Most people who know the Bible are familiar with the 23rd Psalm. It is one of the most widely quoted Old Testament passages in the Christian religious world. Many preachers read or quote this Psalm in funeral settings. Sadly, that is where the text of this passage is most remembered—at the grave of a deceased friend or loved one.
When one examines the text of Psalm 23, it becomes evident that it has more relevance than to offer comfort at the time of one’s passing. The promises made in these passages are relevant in Christian living and at the time of one’s departure from this life. The words of David need to be examined considering the promises that are made.
The Old Testament still has relevance under the New Testament dispensation. Paul makes this point: “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Thus, the principles of the Old Testament ring true and pertinent to this very day.
Psalm 23 makes several points that should provide Christians with hope, confidence, and reassurance. This Psalm assures one of God’s presence (23:1a), His provision (23:1b), His pathway (23:2-3) His protection (23:4), and His promise (23:6).1
Psalm 23 reassures God’s people of his presence. It says in verse one, “A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Shepherding was widely understood in the age of David and the time of Christ. Jesus understood the close relationship that existed between sheep and their shepherds. Contemplating this knowledge, Jesus used some of the same imagery to describe his role as the “Good Shepherd.”
Jesus said in John 10:3-4, “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” This intimate relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep was visible to David and enacted by Christ for those who would be His followers.
Consequently, this same idea should be understood by men who serve as elders. A shepherd should have more than just a casual knowledge of those under their care in the Lord’s church. Elders should have a great knowledge of each person who had entrusted their shepherds with the care, direction, and protection of their soul.
Psalm 23 also makes one aware of God’s provision. “I shall not want.” A good shepherd makes sure that his flock has its needs met. Of course, these needs varied according to the situation that a shepherd faced. Nonetheless, shepherds were up to the task of caring for sheep and defending them from thieves, beasts, disease, injuries, and malnourishment.
Moreover, David was skilled in caring for sheep and understood the personal risks that were involved. 1 Samuel 17:34-36 says, “But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.’” Jesus uses this as the litmus test for what a true shepherd was—One who was willing to lay down his life for the sheep and not flee at the first sign of trouble.
Jesus says in John 10:11-13 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.” Unlike what many would have us to believe, God does not leave His people in times of trouble or need (Heb. 4:15-16).
By the same token, good elders are willing to live sacrificially for others. They are willing to stand firm on the truth and not abscond at the first sign of trouble in the flock. It might be easier to walk away from problems, but that is not what a good shepherd does. He stands and contends (Jude 3) with the gainsayer to protect the flock and defend the truth. Titus 1:9 says, “Holding fast the faithful word as he [an overseer—JOT] has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”
Psalm 23 makes one aware of God’s pathway. Sheep are not the brightest of mammals in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, their eyesight is very poor.2 Psalm 23:2-3 makes these things clear. “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.” This being the case, shepherds are responsible for providing safe, clear passage for those under their care.
To that end, God has provided us with His word. It is interesting to note that the Good Shepherd is the Word Incarnate that directs our pathway (Ps. 119.105). John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While the pathway is “straight and narrow,” it is well defined by its nature (cf. Matt. 7.13-14).
Psalm 23 also makes God’s people aware of God’s protection. Verse four says, “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 fact of the matter is that God protects His children when they are imperiled.
While there are similarities between provision and protection of sheep, there is a distinct difference. The rod and the staff that the shepherd carried allowed him to fight offensively against any creature that was predatory in nature. Previous mention was made of David and his ability to fight off the animals that sought to kill and devour his sheep. It appears that David did some of this with his bare hands, but most shepherds would have used their rod and staff to ward off vicious animals. Smith writes:
There was comfort in the shepherd’s presence but also his armor. His rod was a symbol of strength used to defend the flock against wild beasts or dangerous thieves. The staff enabled the shepherd to pull sheep out of holes, or to pry them loose from thickets or to remove whatever obstacles stood in the narrow path. It, too, was a symbol of power and the protection he was dedicated to giving his precious sheep.3
Indeed, shepherds in the Lord’s church need to have their armor (cf. Eph. 6:9-17) available to protect against those who are described as ravenous wolves. Acts 20:27-29 says, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore, take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”
Finally, Psalm 23 leaves God’s people with a promise. Verse 6 says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” When sheep dwelt in the house of the shepherd, they were in complete and total safety. It was not unusual for sheep to stay in the homes of their masters. This underscores the closeness of the relationship and the protective comfort that shepherds offered their sheep.
God’s provisions are in this life and ultimately realized in the form of eternal life. John 14:2-4 says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” There is not greater place to be than in the presence of the Chief Shepherd.
His blessings are in the here and now. These blessings are material and spiritual in nature for God’s people. Ephesians 1:3 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” The promises and hope that we have in Him are guarantees made to the faithful.
Hopefully, we will always view Psalm 23 as a source of encouragement. While it is reassuring to reflect upon these passages at the time of a person’s death, they hold support for God’s people in the life we are currently living. What a blessing God’s Word is!
1Bailey, Floyd M., Jr., Howell, Mark A., and Webster, Allen (1993). Great Texts of the Bible Revisited: Faulkner University Lectures. “Psalm 23: The Shepherd Psalm,” Billy Smith. Faulkner University, Montgomery. Most of these main points were taken from this lecture as delivered by Billy Smith. The writer is appreciative of the fine classes Billy Smith taught while he was a student at Freed-Hardeman University.
2Abel, Carmella (2022). “What Sheep Can See: Color Spectrum, Range of Vision & More.” What Sheep Can See: Color Spectrum, Range of Vision & More – Savvy Farm Life (https://savvyfarmlife.com/what-sheep-can-see/). “Sheep have blind spots where they cannot see directly in front of or directly behind themselves. Sheep have horrible depth perception due to their rectangular pupils. Sheep can only see at a distance of around 20 feet.”
3Bailey, Floyd M., Jr., Howell, Mark A., and Webster, Allen, pg. 73.