Devotional Commentary of The Twenty-Third Psalm

The following is from my devotion times in which I have wanted to provide commentary and reflection on this most beautiful and familiar of Psalms, for the direct blessing of the people of God and to draw others, perhaps who are not following the LORD, through the gates and into the secure place of His presence in this Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

The LORD is the covenant name of God to His people. How comforting it is, in the midst of troubles in this world, to know the beauty of hearth and home, of the relationships that will never let us go. David encourages himself in the Covenant name of God. And thus this Covenant God reaches across the millennia to seek you as you read this. He is your God of sacred promise; He is your Father. How very much this passage reminds us of the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the Church of Jesus Christ has taught Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer to our children, for they both speak of the deepest relationship in this transient life: our relationship with our Father.  This God is the shepherd of David. Much has been written, and rightfully so, about the shepherding work of David and how this Psalm reflects that ignoble profession. Much can be gleaned from these studies (i.e., A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23). But for this meditation, we recall that the pastor needs a pastor, the shepherd needs a shepherd.

David was not the shepherd of a flock of sheep but of a nation of people. He was in need as those in leadership are always in need. What an invitation this is to pastors. For the pastor to say, “The Lord is my pastor” is the beginning of inner healing, of quiet strength, of calm hands that must guide the lambs across dangerous open fields and treacherous narrow cliffs.

What a blessing this is to the pastor of the family, the father, or to a single mother. “The Lord is my shepherd.” And the promise here is enough. I shall not want. Jesus Christ is the shepherd. For in His words, “I am the Good Shepherd” we find the fulfillment of this Psalm. He is the covenant God made flesh. He is the One whose presence and power reaches across the millennia to you today to comfort you, quiet you, guide you, and help you. He will never leave you nor let you go.

For every leader, every pastor, every parent, every shepherd, He is the perfect One to guide you in your lonely times of oversight. Rest in Him today, weary saint. Come to Him today, wandering lamb. You will not want for any good thing. He will be your all in all. And this is the testimony not only of this poor, wandering lamb, this lonely pastor in need of wisdom, this leader in need of love, but it is the very Word of God that has come to you this day.

This second verse speaks of the shepherding care of the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. Food and water, hunger and thirst, nourishment, protection and provision, rest and refreshment are all needed by the sheep and are all addressed here.

He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:2).

We all need this, do we not? It is the Lord who makes us to “lie down in peace and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). And yet without the guiding love of our shepherd, we are want to go to fields where wolves wait to attack us. Thank God “He makes us.”

We do not do this by ourselves but are guided by God to do this. He tucks us in our beds, as it were, when we would be given to anguish. Calvin wrote of the green pastures, profitable words for us when he wrote, “Some, instead of translating the word neoth, which we have rendered pastures, render it shepherds’ cots or lodges.” If this translation is considered preferable, the meaning of the Psalmist will be, that sheep-cots were prepared in rich pasture grounds, under which he might be protected from the heat of the sun. If even in cold countries the immoderate heat that sometimes occurs is troublesome to a flock of sheep, how could they bear the heat of the summer in Judea, a warm region, without sheepfolds?  How we thank God that He leads us out of the heat of trials in this life to take shelter in pleasant places?

If it had not been the LORD who was on our side when people rose up against us,  Psalms 124:2

Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth. Psalms 124:8

Thank God that we can count of our Good Shepherd from leading us to a place of protection to a place of cool refreshment. And take note that He leads us to “still waters.”

The sheep, as David knew so well in reflecting on God in his work as a shepherd, do not like water that is rushing but water that is still. But how shall we find such water? Only God can lead us to that place. It is to be noted that while He makes us to lie down, He does not make us to drink. He leads us besides the waters. And there we may drink.

“Draw nigh unto God and He will draw nigh unto thee,” says James. And Christ Himself speaks to us who are so near the quiet, flowing streams of rest in another way, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). And will we not come to Him who is so close to us? Will we not open the door? Will we not drink?

The promise of the Psalmist is echoed in the promises of Isaiah:

They shall not hunger or thirst, 
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, 
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.

Today these promise are all ours in Christ who said that He is the Good Shepherd. Let us come to Him today and find shelter. Let us follow Him today and be led to the restful place of refreshment.

He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3).

How I bless the Lord for that one word, “restore,” from the primitive root, sûub.

As a shepherd restores, heals, brings to life his sick and wounded lambs, so too the Good Shepherd does all these things for His sheep. And He does that for you today.

This fall that you have now is infinitely more hurtful than those of your childhood. It not only is bringing you internal disease but the disease is spreading along the paths of your life. But look! To come to this Good Shepherd is to come to One who not only heals you, but He also brings you into paths of righteousness. These are the good footpaths well-worn by the little healed lambs that have gone before you. These are righteousness paths because they bring righteousness to life, for to follow them is to sup with the Savior. The paths are righteousness for the paths are His prescribed directions that lead to life and life abundant.

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12).

That is the way of the fool, of the atheist, and even the way of the believer who has eternal life but has fallen from the way for a season until He learns of the robbers and thieves and deadly vipers and incalculable miseries who lie on that bad road of disobedience. How much better to follow the way of David’s son who wrote:

In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths (Proverbs 3:6).

The end of this verse contains a truth that if comprehended by the saint who yields his life to Christ, would find his life changed forever. He restores, He puts on the right path, for His name’s sake. The salvation of the saints, the saving of the lambs, and the guiding of the flock all the way home bring honor to the name of God. Why? He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. He paid the highest price to redeem us from the ravages of that liar, the Devil. He rose again to give us new life in Him. When we are born again it brings glory and honor to the Lord for the sake of His name.

Your life is thus a testimony to the goodness of God to you, and through your example, of the blessed mercies of Christ to a world in sin. How can we ever walk the same way again?

How can we remain the way we are in light of such a glorious salvation? Look at verse 3 one last time before moving on this day: “He restores…” Not you, not your good religious works, or your finest efforts at turning over a new leaf. No! He restores! Glory to His name! Look again, “He leads…” Not my ingenious discovery of a new path to life or my commendable innate sense of “direction” in life. No! “He leads…” Yes, from beginning to end, from “faith to faith” God saves.

And thus verse three leaves us still and quiet before the goodness of our God, content at last, to know, as David knew as he looked over his little flock, of the sheep’s security and the sheep’s serenity which is due to the Shepherd’s untiring watch born out of His undying love.

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 (Psalm 23:4).

Our fables, our novels, even our children’s stories are filled with Hansel and Gretel-like situations, which reveal the innate fear that we all have as we make our way through this world. No sooner after we learn to walk do we begin to experience the difficulties and dangers of life. And so our unspoken fears of doom, of death itself, are given expression under the guise of Auden’s poetry, or Hans Christian Anderson’s fables, or Truman Capote’s novels. So, too, the Bible, the primary source of our being, the most perfect reflection and explanation of our condition, speaks to this universal experience of mankind. It does so through the Spirit-wrought poetry of a human like us. But this man is special.

Indeed, as we read this passage, we must recall that the author, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is the ruler of an earthly kingdom. He is no ordinary man. He is a person of enormous, unsurpassed privilege. His life is under the constant protection of well-armored guards. Anyone seeking to even slap at this man, the king who writes this verse, would be slashed through with the claymore. So why write of walking through a Gothic-like valley where a shadow seems to him like a shadow of death looming so ominously?

This is an important question to bring to the passage. We must also remember that David was a man of wealth who lived off of the revenues of his kingdom. Thus he was comforted in the luxuries that such position afforded. Advisors constantly surrounded him. So, why should he revert to the similitude of a shepherd and speak of a rod that guides him? He had servants, family, and friends to bring him the human comforts we all desire. Why write of needing another comfort?

While David had many enemies, he also had many admirers. It may well be argued that he was one of the most popular leaders in any nation in any time. Why then should such a one speak so tenderly of a shepherd who would touch his side with a rod, as if he were a mere sheep enjoying the presence of a shepherd with the rod nestled against his side? And why such a dark scene of life in this passage for a man with so much light in his life? It is because this man recognizes that he walks, as we all do each and every day, through a valley that is ever in the shadow of death. I mean to say that he understands both the brevity of life and the uncertainly of life. David wrote,

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before You. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39:5).

Thus the brother of our Lord would also write that the rich man is “like a flower of the grass” and “he will pass away” (James 1:10).

And David believed here what he wrote in another place, that “I am a sojourner with You, a guest, like my fathers” (Psalm 39:12).

The Psalmist thus puts his hopes not in his own wealth, or in his court advisors, or, indeed, in anything available to him in this present, transient life. David put his hopes in an eternal safety, an eternal presence, and a surety that is beyond the valley. His hope is in the covenant God of Israel (verse 1). The Psalmist enjoys the presence of his Shepherd and he needs that Shepherd. No mere mortal can be his guide or comfort. No one else can protect him, only God.

Jesus said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).  The believer will never walk alone.  The child of God will never walk alone in this world, filled with dark valleys, foreboding circumstances, ever-present enemies, and dizzying afflictions which leave us lost in the wilderness of life, and separated from God.

The passage can also be used to plead to those who are trying to walk by themselves, naively ignoring the dangers of the flesh, the world, and the devil. This is a warning to those who forget the brevity of life, or the sudden changes that can come to us and our families. This is not an invitation as much as a plea to run to Christ, the One who is the very God of this Psalm. Then, receiving Him, you can walk through “the valley of deep darkness” which the Hebrew portrays. You can be relieved of fear, fear that impedes a bold witness for Christ; fear that poisons your inner life of joy; fear that keeps you from walking wherever God calls you to walk; and the fear, that demonic fear placed in our breast by the sin of Adam and the judgment of God, of death.

You are free in Christ to walk, to live. This “shepherd of the universe” as Calvin calls the LORD, is here for us. And as Calvin, the preacher, also said, pleading with his hearers, as the Spirit pleads with us,

“Now, since God, in the person of his only begotten Son, has exhibited himself to us as our shepherd, much more clearly than he did in old-time to the fathers who lived under the Law, we do not render sufficient honor to his protecting care, if we do not lift our eyes to behold it, and keeping them fixed upon it, tread all fears and terrors under our feet.”

So read this sweet Psalm that many of you learned as a child in Sunday School, or in the lap of your mother, or from the deep voice of your father. Read this Psalm, so infinitely superior to any childhood story that would seek to alleviate the fears of a little boy or girl.

Read this Psalm, little lamb and lift your eyes and receive your Shepherd. He will relieve your fears, take up residence in your life, and bring refreshment to your soul. Feel His shepherd’s staff touching you, guiding you in His Word and by His Spirit. Feel the touch of that staff touching you in the darkest night of your soul and stilling your fears. That staff is the very presence of the Good Shepherd to comfort you. It is the presence of Jesus the LORD in your life at the greatest moment of need.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows (Psalm 23:5).

What a beautiful ministry the Lord brings to His worn and wearied disciples! The whole of this verse speaks to God’s provision and to our perilous condition in the presence of enemies. For David his enemies had included Philistines, unbelieving brothers, mad, jealous, spear-launching monarchs, Amorites, and, sorrowfully, even his own son. Yet God, His Savior, was always faithful as the taunting tongue’s threatening words were transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit in David into a feast of praise. The distrusting rebuffs were metabolized into David’s soul to become nourishment rather than something that tore him down. The spears thrown at him caused him to seek the refuge of God.

David knew the anointing of the Holy Spirit as he led men into battle against those who would terrorize his people, for his cause was holy, and thus the terror was supernaturally translated to power and his head overflowed with the courage and wisdom of God. And the sweet Psalmist of Israel, who would fall into such sin that its effects would create deep wounds in his own family, would one day face off with his son Absalom, deep into his own heartache and striking out with troop and sword against his father. Thus there would even come a time when this Psalm 23:5 would be tested to the utmost. For we will come to hear the mournful cry of the Shepherd-poet:

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son (2 Samuel 18:33)!

Yet even in this cry, the truth of the Word of God came to be. What parent, what father, can imagine a greater pain than to see his son rise against him, seeking to kill him, and falling himself in his diabolical ambition? What parent whose child is a prodigal (because of the sins of the fathers) can in any way understand that God anoints his head at such a time? And yet we read that David took his place in the gates after a time of solitude and mourning.

Is this not the same man who also mourned the loss of his first son by Bathsheba by going to God and saying that while the child would not return to life, he, David, would go to be with him in heaven? Thus, at the hardest, most hurtful times of one’s life, the believer can know that Jesus Christ is there with him. The oil of the presence and power of the resurrected Christ flows over our head as we are exalted as well as when we are laid low. It is then, at that hour, in that day, that if you have never said it before, you will say, “My cup overflows.” He is more of a Savior than I have ever known.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalms 23:6).

The human authors of the Word of God often conclude their divinely inspired writing by sealing the words with doxology. And thus David, after giving the believer such hope and courage and assurance in the midst of trials and, indeed, throughout every season of life, explodes into an affirmation of faith that ought to be remembered and recited by every child of God.

The “surely” points to the verity of what he is about to say. And what he says is that  “goodness” and “mercy” shall follow him all of the days of his life. Now this is not just any goodness or any mercy but this is connected to the LORD (the covenant name YHWH is here employed) and to eternal life in His presence, that is, His house.  The goodness of God towards David and towards each of us is evidenced in both His general love and His special love. He is good to us in life in that He gives us food and drink, children’s laughter, and crisp autumn days. Every man must be bound on Judgment Day to thank God, if it were possible in the hearts of rebels, to praise God for His general love to us all. But the special love of God is His goodness to us. He is good in His Person and thus His goodness overflows from the attributes of the Lord to His own children.

We know this through the promise to redeem us and to redeem this fallen world. He has sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to bring about that redemption. In our own lives, He has worked powerfully, mysteriously, as He did in David’s life, to preserve us, protect us, and to present us to Himself as His dear children. He sent your parents to you to tell you of Jesus. This is His goodness. He sent a preacher to you. This is His special love, His goodness to you, dear friend. God is good, and thus goodness must logically overflow, but that it overflows into your life, child of God, is reason for you to thank Him and praise Him!  David here speaks of that most famous word, God’s “Hesed,” that is, His mercy. The word is most often translated “steadfast love” in the English Standard Version (indeed, there are 191 instances of that phrase). The “Hesed” of God is God’s “covenant love,” the “unfailing love,” the “stork-like” love of one who loves to death.

This is the love that left divine prerogatives in order to come to earth, a King of Kings and Lord of Lords born to woman in a feed-trough. This is the love that sent God the Son to the cross in order to save His children. What wondrous love! And yet this love, this “hesed love” of God is what David claims. He claims it for himself, as you should for your life. And David seals the beauty of this whole Psalm with Hesed. And then, whether feast or famine, David is assured that this divine goodness and love will go on and on. Indeed, David will dwell in the “bayit” of God, His “royal court” forever.  Thus the Psalmist who has led the lamps of the flock through dark, dangerous fields, and over ragged mountains, now looks to the Good Shepherd to lead him home. So, too, should you rest in the LORD of this Psalm, Jesus Christ. You too can seal your life, see how every sorrow is sanctified, how every circumstance is under the sovereign saving work of Jesus and will be used to get you home.

Thinking of these things, I once wrote:

When the wind and waves of life
Drove my soul to find relief
I was guided by the storm
To find Jesus underneath.
When the storms of life betray
All the promises You’ve made
I will cling to Calvary’s place
I will trust Your Sovereign Grace.
Though Your presence with me goes
I seem to still be tossed and turned
By an unseen enemy
And I know I need to learn.
And when life is finally o’er
And I stand before You, Lord
I’ll see the storms that stirred despair
Were the winds that blew me there.
When the storms of life betray
All the promises You’ve made
Let me cling to Calvary’s place

Let me trust Your Sovereign Grace.
David did. And through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, you too can know the power of the promises, the security of the Savior, and the blessings of being a well-beloved lamb in the fold of the Good Shepherd.

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About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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