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)

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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.