verse as a description of what the shepherd does for his sheep in the highlands. He has regularly checked on this pasture during the year, making sure the streams still flow, the pools are still dammed, and the dangerous plants removed. He looks for signs of wolves. He scatters salt to fertilize the area. To the sheep, it is like a bountiful table. But the shepherd knows the wolves are nearby, watching. The enemies are literally watching, waiting for a sheep to wander off or the shepherd to fall asleep. I don’t know if that’s what David had in mind, but it’s an interesting thought.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Keller continues the shepherd imagery here, too. He says that in the highlands in the summer, the biting flies get really bad. They will swarm a sheep, lay eggs in its mucous membranes, and the larvae will burrow into the sheep’s face causing an awful infection. Unchecked, it will kill the sheep. But a linseed oil mix would repel the flies and help calm the sheep. Keller says that this oil is used around the world today (but I haven’t found evidence of its use in David’s day). There is also a common sheep infection called “scab” that is spread through contact. Sheep regularly rub heads together (sometimes violently), transmitting the disease quickly through a flock. An olive oil and Sulphur mix can control it. Keller says herdsmen have been using it for a long time. In other words, Keller says that David is thinking of the times he literally rubbed oil into the sheep’s heads to keep them healthy.

Every other biblical scholar says this is a reference to the ancient practice of a host pouring oil on his guests’ heads to help the skin recover from long, hot travel—so take Keller’s idea with a grain of salt.

Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me . . .

Keller’s closing thoughts are basically the same as everyone else’s here.


Part 1: Provides (23:1-3)

The Lord is my shepherd; I have what I need. He lets me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters. He renews my life; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

Though some of Keller’s story may not be true of David’s day, this much is: shepherds lived with the flocks at least 8 months a year, from spring to fall. Flocks could be in the hundreds or thousands, demanding constant attention. (Think of Jacob’s experience in Gen 30, and Jesus’ 99/100 sheep). Sheep were affectionate (2 Sam 12:3), unaggressive (Isa 53:7), defenseless (Mic 5:8), and wayward (Num 27:17). After a year together in the highlands, the shepherd would develop a close bond with all of his sheep. That the Lord is his shepherd, and not some charlatan or hired hand, is certainly what David is emphasizing. There is such a blessing in having someone who can care for your needs. When we were in Honduras last week, my son repeatedly pointed out how skinny the animals were there. Perhaps their owners didn’t know how to take care of them or didn't have the means. There is much blessing in having a qualified, loving shepherd. This is a spot where I think Keller’s insight as a shepherd is extremely valuable. People’s needs can be so much like sheep’s (metaphorically). The word for “pasture” always refers to lush, grassy regions. And “quiet waters” often refers to watering holes as opposed to streams. Shepherds often dug those or irrigated them themselves. The point of the image is that in Israel in the summer (when the flocks would be out), it could be great distances between water and grassland. And yet God makes sure they are never far from sustenance and pasture. The familiar translation “paths of righteousness” is probably a mistake. Here, the word for “righteousness” is being used as an adjective to describe “paths”, hence “right paths”. In other words, the shepherd always goes the right way, the safest way, the healthiest way. Every time a shepherd returned with all the sheep he set out with, his reputation grew. But if he lost sheep along the way, he developed a reputation for being careless or thoughtless. Those shepherds would not get additional jobs!

Even though there is all sorts of rich background material you can share about sheep and shepherds, I think this lesson needs to be more a devotional exercise than anything. I remember talking to a doctor friend who was really tired getting on a flight, frustrated with his schedule, knew he needed to read the Bible to calm down, so flippantly opened to Psalm 23 and started reading, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Then read that again. Then just stopped on “The Lord” and wept. Just have your group read that phrase to themselves. Do they believe it? Do they realize what they’re saying? Do they need to hear that more often?

Aside: Are Sheep Really That Dumb?

Sheep can be the most destructive livestock in the world. They will destroy a field and spread disease and ruin an entire farm. They’re not smart about what they eat (they’ll eat poisonous plants without thinking) or what they drink. They can’t give healthy birth without assistance. Their fleece can get out of control in just one year. They’re a mess that requires constant attention and care from a shepherd.

But on the other hand, well cared-for sheep are some of the most productive livestock we have. Their fleece is invaluable for human well-being. Their willingness to eat any weed keeps the hardest fields under control. And it also means that their manure is some of the best in the world (not exactly sure how you can apply that in class). Plus, their constant desire to seek high ground means that they redistribute the nutrients from the lowlands up high, keeping the entire field fertilized.

So, when the Bible compares people to sheep without a shepherd, it’s pretty profound. Sheep have zero ability to control themselves or provide for themselves without a shepherd. They are also helpless. As few as two dogs can wipe out an entire flock of sheep in just one night. It’s not a coincidence that God chose a sheep (the prime illustration of human frailty and sinfulness) as the primary sacrifice. And yet, God the good Shepherd (see the back page) intimately cares about His “sheep”. And Jesus the Lamb of God would be the sheep that did not go astray, the once-for-all perfect sacrifice.


Part 2: Guards (23:4)

Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

I’ve already talked about this a few times. I think Keller is right again here—the path is just a path. Sure, it’s dangerous because there are lots of places for predators to hide, but that’s why the shepherd walks with the sheep and carries that rod around. He protects the sheep! So the sheep would not be afraid. Unfortunately, no shepherd could protect every sheep from every ambush. But the sheep (inasmuch as they understood this) still trusted the shepherd. This is a tougher application; we do not want to give the impression that God cannot protect us from every danger. But with that many things out there who want to eat sheep (like the devil, a roaring lion), bad things do happen. The difference for us is that God has our eternal protection secured. I think Keller’s reference to rod and staff is also correct. To a sheep, even though they might not like getting thunked in the backside, there was great comfort in knowing that the shepherd was near, watching out for them, willing to do what was right for them (even if they didn’t appreciate it in the moment).

A really big deal about this verse is that David suddenly shifts to second person. It’s no longer “the Lord”, it’s “You”. This is clearly the high point of the psalm. Many have speculated why David did this; here’s what I think: this is David looking at his own life. David has had a hard life. David has faced a lot of suffering and loss. And when he thinks about that, he doesn’t need “the Lord”, he needs “You”. “You” is more personal, more present. At least, that’s what I think. Remind your class to personalize what they read in the Bible. Some things, like this psalm, are true of every believer of all times.

Aside: The Sheepfold

Because these were not built as permanent structures, it is hard to find archeological evidence of Israelite sheepfolds. The Hebrew words used to describe the places where sheep were kept mean “stone wall” and “place of confinement” and “home”. Shepherds would have a more permanent “ranch” for the winters. Sheep would graze in nearby fields, then every night, the shepherd would lead them into a pen where he would count, inspect, and protect them. There would not be a gate because he would sleep in the gateway. Then, when he led the sheep to the distant summer pastures, he would look for caves along the way or build temporary pens out of felled timber and the like. Over time, these temporary pens would become known to the shepherds and be shared as needed. There would be no problem mixing flocks because the sheep would immediately respond to their shepherd’s voice—never a fear of a sheep accidentally wandering off with another flock.

Note: the sheepfold Jesus talks about in John 10 is a different word that describes a pen attached to the owner's home. Society had changed a bit in the thousand years between David and Jesus.


Part 3: Hosts (23:5-6)

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live.

Contrary to Phillip Keller, biblical scholars believe that the psalmist has switched metaphors, this time to that of a host (although I think Keller’s observations are compelling). It was common practice in the ancient world for hosts to pour oil on the heads of their guests for rejuvenate the skin and also add a pleasant fragrance to the room. But here is the translation note I find most interesting: “dwell in the house of the Lord as long as I live” actually is better translated “I will return to the temple/tabernacle time and again.” The “house of the Lord” is never used of heaven, so “forever” is incorrect. The psalmist isn’t talking about eternal life in heaven (contrary to what Lifeway says), he’s talking about enjoying the presence of God now, in this lifetime. The Bible says plenty about the blessings we have waiting for us in heaven; don’t discount those. But the psalmist is talking about God’s companionship and provision here and now. There’s a great double play on words in here. We would expect David to say that he is pursuing goodness, and his enemies are chasing him. But in fact, his enemies are just watching, and goodness is pursuing him. “Goodness and faithful love” here are being used as a metonymy for God—that’s a poetic device in which a concept is substituted for the person it represents. God is constantly working to maintain His covenant relationship with David, even when David makes that very hard. God is the one who initiates our relationship, and because of God’s faithfulness, we are again and again welcomed into His presence in worship. You realize that we are not worthy to come before God, right? It is only through God’s never-ending forgiveness that we can together boldly declare His praise and glory. Encourage your class to be serious about that Sunday!

Aside: Goodness and Mercy / Faithful Love

Entire books have been written about these two words. “Goodness” is used as the opposite of evil—in other words, things that enhance life. When destructive things happened in our lives, those don’t come from God (but He can use them for the greater good). “Faithful love” or “mercy” is not referring to an attitude or feeling but a benevolent action borne out of a deep-rooted commitment. Faithful love is what one does for another who cannot do it for himself. Our Bible Project videos, and David’s sermon this past Sunday, have really been hammering this idea of God’s love: it’s based on Him, not us. God loves us because God is love, not because we deserve it. We cannot earn God’s love, and therefore we cannot forfeit God’s love. The psalmist makes it clear that there are dark valleys along the way, but God’s faithful love pursues him through each and every one. What suffering this world can throw at him is nothing compared to the goodness of the continuing presence of God in his life.


Closing Thoughts: The Lord as the Good Shepherd

In the Psalms, there are a few key images for God: Judge, King, Redeemer, Rock, Shield, Fortress, Warrior, and Shepherd. As I’ve pointed out in the handout, “sheep” is a pretty apt metaphor for people—we’re pretty helpless. Well, the entire ancient world agreed. King and god as “shepherd” was a pretty common one in the ancient world. The Mesopotamian sun god was called a shepherd, as was the Egyptian sun god. One man around the time of Abraham appeared before Pharaoh to denounce him for failing to be a good shepherd. The image appears in Homer and Plato. Shepherd imagery in the Bible goes all the way back to Abraham, who was a herdsman. Nomadic tribes cannot be farmers because they do not stay on a field to cultivate it; consequently, they survive by their herds. Most livestock, particularly cattle and goats, are pretty self-sufficient. But as we’ve learned, sheep are pretty not. And most Israelites would be very aware of the care and patience of a good shepherd. By Jesus’ day, when the technology had made cities the norm, shepherds were in ill-repute, but not so in David’s day.

In the Bible, “shepherd” is equated with “ruler”. God appointed several different men, including Moses and Aaron and David, to shepherd His people by being their ruler. When a leader failed, the people were vulnerable (just like a flock). Many of the prophets were sent against the rulers—not the people—for failing to lead the people properly. And then Micah prophesied of a coming shepherd who would lead the people rightly: Jesus. Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, one who would not abandon His sheep at signs of trouble, but who would even lay down His life for the sheep. And that is exactly what He did. And when He ascended to heaven, He made provisions for the shepherding in His absence: pastors. Beginning with Peter, the leaders of God’s churches have been called to act as an “under-shepherd” for all of God’s children.


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