It is such a comfort at funerals and during hard times. It’s often the only scripture committed to memory. Yet we seem to have little idea of the vibrant promises and description of reality it contains. Instead we think how nice to have a shepherd, a kindly, sentimentalized good guy looking out for us as we lead our lives.
But that is not what a shepherd is or what a sheep is. Think of a sheep. It is too stupid to even know what’s good for it and incapable of taking care of itself in its changing seasonal needs and amid the dangerous predators amongst whom it lives, stampeding in panic at the least noise. The poor sheep is too stupid to even understand how stupid it is or how precarious its life.
That’s an exact picture of what we really are. We have no clue of the spiritual dangers that surround us and no grasp of the reality of life. And, unfortunately, we really are too stupid to know we are stupid. We think we have life figured out. We work 40 years and retire in comfort on our 401K. But what we have is the wisdom of man–philosophies, engineering and medical marvels, artistic creations, centuries of endeavor, but all useless in helping us perceive reality, the issues of life and death. The truth is that our ideas are vanity. We live in a world that we cannot conceive, for reality is in the spiritual realm where we are beset by powerful spiritual enemies who can easily take us captive in our minds, our life and for eternity. We believe in, and rest our souls on, illusions that will be shattered for there is no stability in our economic or social order, in our weather or in the very planet on which we live our lives.
The only possible source of truth, reality, wisdom, knowledge, security, and provision is our Shepherd. He is the only thing standing between us and utter chaos and destruction, both temporal and eternal. We literally do move, and breathe, and have our being in Him, the only trustworthy Reality. He does everything for us and provides everything for us. Even our concept of causation is completely false for God is totally sovereign. He rules. He determines every detail of our lives.
This is what Psalm 23 is really talking about. The Shepherd is our fierce guardian (our God He is a Man of war) who will drive off the marauding wolves in the spiritual realm and who will take care of all our needs so completely that we shall have no wants. He has provided for us everything we need, so that we can rest in Him. We can’t always see the provision with our physical eyes but we can with our spiritual (Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen). Think of it! As Christians we will never want for anything that matters. I suppose a sheep could think it needs a sports car, but it is a silly idea. As sheep (those who abide in Christ) we can be confident that he is supplying us with all that we need (this is why covetousness is idolatry). This tranquil imagery brings us peace and rest even when we only imagine it. But He does, in actuality, cause us to lie down and rest (we are commanded to enter His rest) in such a beautiful setting (the beauty of holiness) of sweet green grass and peaceful quiet waters supplying all our needs in safety.
But that’s not all. He takes care of our souls. He brings healing, refreshing, and restoration so that all is set right within my heart. And He leads me in paths of Righteousness. He doesn’t nag at me, or condemn me or hound me. He leads me. He doesn’t expect me to be good enough to be righteous either (which is burden I’m incapable of carrying), but He gives me His righteousness because of Who and What He is. Thus He provides for the salvation of my soul.
And I need never be afraid again, because He is always with me. Hebrews 13:5b in the Amplified says:
for He (God) Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support (I will) not, (I will) not, (I will) not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down (relax My hold on you)! (Assuredly not!)
And it is just this strong in Psalm 23 where He assures us that no matter how dark or dangerous the place we find ourselves—even in the darkest possible place, the Valley of the Shadow of Death—I don’t have to be afraid because He will be there with me. There’s no place I can go that He will not be with me. And not only will He be with me but He will protect me and fiercely fight off all the predators with His rod (His wrath)—He will go to war for me. He will also guide me safely with His staff so I don’t have to be afraid of going wrong or getting lost or falling off a cliff. I always think of a footlamp here—He guides each of my steps as I look to Him and am aware of His Presence. But the image of a shepherd’s crook is so beautiful for as He’s watching my steps, He can reach out with his crook (His power) and pull me out of danger and set me back on my path. It implies His constant watchfulness, power, and love and His gentle correction of my missteps—just setting me back on track.
But He continues to heap blessings on me for He sets me aside for His great love and care. He makes me the guest of honor at His banquet table right in front of all the spiritual powers and dominions who’ve been trying to destroy me. He celebrates my overcoming their wiles through trusting Him and His power to save and protect me.
He anoints my head with oil. This is so rich. Anointing is for healing and as he anoints me He heals me body and soul and He gives me a new heart, a new nature. But anointing is also imparting His power to break the power of the old nature, bondages, and strongholds and receive His life-giving gifts. As He anoints me, all His blessings and riches fill me until I overflow in cascading streams. And for the rest of my life His goodness and mercy and unfailing love will fill me and surround me and I will abide with Him forever and ever.
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen. (Eph 3:20)