Psalm 23: A Shepherd’s Meanings and Motivations

Around four years ago, long before I recited a single Bible verse from memory, I pulled into a parallel parking space downtown for an appointment. While lining myself up with the car in front of me, I noticed its personalized license plate read PSALM23.

Being a Scripture newbie, I did not know the words of Psalm 23 off the top of my head. I wondered why this person thought it was significant. What would inspire someone to take the steps necessary to display it on their license plate? I don’t see too many Bible verses on license plates. Do you? My curiosity piqued, and I pledged to look the verse up later.

Upon reading the Psalm’s first line, I instantly recognized its familiar words. I have since learned that it is one of the most popular and reassuring pieces of Scripture found in the Bible. It is often repeated by Christians in hospital rooms, in song lyrics, at funeral homes, and during prayers. These poetic words written by David, soothe and comfort the hearts of those in need:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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 runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.     (Psalm 23, New King James Version*)

I know these words ring familiar with many of you. Perhaps, some of you know them by heart. I am working on that, but what intrigues me right now is learning the deeper meaning behind them. Let’s take a closer look:

The Lord is my shepherd

The very first line is a powerful statement about who can guide us through life. The author, David, a former shepherd himself, likens his trust in following God to that of the sheep who follow their shepherd. If we spend our lives worshiping lesser gods such as wealth, success, addictions, relationships, or vanity we end up carrying heavy burdens. If we work too hard at controlling life, then we become disappointed when it doesn’t follow our plan. We need God to carry our burdens and to guide us like a shepherd in this world we cannot control.

I shall not want 

All the stuff we buy cannot go with us when we die, and it does not define who we are in God’s eyes. We easily find ourselves getting caught up in acquiring the latest and greatest things. Practicing gratitude is one way we can help ourselves feel more content and worry less about what others think of us. By living a life under God’s care, we know our needs will be met.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters

Did you know that sheep have trouble falling asleep? I find this ironic since many of us count sheep when we cannot sleep. But, it’s true, and David refers to it here. The sheep rely on the shepherd for the right conditions to rest. He prepares their pasture, eases stress in the flock, and wards off predators.

Sheep trust their shepherd to lead and help them. They don’t look too far ahead; their only concern is the next step. Like sheep, our worries make us restless. When God is our shepherd, we trust him to handle worries, direct each step, and lead us to peace and rest.

He restores my soul

From time to time, sheep lose track of their shepherd. They find themselves confused, stranded, hurt, or scared. We can easily relate to the hopelessness of the lost sheep. Tensions escalate within us when we make mistakes or when life gets hard.

When shepherds hear a lost sheep cry out, they come to its aid. Upon seeing the shepherd, the sheep’s fear decreases as it senses a return to safety and security. Although not yet safe, the lost one feels better in the presence of the shepherd. No longer alone in trouble, the sheep knows it can rely on the shepherd. The same is true of us. When we are in a mess and uncertain if more trouble lies ahead, traveling with the One who knows the way gives us hope. God restores the soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake

 What is righteousness? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it as acting in accord with divine or moral law; free from guilt or sin. Can we call ourselves righteous? No, none of us can. Jesus was the only human who did not sin. Yet, he chose to die as a sinner to cover our debt with God. By doing so, those who believe in him are made righteous (free of sin) and given eternal life. Striving for a righteous life leads us to confess, ask forgiveness, and continually turn away from sin. The righteous path teaches humility and love; it helps us find our honorable purpose for God.

Yea, 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

The shepherd comforts, steers, and adjusts the path his sheep follow using his tools – the rod and the staff. The sheep trust him and look to him first when they need help. Can we say the same about our Shepherd?

Like the shepherd with his sheep, God travels with us through the hardships of life and death. Tools like fellowship, worship, prayer, and his Word can comfort and lead us through dark days. Difficult seasons strengthen our relationship with him. Whatever valley we are in, he has a plan to deliver us from its evil. His love is always for good. David’s words reassure us we are never alone in trouble, grief, or death.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over

Shepherds in David’s day moved their flocks through the valleys and countryside to reach greener grass. Upon arriving at a selected location, the shepherd cleared a suitable pasture or “table” for his sheep. He removed thorny brush and poisonous plants. And, he looked for predators and dangerous snakes that could harm his sheep.

Placing an oil repellent on the heads of the sheep helped the shepherd keep insects and snakes away. Also used during mating season, the oil caused the horns of dueling rams to slide off each other’s bodies thus preventing injuries. If sheep were wounded by a bite, a horn, or pasture thorns, the oil served as a healing balm. Now, that sounds like an “essential oil”, right?!   

As our Shepherd, God prepares a place for us at his table. He invites us into a relationship with him. He does this in the presence of the world’s evil and in spite of sin. He loves us, forgives us, and keeps calling us back when we wander away. Anointing our heads with oil is symbolic of his loving protection and peace. Through prayer and relationship, we see how he soothes wounds, heals hurts, and offers understanding. The cup of our lives runs over with God’s blessings, goodness, and grace.    

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever 

David ends Psalm 23 with a sure and firm statement of belief in God’s promises. His goodness (loving nature) meets our needs. His mercy forgives our sins. He pursues us with these offerings our entire lives. Our free will allows us to decide whether we pursue him. In his care, God guides, provides, protects, and comforts us our whole life through. Ultimately, he brings us home to live with him forever.     

The meanings found in Psalm 23 offer comfort in knowing that God is always with us and always working for our good. There are happenings in this life that yank hard on our heartstrings. Illnesses, addictions, deaths, financial struggles, relationship issues, and the ongoing terror attacks can make us stumble unexpectedly or leave us lost. When these problems go on indefinitely or happen repeatedly, we question when and if we will recover.

Psalm 23 is a lifeline in those troubling times. Keep it close beside you. Write it on a notecard, memorize it, or save it in your phone. When trouble comes, you will be prepared. Pull out Psalm 23’s reassurances and pray them often. Let David’s words of wisdom encourage your heart to further strengthen your relationship with God. Always keep an eye open for license plates presenting Scripture. You never know what you might learn. Press on in faith my friends.

 

Prayer for the Week:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, 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 runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.  (Psalm 23, NKJV)

Related Posts:

Resources:

  • Lucado, Max. Traveling Light. Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001. Print.
  • Images courtesy of Pixabay.com

* Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Prayer Walking in the Wilderness

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I am walking. I am looking. I am looking for your light, oh God, in a world where darkness seeps through. My heart is heavy, like lead in my chest. My thoughts, they weep. They weep from my eyes as my mind makes no sense of their pain…

I typed these words into my iPhone notes last week while I was walking and praying for Orlando (i.e. prayer walking). Even with the summer sun shining, I am finding it difficult to feel warm inside. You too?

The past few weeks have sucker punched us with bad news. A truly gifted, rising young star was murdered while signing autographs for fans. A beloved zoo gorilla was killed in order to save a boy who had fallen into an enclosure. Two young promising lives, and the lives of those who love them, were forever changed by a rape on Stanford’s campus. Infants have died, forgotten in hot cars. A sweet toddler was unmercifully swept away by an alligator at the most magical place on Earth. And, a staggering forty-nine innocent lives were callously discarded without hesitation by one individual in Orlando.

It keeps coming; all the news is numbing. Over and over it plays, as my heart aches and my mind works at interpreting what to do with all the information. Frankly, I do not want to learn from such terrible things. And, I am saddened by the blame and judgement trailing nastily behind each incident.

Emotions, undoubtedly, run high with these types of events. With each horrific story, we imagine how we would feel in the victim’s shoes. Certainly, it is a struggle to remain calm, rational, and full of faith. Is there a way to keep ourselves at peace so we inspire change through compassion instead of hostility?

I think so. Jesus called it prayer.

But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer. Luke 5:16 New Living Translation (NLT)

Throughout the Bible, Scripture notes that Jesus often exited chaotic and heated situations to center himself and pray alone. In fact, whether things were crazy or not, he made it a habit to look and listen for God daily.

In referencing this Scripture, the New Living Translation Bible describes “wilderness” as the quiet, solitary places one goes to pray. Isolating ourselves for regular meetings with God can be tricky. There are always people and matters competing for our attention. Getting outside away from distractions to walk in prayer is a routine that works for many people.

Are you familiar with the term prayer walking? I have been “prayer walking” for awhile now without knowing what it was called. Prayer walking has probably been around for quite some time. Walking was the primary method of travel in Biblical times. So, surely people walked and prayed at the same time. The Bible just doesn’t specifically mention people “prayer walking” their way to the well.

One common definition of prayer walking today is “praying on-site with insight”. This type of prayer walk occurs when a person or group walks around the area they want to pray for (e.g. a neighborhood, church, school, or city). The thought is that the person praying feels closer to the designated place, thus drawing greater insights from God.

Prayer walks, however, can also occur off-site, wherever a person chooses to walk, while setting their heart and mind on meeting with God. Obviously, we cannot pack up and travel to places like Orlando every time something needing prayer happens. We can, however, always intentionally focus our prayers on those specific places no matter where our steps begin. 

Both on-site and off-site prayer walks are intercessory in nature, meaning that you pray on behalf of others. Keep in mind though, there are no hard and fast rules here. We can also use prayer walking to communicate our own personal concerns to God.

 

I spent some time this week researching prayer walking. Because most prayer walks take place outside, they are very sensory-oriented. If you want to give it a try, here are some things to keep in mind:

Look – Ask God to show up and meet with you on your walk. Then, be aware of your surroundings and watch what is happening. Smile at any faces you meet, feel the sun and the wind on your skin, and pause to notice the living things around you. If you’d like, slow down to take photos documenting your walk.

As you move, visualize the place or people you are praying for, and then give God a mental picture of your prayers for them (e.g. blanket Orlando with peace, hold them close).

Listen – Tune in to the sounds you hear. Are the birds singing? Is the wind blowing or the water running? Feel the rise and fall of your chest as you listen to life happening right now. Our breath reminds us that every living thing was created on purpose and for a purpose.

Express to God your questions, your hopes, and your confidence in his plans to work everything for good (e.g. Why is there so much hatred? Please soften hearts. Bring me opportunities which build trust in your plans).

Rest – Take a break from walking. Thank God for all the blessings you see and hear. Feel your gratitude. Read a piece of Scripture or a devotional message.

Reflect on the people or place you are intentionally praying for. Sit quietly and listen for any instruction God may place on your heart. Ask him how your gifts or talents can help (e.g. continued prayers, influencing change, victim support). Watch expectantly each day for answers with patience, hope, and discernment.

God Meets Me There
by Jamie Trunnel

I find peace outside my door. It’s a walk and a prayer. God meets me there. 

I look up in the clouds and down in the dirt. Smiling at faces, to God’s call I’m alert.

I listen to the birds sing and feel the wind blow. Sometimes I see a fawn, wobbly legs land has yet to know.

There’s a dragonfly with wings so blue, shimmering hope for a world made new.

Circling a fountain by the old folks home, I wave if they’re out watching me roam.

I hear the water flow, and watch the thistles grow.

Finding a seat on a bench that’s green, I spend time asking God to show me the unseen. 

Hold onto your peace. Lighten your heart, he speaks.

I am here with you. My light will always break through. 

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Never stop praying. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (NLT)

 

Inspiring Resources: These photos and more appear on my Instagram account where I document a gift and a thought each day. You can view and follow it right here.