Man Pouring Out His Heart to God in Prayer
Folksongs of Faith

The Shepherd Psalm

Author: David H. Roper

I memorized the twenty-third psalm when I was a small child, but I have never had an opportunity to study it in detail. It has been a wonderful experience for me this past week to look through this familiar psalm and to have the Lord speak to me again out of this passage. It is a great psalm, one I am sure you have turned to many times in periods of trial. It ministers to our deepest spiritual needs.

This, of course, is a psalm of David. We know something of the circumstances of its composition. In the fifteenth chapter of Second Samuel there is recorded the instance in David's life when his own son rebelled against him and toppled him from the throne. David was forced to flee into the Judean wilderness with his family and servants, and for a period of time he was unable to reclaim his throne. His life was in jeopardy and he was hunted and hounded for a number of months. Perhaps, because so much of his early life had been spent as a shepherd in that same wilderness, the circumstances recalled his shepherd life. The images in this psalm are drawn right out of his experience as a young shepherd.

This is a psalm for people who, like David, are experiencing a major upheaval in their life. Perhaps you too have children who are rebelling, or your home is in turmoil, or some long-standing relationship in your life is breaking up. This psalm is written for you. It is a psalm for people who are shaken and in turmoil.

David begins with a statement of the theme of the entire passage:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; (Psalms 23:1 RSV)

Because the Lord is my shepherd, I do not lack anything. He satisfies my needs. That is the place to which God wants to bring us. He wants us to be independently dependent upon him, to need him alone. It struck me as I was studying this psalm that there are really only two options in life. If the Lord is my shepherd, then I shall not want; but if I am in want, then it is obvious that the Lord is not my shepherd. It is that simple. If there is emptiness and loneliness and despair and frustration in our lives, then the Lord is not our shepherd. Or, if anyone or anything else is shepherding us, we are never satisfied. If our vocation shepherds us, then there is restlessness and feverish activity and frustration. If education is our shepherd, then we are constantly being disillusioned. If another person is our shepherd, we are always disappointed and ultimately we are left empty. If dope is our shepherd, as one rock artist said recently, then "we are wasted". But if the Lord is our shepherd, David says, we shall not want.

It occurs to me that if Jehovah is to be our shepherd, then we have to begin by recognizing that we are sheep. I don't like that analogy, frankly, because I don't like sheep. I come by my dislike honestly. I used to raise sheep. In high school I was in the 4-H club, and I had a herd of sheep and goats. Now goats I can abide, because they may be obnoxious, but at least they're smart. Sheep are, beyond question, the most stupid animals on the face of the earth. They are dumb and they are dirty and they are timid and defenseless and helpless. Mine were always getting lost and hurt and snake-bitten. They literally do not know enough to come in out of the rain. I look back on my shepherding days with a great deal of disgust. Sheep are miserable creatures.

And then to have God tell me that I am one! That hurts my feelings. But if I am really honest with myself I know it is true. I know that I lack wisdom and strength. I'm inclined to be self-destructive. As the song says, "I'm prone to wander." Isaiah said it best: "We are all like sheep who have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way," Isaiah 53:6). I know my tendency toward self-indulgent individualism, going my own way and doing my own thing. That's me. I'm a sheep. And if Jesus Christ is to be my shepherd, I have to admit that I need one. It is difficult, but that is where we must start. Once we admit that need we discover the truth of what David is saying. We shall not want.

In this psalm David enumerates the ways in which the Good Shepherd meets our needs. The first is found in Verse 2 and part of Verse 3:

  he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
  he restores my soul. (Psalms 23:2-3a RSV)

The first thing he does is to meet the needs of the inner man, the basic needs that we have for nourishment within. The basic needs of a flock of sheep are grass and water. Here is the very picturesque scene of sheep bedded down in grassy meadows, having eaten their fill and now totally satisfied, and then being led by still waters. Sheep are afraid of running water; they will drink only from a quiet pool. A good shepherd, particularly in a semi-arid region such as Palestine, knows where the watering holes are. He knows where the grassy meadows are. And so he leads the sheep into places where they can rest and feed, and where they can drink. The picture is one of calm and tranquility, because the basic needs of the sheep are met.

The counterpart in our lives is obvious. It is God who restores the inner man through his word. As we feed upon the word of God we see the Lord Jesus there. We draw upon him and our inner man is satisfied. Jesus uses the same figure in John 6:

"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Lord, give us this bread always."

Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst." (John 6:27-35 RSV)

The Word of God does this for us. It brings us, first, to the person of Christ. "Beyond the sacred page," the hymn says, "we see thee, Lord." We see him, and we eat and drink of him, and we discover him to be the resource that we need. As Paul says, "Though the outward man perishes, the inward man is renewed day by day," (2 Corinthians 4:15 KJV). Our souls are restored. How? As we feed upon him. As we come to know him, believe what he says, and act on his word, we discover that the inner man is fed.

I have a Bible study Wednesday nights in a fraternity house at Stanford. Our basic assumption there is that the Bible is the authority. No one really teaches the class; we simply open up the Word and the men in the group make observations. Last Wednesday night a student from Austria sat in with us, a fine young law student who is traveling in this country and is visiting Stanford for a few weeks. He shared some of his thinking with us and made a real contribution to the group. Afterward, as we were leaving, he made this comment: "I'm so thankful I could be here tonight, because I discovered that you men have found direct access to God through this book."

Have you discovered that access? In times of deep, dire need, when we cast about for help, it is no farther away than God's word. Everything we need to nourish the inner man is right there. As Peter says, "In Christ all things are given unto us that pertain to life and godliness," (2 Peter 1:3). Everything we need which relates to life and to living godly lives in the world is available in him. I wonder if we are employing that resource.

The second thing the Good Shepherd does is to give direction in life:

He leads me in paths of righteousness
  for his name's sake. (Psalms 23:3b RSV)

Or, as the margin indicates, "he leads me in right paths." The Hebrew word translated "paths" means "a well-defined, well-worn trail." That indicates again how stupid sheep are, because even when the trail is well laid out, they still need a shepherd. They are still inclined to wander away, no matter how obvious the path may be. The shepherd knows the trails. He has been there before, and the sheep trust him.

I think the most anxiety-producing factor in the world today is uncertainty about the future. What is going to happen tomorrow, and the next day? There are decisions we must make which bear, not only upon our own lives, but upon the lives of everyone with whom we are associated. My life touches my family and my neighbors and my business associates; so does yours. We are constantly making decisions. How do we know that we are making the right ones? Decisions can be crucial, and frustrating!

There is the classic story about a man undergoing basic training in the army. He was pulling KP and was given the assignment of sorting potatoes. There was a huge mound of them and the mess sergeant told him to put all the bad ones in one bin, and all the good ones in the other bin. He came back about two hours later to find the man just looking at one potato. There was nothing in the bins. The sergeant said, "What's the matter, don't you like the work?" The soldier said, "It's not the work; it's the decisions that are killing me."

I often feel that way and I know you do too. We have to make countless decisions, day after day, which touch the lives of our children and our wives and husbands. We need wisdom. We need a shepherd. We need someone who knows the trails, someone whom we can trust. There is a young man who left Stanford this quarter, and who is on his way to Tibet to live in a monastery for a year, because of a small decision that he made last quarter. It has affected his whole life. None of us know if he will ever come back to Christ. He made a wrong decision and it affected his life dramatically.

We all need a decisive word from someone who knows the way. Now, the Lord knows the way. But the question arises -- "How can I discover his will for my life?" May I suggest these steps:

First, submit wholeheartedly to the leadership of the shepherd. That is the basic attitude we must maintain. Unless we are willing to admit that we don't know the way through the wilderness, and to submit to his leadership, we will never find the way.

Jesus said, "If the eye is single, then the whole body will be full of light. If the eye is dual (or evil), how great is that darkness," Luke 11:34). He is saying, in a very picturesque way, that if our eye is fastened on Jesus Christ, if our eye is single, then our whole body will be full of light. We will know what to do. We will know the truth, and we'll act on it. We'll have understanding and wisdom. But if we have one eye on Christ, and the other on the world or on our circumstances or our boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever, if the eye is dual, how great is that darkness! We never know where we are to go. We will have no sense of direction, and will wander in darkness.

We have to be willing to submit wholeheartedly to the leadership of the shepherd. We must be willing to say, "I'll go anywhere. I'll do anything. I'll be anything. I'll carry any load, live anyplace you want me to live, do anything you want me to do." Once we're willing to say that, then God can reveal his will. Paul said it another way: "...present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship...and you will know what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God," (Romans 12:1b-2 RSV).

The second thing we must do is to obey what we know now to be God's will for us. Probably 95% of God's will is already revealed in his Word. We have to begin by obeying the truth that we have. If we are disobedient to our parents, we cannot expect God to give us wisdom concerning our next step. If we are not raising our children in the nurture and admonition of Christ, we cannot expect God to direct us. If we as men are not loving our wives as Christ loved the church, the Lord will not reveal more of his will. If you wives are not in submission to your husbands, God's leadership will not come to you. But when we obey the 95% of the truth that we have, then the 5% that is indefinite simply follows along as a matter of course.

Now, that does not mean that we have to be sinless, because who of us is? But it does mean we have to be willing to face and put away sin as God points it out to us. If we are willing to be brought into conformity to Jesus Christ in every area of our life, and we are allowing him freedom to work, then he will reveal more truth to us. But he won't if we are consciously holding out, and defending sin. He reveals additional truth only to men and women with open, obedient hearts.

But what about other areas of life where the Scriptures do not give specific information? There we are led through the peace of God. As we spend time in prayer and waiting upon God there comes the sense of peace, an inner conviction, about the correctness of a certain direction. The peace of God will umpire in our life and will let us know what to do. I have discovered that we can trust that peace. When we move out on the basis of it we discover that God supports and undergirds our actions and, through confirming circumstances, further strengthens our sense of peace.

Now, having stepped out in faith, we sometimes discover that things don't work out as we had anticipated. But even at that point we can't second-guess God. We cannot say that he did not give us wisdom. James says, "If anyone lacks wisdom let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally." We can believe that his wisdom will be given. There is often a tendency to second-guess ourselves and to think that perhaps we missed God's will if things don't go as we had planned. But God wants us to know his will even more than we do. He is not trying to play games with us. He is not trying to be obscure and to hide the truth from us. He wants us to know! And as we step out on the basis of his peace, we can believe that this is the direction God wants us to go.

In a small way I have been tempted to second-guess myself in a decision I had to make a few weeks back. My Volkswagen was totally wrecked in an accident and I had to replace it. The insurance company gave me a generous settlement and I went out to purchase another car. I didn't want to spend much time because I didn't have any. In the newspapers about 40 Volkswagens were advertised for sale. I knew that I couldn't look at every one, and so my wife, Carolyn, and I prayed together, "Lord, we've got to find a car. It's your car, and so we're not going to worry about it; please lead us to the right situation."

After looking at half-a-dozen or so, we finally settled on one. It seemed good. I'm not much of a mechanic but I kicked the tires and slammed the doors and it seemed all right to me. I talked to the owner. He seemed ethical and claimed he'd just rebuilt the engine. So I bought the car and brought it home. Now we've discovered that it has a lot of problems. It's using oil, and a number of other things are wrong. It's going to cost money to fix it up. My first thought was, "Oops, the Lord led me astray." But then I had to remember that we prayed for wisdom, and James says if we pray for wisdom we'll receive it. We acted on that promise when we bought the car. I don't know what God has in store for me in this matter, but I know that car is God's will for my life, right now.

That is what I mean by confidence in God's ability to lead us. David says that he will lead us in the right path. That is a promise! And he does this for his name's sake. It isn't our name which is at stake, it is his name. It's his character, his reputation that is at stake. He has promised to give us wisdom. I believe that; I act. You believe it; you act. And it has to be true. God must fulfill his promise, otherwise his own reputation is impugned. His name is Faithful, and he has promised that he will lead us in the right paths. To me that is a tremendous source of encouragement. I know that the decisions I make today and tomorrow, as I walk under his shepherding, will be correct. Even though the events which follow may not necessarily be all that I expect, the decisions will be right. That is his promise, and we can count on it.

The third thing David says that a good shepherd does is to provide protection:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
  I fear no evil;
  for thou art with me;
  thy rod and thy staff,
  they comfort me. (Psalms 23:4 RSV)

This again is a very picturesque scene. The shepherd is leading the sheep back home at evening. As they go down through a narrow gorge the long shadows lie across the trail. In the Hebrew this is a "valley of deep shadows". The sheep, because they are so timid and defenseless, are frightened by their experience. But they trust the shepherd, and therefore they are comforted. They will fear no evil, because the shepherd is with them. We are reminded of the Lord's words quoted in the book of Hebrews "I will never leave you nor forsake you," Hebrews13:5). Hence we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what man can do to me," Hebrews13:6). I do not know what your experience has been, but whenever I'm in a situation like this, when there is a great deal of pressure, I begin to wonder if the Lord hasn't abandoned me. But he says he never leaves us, never forsakes us. He is always there. Therefore we have no reason to fear. That is a great comfort.

And then David writes, "Your rod and staff comfort me." The rod was a club which was used to drive off wild animals. It was never used on the sheep but was a heavy instrument used to protect the sheep from marauding predators. The staff was a slender pole with a little crook on the end. It was used to aid the sheep. The crook could be hooked around the leg of a sheep to pull him from harm. Or it could be used as an instrument to direct, and occasionally to discipline the sheep, with taps on the side of the body.

Understanding how the shepherd tends his sheep has helped me so much in understanding the character of God. When I go wandering away he doesn't say, "There goes that stupid sheep, Dave Roper!" and -- WHAP! down comes that big club! No. His attitude is, "Well, there's Dave, wandering away again. How can I help him? How can I move in to bring him back into line? How can I comfort him, and supply what he needs?" He may have to discipline, but he always does it in love. He reproves, corrects, encourages, and instructs in righteousness, dealing with us firmly and gently.

The rod and staff are also used against the two greatest enemies we have to face. The rod is for the enemy without, Satan, who is working through the world system to destroy us. Jesus said, "He is a liar and a murderer." He's out to devour us, and so the Lord uses the club on him. But the other enemy is me, the enemy within. In the immortal words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." I know that. The shepherd's staff is used to chasten, and to subdue the enemy within. But the confidence he gives is that I have nothing to fear, either from the enemy without, or from the enemy within.

In Verses 5 and 6 David changes the metaphor a bit -- from the good shepherd to the gracious host:

Thou preparest a table before me
  in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
  my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
  all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
  for ever. (Psalms 23:5-6 RSV)

Jehovah spreads a sumptuous meal before him, a great banquet, in the presence of his enemies. This figure encompasses all the figures David has used before. That God feeds and provides, leads and protects, is all bound up in this symbol of a gracious host.

Interestingly enough, this figure grows right out of the historical situation in which David wrote. When David was driven into the wilderness by his son's rebellion he found himself out in the desert, hungry and weary, his army in disarray. As recorded in Second Samuel 17, three men who were not even Israelites, Shobi, Machir, and Barzillai,

...brought beds, basins [so they could wash and refresh themselves], and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, meal, parched grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat; for they said, "The people are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness." (2 Sam 17:28-29)

David saw in this that God, as a gracious host, was preparing a table before him in the presence of his enemies. Paul said it this way: "My God will supply all of your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus," (Philippians 4:19 RSV).

A final note is that the word "follow," in Verse 6, literally means "pursue". David says that God's goodness and mercy shall pursue him, in contrast to the pursuit of his enemies who are out to dethrone and destroy him. David's desire was to go back to the tabernacle and to worship there. God's mercy and kindness ought to evoke the same response from us. We worship, not in a tabernacle, but, as Jesus said, "in spirit and in truth," (John 4:24). We worship in the inner man, where God dwells. When we see that the Good Shepherd does feed us and does lead us and does protect us, our response ought to be worship -- a recognition of all that Jehovah is, a word of thanks for what he has done, and the statement, "Here is more of myself for you to put to your intended purpose." That is true worship.


Our Father, we realize that the only reasonable act of worship is for us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. It is the only response we can make to your goodness. You are the Good Shepherd. You are utterly trustworthy. We discover that you do feed us continually, you do lead us, you do guard us and protect us, and we want to say thank you this morning for that. We want to say again that our bodies are yours to fill and use. This is the only reasonable thing that we can do. We thank you for all that you are to us, in Jesus' name, Amen.