The LORD is my Shepherd

These are my reflections on Psalm 23. This is a devotional Bible study bringing in related ideas from other parts of the Bible. You will benefit most by following the various Bible reference links. Enjoy!

John Robertshaw  

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Psalm 23

A Psalm of David.

This well-known psalm begins with God as a shepherd leading and protecting his flock and finishes with God as the host at a feast. Blessings are promised in this life and the next.

  • David wrote this psalm about 1000 years before Jesus. He was the youngest son of Jesse who lived in Bethlehem (1 Sam 16:11). In his early years David was a shepherd and a musician, he began to serve King Saul (1 Sam 16:18-19, 22, 17:15) and was anointed by Samuel (1 Sam 16:12, 13). After defeating Goliath, he became a significant and popular soldier. Saul became jealous of David who then became a fugitive in the desert with a group of followers for several years (1 Sam 23:14-15). After Saul died, David was made King of Judah at the age of 30. Seven years later he was made King of all the other tribes of Israel and ruled for a further 33 years (2 Sam 5:4-5, 1 Chron 11:3). God promised David that his kingdom and throne would be established forever (2 Sam 7:16)! Jesus fulfilled this promise as the Son of David as well as the Son of God (Matt 1:1, 20, 12:23, 21:9, Luke 1:32-33, 18:37-38, Rom 1:3-4).

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Yahweh is my shepherd
  • Yahweh (YHWH) was the personal name for the God in the Old Testament - English versions usually replace it with "the LORD". This psalm begins and ends with Yahweh. David served and worshipped Yahweh, the God of his family, the God of his nation (Exodus 3:15) and the only true God who created all things and who sustains the universe (Gen 2:4, Psalm 19:1). The name Yahweh means the one who exists and who causes to exist (Exodus 3:14). In the New Testament, this same God is further revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).
  • David wrote about half of the psalms in our Bible. He loved singing to God in prayer, prophecy and worship with harps and other instruments (Psalm 108:2-3, 144:9, 2 Sam 23:1). He was a poet, a musician, a composer and he established national worship in Jerusalem with choirs and instruments and even dancing (1 Chron 15:16, 28, 29, 16:4, 5, 6-7).
  • David started life as a shepherd which was good experience to become a shepherd of Israel (Psalm 78:70-71). In this psalm, David sees Yahweh as the shepherd and he is one of his sheep - he considers what it is like to belong to the flock of God! This is a familiar idea in the Old Testament (Gen 48:15, Ps 78:52, 79:13, 100:3, Isaiah 40:11, Ezek 34:15) It is clear from this psalm (my shepherd) that David had a very close and personal relationship with Yahweh and this is also shown by other psalms and the events in David's life.
  • Jesus claims to be the good shepherd (John 10:1-30). The good shepherd knows his sheep by name, protects them and leads them. The sheep know the voice of the good shepherd and follow him (John 10:3-4, 11, 14, 27-28). Jesus is also referred to as the great shepherd of the sheep (Heb 13:20), the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:25), the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and the Lamb who becomes a shepherd (Rev 7:17)!
  • The shepherd principles in this psalm and the example of the good shepherd are a lesson to all in Christian pastoral leadership (John 13:13-14, 21:16, Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2-3).
I shall not want
  • One of the most obvious things that a shepherd does for his sheep is to make sure that they have everything they need. If they get too little food, they become weak - if they get too much, they become immobile and inactive. This balance is well described in a proverb:

Prov 30:8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, 9 lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.

  • I guess that many of us have met Christians who are so taken up with the material things of this world that they have become inactive in the work of the Kingdom of God - it may be too much attention to wealth, home, vehicles, entertainment, holidays etc. (Mark 4:19, 1 John 2:15-16)
  • Jesus did not recommend wealth and even warned that it was hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:23, 25).
  • Needs not greeds - A disciple of Jesus only needs what is required to live and carry out the work of the Kingdom of God - anything extra can be given away - this is the way that God provides for others through us (Phil 4:16, 19)! Our treasure needs to be in heaven where our heart is (Matt 6:20-21, Mark 10:21-22)!

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.

This evokes a peaceful and pleasant scene with sheep lying safely in green pastures near a slow running stream or a lake on a sunny day. Of course the sheep see mainly grass and water - food and drink! This verse suggests good times for us when we can feed on the spiritual food and drink provided by our shepherd. Here are different kinds of spiritual food:

God's Words

Matt 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Deut 8:3)

  • God's words are the actual words spoken by God. God speaks with a word of command (Gen 1:3), delivering laws (Gen 2:16-17, Deut 5:22), in conversation (Gen 17:1, Exodus 3:4-5), through prophets "thus says the LORD" (Ex 5:1, 2 Sam 12:7, Isaiah 37:6, 43:1, 2 Peter 1:20-21) or through angels (Gen 22:11, 15). All the words that Jesus spoke are God's words (John 14:10). Reflecting on God's words is spiritual food!
The Written Word of God

2 Tim 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Rom 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

  • God's words are recorded for us in the Bible. There are, of course, many other words in the Bible as well as those described as God's actual words - for example there are the words of Jacob, Satan, Job, Zacchaeus or Judas (Gen 25:31, Job 1:9, 3:1-3, Luke 19:8, Matt 26:14-15)! The whole of the Bible, however, is the inspired Word of God breathed by God for our instruction and benefit. 
  • Reading the Bible every day is food for our souls.
Jesus is the Bread from Heaven
  • Jesus is the Word of God who became a man (John 1:1, 14).
  • God provided a type of bread (manna) for the Israelites during their 40 years wandering in the desert - this was bread from heaven (Exodus 16:4, Neh 9:15, Psalm 105:40, John 6:31).
  • Jesus explained that the manna was not the true bread from heaven but that he, Jesus, was the true bread of God who comes down from heaven (John 6:32-33)

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

  • The person of Jesus is actually our daily living bread. He said that those who eat his flesh will live for ever and his flesh is what he gave for the life of the world (John 6:51). This was difficult for the people who he was speaking to but the next thing he said caused much offence:

John 6:53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

  • The Jews found this saying repulsive not only because of the reference to eating human flesh but also to drinking blood which was forbidden from the time of Noah since the life was in the blood (Gen 9:3-4, Lev 17:10, Deut 12:23, Acts 15:20). Of course, Jesus was not speaking literally but he was saying in the strongest terms that he wanted to be part of us spiritually just as the food we eat becomes part of our bodies physically. When we invite Jesus into our life, he becomes part of us and we become part of him - we are in Christ and Christ is in us! (John 14:19-20, 15:5, Gal 2:20, Col 1:27, 2 Cor 5:17).
  • Developing a close personal relationship with our good shepherd is also our food - we need to feed on him.
Doing the work of God

John 4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.

  • Jesus had just been talking with a Samaritan woman and sharing the good news with her. For Jesus carrying out the will of his father was food for his soul! Serving God effectively can satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst!
Living Water

John 4:10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
John 4:13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

  • Jesus was talking with a Samaritan woman while he was sitting by a well at noon. He had just asked her for a drink.
  • gift of God - This word for gift (Greek dorea) is used in other places for the free gift of salvation and righteousness in Jesus (Rom 5:15, 17) and also for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 8:20, 10:45, 11:17).
  • living water - Water is mentioned several times in the Bible - sometimes as a river from the temple or the throne of God and as water that can quench our spiritual thirst and bring life (Psalm 42:1-2, 46:4, 143:6, Isaiah 44:3, 55:1, Ezek 47:1, 8, Zech 14:8, Rev 21:6, 22:1, 17). If we drink of this water, we will never thirst again.     

John 7:37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

  • Out of his heart will flow - Not only do we drink the living water but we also become a source of living water to those around us - a spring, a river!
  • he said this about the Spirit - The Holy Spirit was clearly evident in Jesus and with his followers during his time with them but there was more to come (John 14:17). John the Baptist announced that Jesus was the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33). Before he ascended, Jesus said that this was about to happen for his disciples (Acts 1:4-5). It was necessary for Jesus to return to his father and be glorified before this was possible (John 16:7). It happened for these disciples on the day of Pentecost as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues (Acts 2:4). Peter explained the situation well in the talk which he gave:

Acts 2:23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
Acts 2:33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

  • This was only the beginning - the book of Acts is full of examples where other believers are baptised in the Holy Spirit and often it mentions that they spoke in tongues or it is implied (Acts 8:14-15, 16-17, 9:17, 10:45-46, Acts 19:6).
  • Jesus is still at the right hand of God and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his believers today. He is still baptising people in the Holy Spirit. If you are thirsty, come to him and drink and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). Rivers of living water can flow from you (Acts 1:8).

3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

The good shepherd is constantly concerned about the well-being of his sheep - that they are healthy and content. He also leads them in the best paths.

He restores my soul
  • soul - The meaning of the word here for soul (Hebrew nephesh) is very broad - breath, life, heart, mind, person, self, living being, creature, soul, body, inner self, desire etc. In Hebrew thinking, you do not possess a soul (nephesh) but you are a soul (nephesh)! It is you! When God breathed the breath of life into Adam, he became a nephesh - a living creature or living being (Gen 2:7). This is what David would have understood by this word when he wrote it - not the modern meaning of our english word soul.
  • As human beings we were made in the image of God but unfortunately this image has been damaged by sin and we inherit a sinful nature from fallen Adam (Rom 5:12). This results in eternal consequences and also in our behaviour. This is why we need help from the good shepherd in restoring us.
  • Restoring us from the eternal consequences of sin - Our good shepherd gave his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15, 17). When Jesus died on the cross, he carried our sin in his own body and saved us from eternal condemnation (Isaiah 53:5, 6, 2 Cor 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, Col 2:14). As we repent and believe in Jesus as our saviour, this becomes true for us individually (John 3:16, 18). Jesus took our sins and gave us his righteousness so that we are no longer guilty but justified in his sight (Rom 5:1, 9). Although we are forgiven and saved and have the promise of eternal life, we still need to deal with our sinful nature in this life.
  • Ongoing conflict - We continue to live in a sinful world influenced by the devil. This life will never be perfect and we are always vulnerable to temptation and attack. You should never underestimate your sinful nature - our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick and full of all sorts of evil (Jer 17:9, Mark 7:21-23). King David was described as a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22) and was able to write psalms and worship God and was close to God. Yet when he let his guard down, he became capable of adultery, deceit and murder (2 Sam 11:1-12:23). When he realised his sin, he repented and turned back to God (Psalm 51:1-19) and most of all wanted restoration of his relationship with God (Ps 51:11-12). Unfortunately, even in recent times high profile preachers and evangelists have fallen into sin - take heed lest you fall (1 Cor 10:12)!
    Here are just some areas of sin:
    • In relation to God - not worshipping God, worshipping other gods, idolatry, taking God's name in vain, blasphemy, swearing, false religion, occult activity, sorcery, consulting the dead etc. 
    • In relation to self - pride, arrogance, boasting, selfishness, self-centred, self-absorbed, envy, jealousy, revenge, drunkenness, covetousness, evil thoughts etc. 
    • In relation to others - strife, anger, dissensions, bitterness, resentment, slander, abuse, violence, injustice, rude, theft, murder, hate, hurtful words, unforgiveness, lying etc.
    • Sexual immorality - impurity, sensuality, crude joking, obscene talk, rape, prostitution, adultery, unnatural acts, orgies, impure thinking, viewing porn etc.  
  • Restoring us from the present power of sin - Our sinful nature and the history of sins in our lives takes its toll and it is essential to work on this and see change. The good shepherd can help us improve our behaviour and manner of life here and now and he provides a number of resources:
    • New Birth - When we repent and believe in Jesus, we are born again, make a new start and become a new creation (Eph 4:22-24, 2 Cor 5:17, Col 2:6-7, 3:3, Heb 12:1).
    • The Holy Spirit can enable restoration of the image of God in us, he can help us become more like Jesus (John 14:16-17, 2 Cor 3:18, Rom 8:5, 29, Gal 5:22-23), he can give power to overcome temptation, sin and the devil (Rom 6:12-14, 19).
    • The Bible is packed with commands, help and advice to help with our restoration - loving God and our neighbour, denying ourselves, repenting of sin etc. (Mark 8:34, 12:30-31, 1 Cor 6:18, 1 John 1:9, Psalm 32:5, 51:10)
    • Relationship with God - Maintaining our close relationship with God and Jesus and praying in the Spirit will protect our lives and enable us to grow in our walk with God (John 15:5, Rom 8:26, Eph 6:18, Phil 4:6, Col 3:16-17, Jude 1:20, Psalm 27:7-8).
  • The more we are restored, live a righteous life and are sanctified (made holy), the more effective we can be in serving God and carrying out the great commission for our good shepherd (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).
  • Complete restoration will come when he appears and we are transformed into his likeness (1 Cor 15:51-52, Phil 3:20-21, 1 John 3:2-3).
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake

The shepherd will need lead his sheep in paths to reach new pastures. The right path will lead to the right pasture. Many Christians are very concerned about guidance and are looking for the right path to the next phase of their life.

  • He leads me - The sheep can decide to go along paths that they choose themselves or they can decide to follow the shepherd. If you walk on a hillside where there are sheep, you may find lots of small tracks made by sheep which deviate from the main path and usually end up nowhere! So many times Jesus tells us to follow him (Matt 4:18-19, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21, John 1:43, 10:27, 12:26). We need to keep our eyes on our good shepherd and obey his voice!
  • in paths of righteousness - We have many criteria for making decisions in our life, it may be the path leading to the happiest life, the wealthiest life, the most successful life, the best for our career or our family etc. Jesus encouraged us to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 5:6, 6:33). The word used for righteousness in this psalm simply means taking the right and just course of action according to God's standard - this needs to be our criterion in making decisions. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God's throne (Psalm 89:14, 97:2, 85:10-13)!
  • for his name's same - We often think of guidance as being for our benefit, to get the best outcome for our lives. David here is thinking that the one who should benefit is the good shepherd. Do we really consider that our lives should be lived in such a way that his name is honoured and glorified above all else (Psalm 115:1)? 

4 Even 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.

Not all routes followed by the shepherd and his flock are safe. The land of Israel was quite different from how it is today - there were many more forests, wild animals and lawless people! When David was offering to fight Goliath, he related how he had saved his lambs from lions and bears (1 Sam 17:34-35)! Sometimes it would be necessary for a shepherd to lead the sheep up steep ravines which could be dark and dangerous.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
  • valley of the shadow of death - In some versions this is translated as simply the darkest valley.
  • Loss - Most of us will walk through sad times of our life which give us a deep sense of emptiness. Bereavement is the most obvious source of grief but there are other losses in life - happy days which can never be recovered, loss of a job, a house, a family, a relationship, a way of life, a pet, your freedom, divorce, retirement or loss of health and vitality etc. Unfortunately for many people, these are long and dark valleys sometimes with no clear end.
  • Difficulty - We may also walk through times of personal or national difficulty such as poverty, accident, sickness, conflict, war, epidemic, social unrest, violence, crime etc. This may involve a struggle to actually survive or to keep safe.
  • Death - We will all need to walk through the valley of the shadow of our own death sooner or later. This is a reason why this psalm has been so popular to read to people who are near death or at funerals. For the believer, death has no terror and it is merely passing on to a wonderful new life in the presence of God. Jesus has removed the sting of death which was sin (Rom 8:38-39, 1 Cor 15:54-55, 2 Cor 5:6-8, Heb 2:14-15, Rev 20:14, 21:4).
I will fear no evil

We now come to the ways that David copes with the dark valleys in his life.

  • Fear is a common and familiar emotion. It shows itself in anxiety, worry, panic and feeling troubled - it can consume our thinking, keep us awake at night, prevent us from resting and relaxing and cause health problems. Our shepherd is very much aware of our fear and anxiety and says so many times in the Bible "fear not" or "be not afraid". He offers a number of antidotes to fear - his presence, protection, love, provision, victory, deliverance, support, promises, peace, power, encouragement etc. (Deut 20:3-4, 31:6, 2 Chron 32:7-8, Psalm 34:4, 46:1-2, Prov 12:25, Jer 42:11, John 14:27, Phil 4:6-7, 2 Tim 1:6-7)
for you are with me

In this verse, David changes from talking about Yahweh as his good shepherd and begins to talk to Yahweh. He becomes you - it becomes much more personal! The sheep are constantly reassured by the presence of the shepherd and this dispels fear. There are various ways that God is with human beings.

  • Omnipresence and Omniscience - God is present everywhere in the universe and is aware of absolutely everything that is going on at all levels - from fundamental particles and energy to galaxies, stars, planets and to the situations on earth and the activities in all of our lives. There is nowhere we can escape from him (Psalm 94:9, 139:1, 7-8, Isaiah 66:1, Jer 23:23-24). His thoughts are greater and different from ours (Psalm 92:5, 139:17-18, Isaiah 55:8-9). Unfortunately, many people are completely unaware of this fact, they are separated from God by sin and even believe that God does not exist (Psalm 14:1-2). The story of the Bible is the about how God makes moves to reveal himself to people and to form a relationship with us.
  • Old Testament - God as Yahweh present among his people - The main story in the Old Testament is about God revealing himself to Abraham and his descendants. We are not always sure how God actually spoke to individuals but sometimes it was through an audible voice, an angel, a dream, a vision or a prophet (Gen 15:1, 17:1, 22:11, 1 Sam 22:5, 1 Kings 3:5). God physically revealed his presence and glory in certain situations - a burning bush, fire and smoke on a mountain, a pillar of cloud or fire, in the tabernacle and the temple etc (Exodus 3:3-4, 13:21, 19:18, 34:5-7, 40:34-35, 38, 2 Chron 7:1-2). This was to reassure the people of his existence, reality and concern for them. The visible glory of God at the tabernacle in the desert and later at the temple in Jerusalem was a reminder that Yahweh was among his chosen people (Exodus 19:5-6, Deut 7:6). God also interacted with the physical world through signs, wonders and miracles, particularly at the times of Moses and Elijah/Elisha. God revealed himself to the nation of Israel but certain individuals, particularly priests and prophets, had personal experiences of God. David was one of these prophetic people (Acts 2:29-30).
  • Jesus - God as a man with his people - The most significant physical appearance of God on the earth was in the person of Jesus Christ. The eternal Word of God became flesh and was revealed as the Son of God and the promised Messiah (Christ) (Matt 16:16-17, John 1:1, 14, 11:27). He was described as "God with us" (Matt 1:22-23) and on many occasions alludes to the close connection between himself and the father (John 5:19-20, 22-23, 30, 7:16, 8:28, 10:38, 12:49, 14:10-11). At his baptism and transfiguration, God the father speaks directly from heaven to affirm that Jesus was the Son of God (Luke 3:21-22, Mark 9:2-3, 7-8, 2 Peter 1:17). Jesus' ministry is accompanied with many signs, miracles and healings which are further interactions of God with this physical world. Before he died, Jesus was careful to assure his disciples that although he was departing from this world and returning to his father, he would always be with them in different ways and particularly through the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17, 18-20, 23, 28, 15:26-27, 16:5, 7, 16, 28, Matt 28:19-20).
  • After Jesus - God by his Spirit in his people - A new era begins. We no more need the dramatic physical presence of God, temples or holy places (John 4:21, 23-24, Acts 7:48, 17:24). The believers are the new people of God and as they are baptised in the Holy Spirit by Jesus, they become the temples of the Holy Spirit (John 7:39, 14:16-17, 15:26, 16:7, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:4-5, 8, 2:4, 33, 1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16). All believers can now know the revelation and power of God in their lives - not just special prophets as in the Old Testament (Acts 2:17-18, 1 Cor 12:7-11, 14:26). God is also with us as the Father and the Son (John 14:23, 17:21, Rev 3:20, 1 John 1:3, 2:24, 3:24). After Jesus returned to heaven, he continued, through his followers, to interact with world in miracles - particularly healings (Acts 3:6-7, 8:6-7, 9:17, 33-34, 14:9-10).
  • Do not fear - I am with you - I will not leave you or forsake you - These are common reassuring words in the Bible which can be of great comfort in the valley of the shadow of death (Gen 26:24, Deut 31:6, 8, Josh 1:5, 9, 1 Chron 28:20, 2 Chron 20:17, Psalm 16:8, Isaiah 41:10, Acts 18:9-10).
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The sheep are not only reassured by the presence of the shepherd, they know that he is an active shepherd with his rod and staff and able to protect and guide them. It was usual for anyone walking in the countryside to have a staff for support and protection - this is still the case in some parts of the world. David would have used a rod and staff when he was a shepherd and we know too that he was a good shot with a sling!

  • Protecting - An obvious use of the rod and staff are protecting the sheep against wild animals and robbers. Jesus remarks that a hired hand will not risk his safety to protect the sheep from a wolf whereas the owner shepherd protects his sheep from a wolf and even lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:12-13, 14-15). Jesus, elsewhere, describes false prophets as wolves in sheep's clothing, apostle Paul also warns about such problems (Matt 7:15, 10:16, Acts 20:29). In fact we always need to be wise and on the lookout for false prophets and teachers who could bring havoc among the flock (Mark 13:22, 2 Cor 11:13-14, Gal 1:7-8, 1 Tim 1:3, 2 Tim 4:3, 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 4:1). There is only one gospel and only one door into the sheepfold and he is also our shepherd (John 10:9)! As well as wild animals, there are thieves who come to kill, steal and destroy the sheep - but our good shepherd came that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10).
  • Guiding - A shepherd would also use his rod and staff to keep the sheep on the right path and prevent them from going the wrong way. Sometimes it means going down a path which doesn't look very good but which the shepherd knows will reach the best destination! The shepherd may even need to use his rod and staff to discipline sheep which seem particularly inclined to stray! Discipline does not seem good at the time but, usually in retrospect, we can see that our good shepherd has guided us by his discipline (Job 5:17, Psalm 94:12, Prov 3:11, Heb 12:5-6, 7, 11, Rev 3:19).
  • Counting - Another use of a rod or staff was to count the sheep as they pass under it (Lev 27:32, Ezek 20:37). This was a way to identify if any sheep were missing or had strayed. There are several places in the Bible where we are compared to lost sheep going astray. The good shepherd leaves the flock and searches out the lost sheep and rejoices when he has found it (Psalm 119:176, Isaiah 53:6, Matt 18:12, 13-14, Luke 15:4, 7, 1 Pet 2:25). Our good shepherd knows his sheep by name and is concerned that every individual should return to him and to the rest of the flock. Sometimes a shepherd's staff has a large hook at the top which is used to rescue sheep when they are trapped (Ezek 34:11-12).

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

We now move away from the sheep idea to a different scene but with a related message. We are now sitting at banquet given by Yahweh! This is probably a personal reflection by David but there are some applications to us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies
  • David had a very difficult life and enemies at every stage. He had wild animals attacking his flock, Saul was hunting him down for years, he had to contend with the enemies of Israel in the nations around, he had disloyalty, betrayal and rebellion among his own team, friends and family. He was always watching his back but through all this he was still able to enjoy his close relationship with his God. This was a common theme in his psalms (Psalm 5:8, 7:6, 9:3, 17:8-9, 18:17-18, 27:11, 31:8, 41:5, 9, 55:13-14, 56:2-3, 61:3, 64:1-2, 69:14, 138:7, 143:9, 12).
  • Although our lives will be unlike David's, we still have struggles and even enemies! Jesus told us to love our enemies but this does not make them go away (Matt 5:43-44, Luke 6:35, Rom 12:20-21)! We also have one enemy of our soul who will always be around in this life and who we cannot love - we need to be on constant watch for him and resist him (Matt 16:23, Luke 4:13, 8:12, 13:16, 22:31-32, 2 Cor 2:11, 11:14, Eph 4:27, 6:11, 1 Thess 2:18, James 4:7, 1 Pet 5:8-9, 1 John 3:8). We need to learn how to enjoy our relationship with God and feast at his table despite these enemies and all the other distractions in life (Psalm 36:8-9)!
you anoint my head with oil

Our host welcomes us by anointing our heads with oil! There are several uses of anointing with oil in the Bible.

  • Cosmetic and hospitality - It appears to be normal in Bible times to apply olive oil to your head and face to protect against the sun and to brighten the face and bring joy (Ruth 3:3, Eccl 9:8, Matt 6:17-18, Dan 10:3). It may also be provided for this purpose by a host as part of polite hospitality (Luke 7:46)
  • Priests - Priests were anointed with oil as they were ordained and set apart for God's service (Exod 30:30, 40:13, 14-15, Psalm 133:2). Also, the tabernacle/temple and everything associated with it were anointed with oil so that it was holy and dedicated to God (Exod 40:9-11).
  • Kings - This was very relevant for David who wrote these words. He was anointed king by Samuel and on other occasions (1 Sam 16:13, 2 Sam 2:4, 5:3, Psalm 89:20). Other kings were also anointed by prophets (1 Sam 15:1, 1 Kings 1:39, 19:15-16, 2 Kings 9:3, 11:12)
  • Prophets - A Prophet was also anointed for his task (1 Kings 19:16).
  • Jesus - The words Messiah (Hebrew - Old Testament) and Christ (Greek - New Testament) both mean "anointed one". Jesus was a prophet (Matt 21:10-11, Mark 6:3-4, Luke 7:16, 24:19, John 6:14), priest (Heb 5:5-6, 7:22-24, 9:11-12) and king (John 18:36, 37, 1 Tim 6:14-15, Rev 17:14) and was the ultimate "anointed one" (Ps 45:7, Is 61:1, Luke 4:18, Acts 4:27, 10:38, Heb 1:8-9). Jesus was anointed by God. There is no record of Jesus being anointed with oil in the usual way but there are several unconventional anointings by various women (Mark 14:3, 8, Luke 7:38, 46, John 12:3)!
  • Us - We have been anointed by God as we received the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:21-22, 1 John 2:20, 27, John 14:26). Anointing is not used for special tasks or ministries in the New Testament. Anointing with oil can also be used as part of healing the sick (Mark 6:13, James 5:14).
my cup overflows

Our host also provides us with a full cup of wine to contribute to the celebration!

  • Although the word cup is often used in the Bible of suffering and God's judgement, here it is clearly a symbol of God's provision, his goodness, salvation and joy (Psalm 16:5-6, 116:12-13). Jesus used a cup to enable us to remember his blood shed and suffering on the cross and apostle Paul describes it as a cup of blessing (Matt 26:27-28, 1 Cor 10:16, 11:26)!

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
  • Goodness - God is always good, it is in his nature. When Yahweh was about to reveal his glory to Moses, he said "I will make my goodness pass before you..." (Exodus 33:19). We may not always understand the actions of God in the Bible - our thoughts and ways are different from his and we cannot see the big picture (Isaiah 55:8-9). He has many qualities including justice, faithfulness, righteousness, love, mercy, wrath etc. and he is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments. We can always be confident that he always does the good and right thing. 
  • Mercy - This word is the rich Hebrew word chesed which also means loving kindness, steadfast love, devotion, loyalty, faithfulness, unfailing love, covenant love etc.
  • We're not sure when David wrote this psalm but he was thinking about the days of his life laid out before him. He actually lived to be seventy years old and was quite physically weak at the end of his life (2 Sam 5:4-5 1 Kings 1:1). We never know what the future days will bring in our lives but whatever happens it is encouraging to know that his goodness and steadfast love will follow us and be with us every day (Psalm 139:16).
  • These two themes were part of a common short song in the Old Testament and it's always a good song for us to sing:

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!

(1 Chron 16:34, 2 Chron 5:13, 7:3, Ezra 3:11, Psalm 100:5, 106:1, 107:1, Jer 33:11 See also Isaiah 63:7)

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever
  • David pitched a tent for the ark of the covenant near his house in Jerusalem, the rest of Moses's tabernacle was in Gibeah and used for sacrifice(1 Chron 15:1, 16:1, 37, 39). David never saw the temple which he designed as a dwelling place for God - his son, Solomon, completed it after David's death.
  • David had a remarkably close relationship with Yahweh and would be pleased that he was near to the ark of the covenant which was the symbol of God's presence (Psalm 27:4).
  • The Old Testament does not have a frequent mention of the afterlife but this verse and some others which David wrote suggest that he was looking forward to eternity in the house of Yahweh who he had loved so much and served so well (Psalm 16:11, 21:4, 6, 61:4).
  • These words have been a great comfort to many approaching the end of their life or those who have lost loved ones.

Written May 2020 

Last Edited: 2020-05-22   

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