The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I 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 have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me
all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
A few weeks ago I heard three different mentions of this Psalm within about an hour from unconnected sources. So I thought “Hey, maybe I should go read that Psalm.” I’ve been reminded to come back to it a few times over the past few weeks, thinking about different aspects of this passage and reading various studies and commentaries. I think that often when we get stuck on a passage its because God has something to say to us through it. Other times its because he has someone else he wants to talk to, and he’s using our comments about that passage to reach someone. Or sometimes maybe its because I’m not creative enough to think of more than one thing at a time and so everything just relates to the one topic I already have in the one slot in my brain. In any case, this Psalm has been in that slot. I have tried to post about the things I’ve been thinking about, and in this case this is it.
One of the things that stands out most from Psalm 23 is that this psalm is talking about a personal relationship. The Lord is MY shepherd. He’s not just the Great Shepherd, or the flock’s shepherd, or some distant manipulator giving us directions from a distance. He is personal, up close, and hands on. Shepherds get dirty with the sheep. If the sheep are wounded, he’s going to get their blood on him. It comes with the job. Jesus applies this Shepherd idea to himself very personally in John 10. He says that the sheep know his voice, and that when the predators come the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He isn’t an employee of the great sheep corporation in the sky. He isn’t just a worker who might say, “Oh those poor sheep really got mauled today,” and then goes home to his warm house and his own life. He puts himself between the danger and the sheep. For the Shepherd it is personal, dirty, up close, and deadly work. He does it willingly because he loves me, and he loves you.
Whatever is happening in your life today, whether its raining or sunny, knee deep in mud or rolling in luxurious grass, God is there in the field with you. He’s there in the cold dark night, and he’s there in the times when all seems right with the world. He’s there when it’s time to pick off the ticks you got from the luxurious grass. The Shepherd lives with the sheep. In the case of our Shepherd, its even closer than that because he lives in our heart, and he never leaves us to fall prey to the dangers of the world or the war around us. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, he’s always there guarding us, caring for us, providing for us, and loving us.
The Shepherd provides for the sheep. He leads them to lush pastures, and to fresh water. He guards them and keeps them safe. He leads them on good paths. Jesus talks about this provision in Matthew 6. “Don’t worry about what you will eat or drink, or for your body, or about clothes. The Father knows that we need these things, and will provide for our needs.” He doesn’t always provide it the way we think he should, or with the timing we would like, or even what we wish he would provide, but he always provides for our needs.
Sheep, of course, have a very limited understanding of what they need. To the sheep, they always think that they need food right now. They don’t know about sickness, unless they feel sick at the moment. They don’t know about the changing of the seasons, about fires and storms. They don’t know about the habits and habitats of predators. They have a very narrow view of the world. We’re more like sheep than we want to admit. We only see here and now, and the next few years. We do not see our lives in the context of eternity, or in the context of the spiritual battle taking place around us. We do not see the things that God is doing in the larger picture, or his plans for our lives and for the people around us. Like sheep, we sometimes find ourselves on the path, not in the lush pasture right now, but en route to a new pasture. We look around at the rocks of the path, and we think to ourselves that this must be the long path, and that it probably doesn’t end up where we want to be, and that there was nothing wrong with the pasture we were in before. We become like Israel, reminiscing about eating leeks and onions by the Nile, and completely unable to see forward to the Promised Land and the rest that is coming. Like the sheep, we need to trust the Shepherd to know what is best for us and to do it.
There is danger for us, too, in the blessings of provision. It is tempting for us to sit in the middle of the lush pasture, with a nice pool of clean and refreshing water, and think “I am set. I can just stay here. The pasture is so lush, and the water is so abundant, I have nothing to worry about. I’m supplied for life.” That’s not the way it works, though. The shepherd knows better. He knows that the grass fades, and the changes in the seasons bring change to where the safe and good water can be found. The babbling brook can turn into a raging torrent that would sweep us away. The predators know where the good water is too. We cannot just thank the shepherd for bringing us here and then camp out in this spot as if we intend to stay put regardless of the shepherd’s plans. Our security and provision isn’t in what has already been provided. It is in the Shepherd.
When God calls us to a path, he provides and cares for what is required to get us safely to where he is leading us. He can provide the fish with a coin in its mouth, or the ram in the bushes, or a dry path through the water, or food in the wilderness, or whatever is needed. We have to believe and accept the path he gives us, and follow where he leads. Sometimes, maybe almost all the time, he doesn’t provide the way through until we have already stepped forward in a manner that is firmly planted in our knowledge that he will make the way. Even then he rarely provides more than what is needed for that very next step. He knows that if he gives us more, we are likely to rely on what he’s already given us instead of relying on him for the next round.
To me, where I am in my life today, this Psalm is mostly about how God personally and intimately cares for me. He is trustworthy. He loves me. He provides for me in ways that I cannot provide for myself, and in ways that like a sheep figuring out the ways of a shepherd I do not begin to understand.