...the first mention of a
shepherd was in Genesis chapter 4. If you go to the end
of the Old Testament, and come backwards about the same
distance, to Zechariah 13:7, you will find the last
reference to a shepherd. The first one in Genesis talks
about a shepherd who was murdered, whose blood cried out
for vengeance. The last one talks about a shepherd who
would be murdered in the future, an obvious reference to
the coming Messiah, whose blood would heal the nations.
...it must have come as a great surprise to the
shepherds watching over their flocks by night, that
angels would appear to them and that they would be the
first people mentioned in Scripture to see the Son of
God, even before the three kings. I imagine they were
pleasantly surprised when they found that this newborn
babe was living in a stable, a place they would have had
no hesitation to enter.
beginning of his ministry, Jesus restored that occupation to
its rightful position of respect. Many times he used figures
of speech relating to shepherds and sheep. For example in
John 10 he says,
assure you, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a
sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must
surely be a thief and a robber! For a shepherd enters
through the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him,
and the sheep hear his voice and come to him. He calls
his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has
gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they
follow him because they know his voice. They won't
follow a stranger; they will run from him...." (Also Luke 15:4-7, Matt 9:36,
18:12, John 21:15).
Jesus was not an occupational
shepherd of animals, but the figurative use of that word
was very important in his teaching about himself.
I'm not sure whether or not
that area was a big sheep-herding area back in the days
of the apostles. I suspect it was, but today it
certainly is. We picked up a story off the Internet
recently about how some Turkish sheepherders had taken
their sheep up on a mesa and left them sitting there
while they went over to one side to have something to
eat. Very casually, one of the sheep got up, walked
over to the edge of the cliff, and just walked right off.
And 900 sheep followed him, over the edge. The pile got so
big that the ones landing on top survived because the
landing spot got softer with every sheep that jumped.
What does that news story teach us about sheep?
other things it teaches us that sheep are stupid. And
who does the Bible compare you and me to?
Structure of Psalm 23
There are some strong reasons to divide the psalm
into three parts. For example,
1. the first
part of the psalm is written in indirect address, referring
to God as "he”: The first part says,
"the Lord is
my shepherd, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he
leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul and he
leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.”
The shepherd is out in front or off to one side and the
sheep are talking about him, not directly to him.
2. the middle part is in direct
address, referring to God as "you"; In
verses 4 and 5 it changes. The scene has switched from a
pleasant Garden of Eden-like situation where the shepherd is
out front leading the sheep, to a very dangerous situation
where the Shepherd is right next to the sheep.
I walk through the valley of deep darkness, I will fear no
evil, because you are with me. Your rod and your staff they
3. the last part
goes back to indirect address. In verse 6, where
it talks about the future, it goes back to the indirect
address and simply says,
"Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of
my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
It does not say, "I will dwell in your house forever,"
as if he were talking directly to God.
The first section (1-3) gives the daily cycle of a
shepherd and his sheep....
The second part of the daily cycle takes place in the
afternoon....Waters of menuhot, as the Hebrew says. The same
root is used in Genesis 2:2 where it says that God
"rested on the seventh day." The shepherd takes us to
quiet, restful waters.
Let's relate this idea of quiet, restful waters to the
Jewish idea of “living water." Water from a spring, or
rainwater, was called "living water.” This was what was
preferred when an Israelite dipped himself into a mikveh
for ceremonial cleansing. Jesus applied the term to
himself on several occasions. To quote Bargil Pixner,
during the Passover, a ceremony occurred in Jerusalem
where "the priests went down to the Shiloah Pool, where
the water was conducted from the Gihon Spring. They drew
water and went up with it in a joyful procession to the
Temple, where they circled the altar of burnt offerings
with the water seven times. Jesus apparently refers to
this water drawing rite, when, on the last day of the
feast, which John calls "the Great Day," he stood and
said in a loud voice:
If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said,
streams of living water will flow from within him (Jn.
Whether we are talking about still waters or rushing
waters or any other kind of water, we must never forget
that apart from water there can be no life. As the
Jewish writer Harold Kushner says, "when the psalmist
thanks his faithful shepherd for leading him to water,
it is more than thirst-quenching refreshment for which
he is grateful. It is life itself".7
The third part of the daily cycle, "he restores my
soul," which is literally, "He causes my soul to
return," is talking about nighttime in a safe pen. The
reasons I suggest that this restoring of soul is taking
place in the sheep pen is because 1) it fits into the
daily cycle, and 2) because the root for the Hebrew word
for sheep pen is the same as the root for the Hebrew
word for the Holy of Holies (dvr). The Holy of Holies
was where the presence of God was in the tabernacle, so
I think David is relating the restoration of our souls
in the sheep pen to that of being in the presence of
God. It is the presence of God that restores our souls.
Thinking of a sheep pen as a place of restoring our
souls, two ideas occur to me. One is that the sheep do
not make the pen, the shepherd does. Any walls that you
and I try to build up around ourselves thinking that we
are protecting ourselves from the world are doomed to
failure: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders
labor in vain" (Psa 127:1). And the other idea is that
the pen is usually open (it has no roof), and does not
offer much protection either from the elements or from a
large predator such as a lion or a wolf. By separating
us off in a pen, the Shepherd is not pulling us out of
the world with all its problems. The Shepherd has made
the pen in an open way so that we will not forget that
our protection comes not so much from being in the pen
as from the Shepherd who is guarding the gate.
The forth part of the daily cycle,
being led in paths of
righteousness, would then relate to the leading of the
sheep out to pasture in the morning, thus completing the
daily cycle. It seems to me that the idea of going in
paths of righteousness denotes a relationship with the
Shepherd. We walk in paths of righteousness because he
is with us. If he were not leading us along those paths,
they would not be paths of righteousness. He walks out
in front of us and we follow his voice.
The Israelite shepherds trained their animals to follow
the voice of the shepherd, and you and I need to be
trained to follow the voice of our Shepherd. Jesus said,
"My sheep hear my voice …” And he usually does not shout
at us. Usually it is a still, quiet voice, one that we
will miss if we are not alert to what is going on. If we
don't hear it and don't pay attention to it, he will
have to shout at us, or else send someone like King
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to get our attention. Wouldn't
it be much better to be led by the still, small voice of
the Shepherd, than to be herded by sheep-dogs barking at
us or a sheep-herder throwing rocks at us?
Some have translated
"paths of righteousness" as
"circles of righteousness," saying that David is
referring to the paths that actually go somewhere as
opposed to the many sheep trails that criss-cross any
hill where sheep have grazed and go nowhere.8 Kushner
translates this as "roundabout ways that end up in the
right direction".9 Numerous times I have gotten off on
goat and sheep trails while walking in rugged country.
They might start out looking like major trails that go
somewhere, and then just sort of disappear, or else lead
you out to the edge of a cliff. At times, I could hardly
figure out how to get somewhere, even though I could see
off in the distance where I wanted to go, because there
were so many goat and sheep trails that went nowhere.
And in country with rugged mountains and deep canyons,
to get off the main trail can put you in all sorts of
We need to be sure that we are on paths of
righteousness, not some sheep trail that only goes in
Note that so far the author has taken us through three
periods of rest – lying down in green pastures, drinking
from still waters, and restoring our soul. Only then,
when we have become obedient in resting and learn to
rely on the strength and abilities of the Shepherd, are
we taken out on paths of righteousness for his name's
When we hear that phrase "for his name's sake," a little
flag ought to go up in our minds. We need to be
thinking, "Something is going on here." Knowing that
Jesus is our Shepherd, and the dramatic and dangerous
life that Jesus led, we ought to start getting a little
suspicious that life is not just going to be lying
around stuffing ourselves and regurgitating and drinking
cool drinks and hanging out with the gang. God might
have something else in mind. It might involve getting us
out of our comfort zone. I meet so many people who are
not willing to get out of their comfort zones, maybe for
a weekend or a month or even a year. But God's claim to
our lives is not limited in time, and it might involve
some hardships, long time hardships, for the sake of the
So, when we hear the words, "he leads us in paths of
righteousness for his name's sake," we need to become
more alert. Our senses need to be turned up a notch.
Look at the next verse, "Yea though I walk through the
valley of deep darkness." All of a sudden, we are no
longer in the Garden of Eden. Life gets exciting, even
dangerous. We find ourselves in situations where we are
no longer in control. We even start wondering if God is
That is where we are going to have to leave our study.
Ways of using Psalm 23 in hard times
Before we close, I want to briefly mention a couple of
ways that this psalm can be used to help you when you do
find yourself in a valley of deep darkness. The first is
the time-honored way that this psalm has been used down
through the years, and that is to go through the psalm
emphasizing the different words as you go along, and
thinking about each word. For example, say to yourself,
"The Lord is my Shepherd." Think about the word
translated Lord. David of course did not write Lord, he
wrote YHWH, which we gentiles usually pronounce Yahweh.
The translation "Lord" showed up more than 200 years
before Christ, in the Septuagint translation. But no
matter how it is translated, it is referring to the one
who has no beginning or end, the one who just "Is," and
as Brian Morgan has pointed out, he is the one who is
always faithful (sermon, April 18, 2004). The word is
found in the first line and the last line of the psalm.
It is as if David is saying, "He is the beginning and
the end. The alpha and omega. Everything starts and ends
with him, even into eternity." We are in good hands.
Then say to yourself, "The Lord is my shepherd." Not
was. Not someday. The Lord is my shepherd, right now.
And then, "The Lord is my shepherd. He might be other
people's shepherd also, but what I need to know is, he
is my shepherd. And then, "the Lord is my shepherd."
Thinking about that word shepherd helps me to remember
something very important, and that is: I am not the
shepherd. He is. He is the one who makes me lie down in
green pastures, who leads me by still waters and
restores my soul and leads me in paths of righteousness.
When I forget that I am not the shepherd and start
acting as if I was, I get in trouble. I wonder off, just
like a sheep, getting into things I have no business
A second way I have used this psalm is this: At any time
in my life I can ask myself, At what point am I, at this
very moment, in the 23rd Psalm? I go through the psalm
thinking, Am in green pastures? Am I in a dark valley?
And if I am, do I see the Shepherd's rod and staff,
poised to defend and guide me? Or am I at the point, in
my older age, of wondering if God's goodness and
covenant love are pursuing me, cleaning up some of the
mess I have left? What is going to be my legacy after I
am gone from this place? Going through the psalm like
this gives me a framework that I can use to check up on
myself and helps me to pull my life back into the Word.
Taken from a sermon given at
Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino and used by permission.