The study of Psalm 23 is
what God has given me to help me through some difficult
times with heart irregularities. So I want to share with
you some of the things I have learned about this psalm,
how it has helped in my life. Hopefully you will get
some ideas of how it can be of help in your own life. We
all end up with some kind of sickness sooner or later.
God seems to use such things to grab our attention and
force us to focus to him. So, when God forces you into a
corner, so to speak, you do not want to waste that
opportunity to draw closer to God.
As one of John
Piper's papers is entitled, "Don't Waste Your Cancer"
(Feb. 15, 2006). Don't waste your irregular heartbeat.
Don't waste anything that God allows you to go through
by failing to allow it to draw you closer to him.
It is helpful to have some scripture that you have
saturated your mind with to turn to at those times. God
will take those scriptures and teach you things you
would never have learned otherwise. Some of the best
insights I have into the 23rd Psalm have come when I was
flat on my back, wondering what was going on with my
heart. It is at times like that that God is able to get
our undivided attention. We need to be paying attention
to what he might have in mind.
First, let’s put the psalm into some context (this will
take up most of our time). The book of Psalms divides
into five sections or books, each ending in a type of
doxology. The first section goes from Psalm 1 to Psalm
41 and ends with the words, "Praise the Lord, the God of
Israel! Praise him now and forever! Amen! Amen!"
According to the Talmud, these five divisions
"correspond with the five part division of the
Pentateuch. It says: 'Moses gave Israel the five books
of the Law, and David gave Israel the five books of the
Psalms' (Midrash Tehillim)."
If the first book of Psalms is related to Genesis, and
Psalm 23 is located in that section, then let's ask the
question of how Psalm 23 is related to Genesis. It does
not take much to see that all of the major themes of
Psalm 23 can be related to Genesis. Let's just look at
one of them, the most obvious one, that of shepherd and
sheep. You can't read through Genesis without noting
that almost everyone who was anyone was a shepherd.
very first vocation mentioned in scripture is that of
shepherding. Genesis 4:2 says that was the occupation of
Abel, the son of Adam and Eve. Abraham and Lot and Isaac
and Jacob were all shepherds. Isaac and Jacob both found
their wives among the shepherdesses. And at the end of
the book, when Joseph introduced his family to Pharaoh,
he introduced them as shepherds. The whole book is about
As an aside, we noted that 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.
When we talk about shepherds in the Old Testament, it is
helpful to understand that the Hebrew word for shepherd
does not mean exactly what the English word does. The
English word means "one who herds sheep." But the Hebrew
word has more the meaning of "one who takes animals out
to pasture." The animals could be donkeys (Gen 36:24),
or cattle (Gen 41:2), or even gazelles (Song 4:5), but
the main animal seems to be sheep.
One day I got interested in just how many sheep were
being talked about in Old Testament times. How large
were their flocks? I grew up in West Texas where there
are some big sheep ranches, and once worked at one of
those ranches during sheep-shearing time. At times my
job was to help count sheep. We would run them through a
narrow place and count them by twos – two, four, six,
eight, etc. So I was interested in the number of sheep
the Israelites had, and I started looking around in the
Scriptures and found some clues.
Just before the
Israelites went into Canaan, they fought the Midianites
and took all their animals. There were 675,000 sheep
among those that they took as spoils of war, that were
added to the who-knows-how-many they already had. Later,
when the armies of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of
Manasseh defeated the Hagrites, it says, "the plunder
taken from the Hagrites included 50,000 camels, 250,000
sheep, 2,000 donkeys, and 100,000 captives” (I Chron
When David got upset at Nabal for treating his
men shamefully, it mentions that Nabal had 3,000 sheep
that he had just sheared, plus a thousand goats (I Sam
25:2). (Job, by the way, ended up with 14,000 sheep,
6,000 camels, 1,000 teams of oxen, and 1,000 female
donkeys – Job 42:12.) And finally, when Solomon finished
the temple, in two weeks of celebration he sacrificed
22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep (I Kings 8:63). Any way
you look at it, we are talking big numbers of sheep.
Sheep-herding was a major factor in the Hebrew culture.
As the Israelites occupied Canaan and many of them
became city dwellers, when the kingdom began to fall
apart and many were deported to Assyria and Babylonia,
you can imagine that the occupation of sheep herding,
and the respect given to sheepherders, diminished. This
makes me think of the range wars that took place in the
Old West between sheep herders and cattlemen. Sheep eat
grass right down to the roots, and the cattlemen did not
like that. Hollywood has exploited that theme a number
Around the time of Jesus, things were not
looking good for shepherds. A Jewish midrash on Psalm 23
"The pious were forbidden to buy wool, milk or
meat from shepherds. Civic privileges (functions of
judge and witness) were withdrawn from them as from the
tax collectors. (They were treated as bad as tax
collectors.) No position in the world is as despised as
that of the shepherd."
So, 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.
At the 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 (NLT) 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 recognize his voice. They won't
follow a stranger; they will run from him because they
don't recognize his voice" (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.
Taking this idea of shepherding on through the New
Testament, in the letters of Paul and the others there
is not get much mention of sheep-herding, probably
because the people being written to were basically city
folk from Athens, Corinth, Rome and Ephesus.
of the words shepherd and sheep, we start getting words
that are more relevant to the culture, such as kyrios
"Lord" instead of Shepherd, and ekklesia "church"
instead of sheep. About the only times we find the
figurative use of shepherd and sheep are in the letters
written to the churches in what is today Turkey (for
example I Pet 2:25, 5:4).
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? Among
other things it teaches us that sheep are stupid. And
who does the Bible compare you and me to? Sheep! Why?
Figure it out. A girl who had been a sheepherder as a
child once asked me, “Why does God compare us to sheep?
Sheep are the dumbest animals around. I much prefer
goats." And I would say to her: "Yes, yes. You're
getting the idea."
Structure of Psalm 23
Now the structure of Psalm 23. Jan Fokkelman
divides it into four sections.
I think he is right, especially on the basis of the syllable
count he has done. Among other things, he says that if you
add the number of syllables found in the first section to
those found in the third section, and then add the number of
syllables found in the second section to those found in the
forth section, you find that each one of those adds up to 57
When I recently mentioned that to a friend, his response
was, "So what? How is knowing that going to help me in
my Christian walk?"
I said, "It might not, but what it
says to me is this: In the same way that our bodies are
fearfully and wonderfully made, so the Scriptures, and
the complicated languages that have gone into them, are
fearfully and wonderfully put together.” As an Israeli
linguist has written about Semitic languages,
come as a surprise that the verb is the cause of some
consternation for learners of Semitic languages....Think
for a moment about all the meticulous planning which
must have gone into developing such a system – it almost
defies belief that such an algebraic scheme could have
been conceived in any other way except through the
inspiration of a gifted designer".
I stand in awe of a
God who can put together languages, and literature, and
especially such a book as the Bible.
There are some strong reasons then to divide the psalm
into three or four parts. For example, the first
part of the psalm is written in indirect address,
referring to God as "he”; the middle part is in direct
address, referring to God as "you"; and the last part
goes back to indirect address. 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.
But 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. "Yea though I walk through
the valley of deep darkness, I will fear no evil,
because you are with me. Your rod and your staff they
And then in the last part, 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.
So, what can we learn from this? We can learn that
is in front of us, he is right next to us, and he is
behind us. In good times he is teaching us to follow his
voice. In difficult times he is right there next to us.
And at the end of our lives, we can look back and see
that he is coming along behind us. And he is not just
dragging up the rear; he is actively pursuing us from
behind. He has all the bases covered.
I noticed something similar in the book of Acts. At
times when it says that God or an angel appeared to
someone in a vision, sort of like a dream. But when Paul
was about to be shipwrecked on his way to Rome, it does
not say that he had a vision or a dream. It says,
night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I
serve stood right beside me, and he said, 'Don't be
afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before
Caesar!" (Acts 27:23-24).
You and I will experience
something similar when we are in those kinds of
situations. ... It is good not to talk very long about God
without talking to God.
The first section (1-3) gives the daily cycle of a
shepherd and his sheep, and it breaks into that cycle at
noontime. When David writes: "He makes me to lie down in
green pastures," that is what happens at midday. Song of
Songs (1:7) says: "Tell me, you whom I love, where you
graze your flock and where you cause your sheep to lie
down at midday." After the sheep get their fill in the
morning, the shepherd makes the sheep lie down so they
can ruminate. That means that they bring it all up again
and re-chew it.
Shepherds whom I know and other
shepherds I have read about (See Phillip Keller, A
Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, p. 36) all make their sheep
lie down around noontime so they can get the most out of
what they've been eating. When you leave here in a few
minutes, I hope that is what you will do, that you will
regurgitate what you've learned this morning, discuss
it, question it, add your own insights to it. Get the
most out it. If you come up with something good, let me
know. I would like to be a part of your ruminating
The second part of the daily cycle takes place in the
afternoon, where the shepherd leads the sheep to still
waters. 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".
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" (Psalm 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.
Some of the shepherds I know in Mexico have a hard time
with this verse because they do not lead sheep. They
direct sheep from behind, yelling at them and throwing
rocks and depending on sheep dogs to keep the sheep and
goats in line. Some will actually suckle a puppy with a
ewe or a nanny goat, in order to get the puppy to stay
with the animals.
In the Bible, by the way, there is only one mention of
dogs being used to herd sheep. That is in the book of
Job, and it is not complementary in regards to the dogs;
it is very negative. Job said, "But now they mock me,
men younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained
to put with my sheep dogs" (Job 30:1 NIV).
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.
Kushner translates this as "roundabout ways that end up in
the right direction".
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.
matter how it is translated, it refers to the one
who has no beginning or end, the one who just "Is." 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. He might be other
people's shepherd also, but what I need to know is, He
is my shepherd.
And finally, "the Lord is my
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.
A free translation
In closing, I want to read a
personal translation of Psalm
23 that included a number of the
different ideas that I have learned in this study:
1 The One Who Is Eternal, who always does what he says,
is like a shepherd to me,
I will never be lacking in anything that is good for me.
2 In the middle of the day he causes me to rest in lush
and in the cool of evening he leads me to still, pure
I am well cared for.
3 At night, when my emotions are frazzled,
his presence restores strength and stability to my soul.
And in the morning when he leads me out to pasture,
he leads me along paths of tranquility into ways that
God has ordered.
And he does that not just for my sake,
he does it so that people will respect who he is.
It is his name and character that are at stake.
4 Even when I walk in places of spiritual darkness and
I have no reason to fear evil,
because you are by my side.
I see the weapons you carry
and I gain confidence and courage.
5 And even when my enemies surround me
and are watching every move I make,
you set up a table and receive me as an honored guest,
at a banquet of exotic foods.
My cup of joy is full and overflowing.
6 How can I expect anything but the goodness of God
and God's covenant of love
to follow me, in fact pursue me, all the days of my
And I will live in the presence of the Eternal God,
the one who always does what he says, forever.
1 David Noel Freedman (ed). The Anchor Bible Dictionary,
“Book of Psalms”. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
2 Colin Brown (ed). New International Dictionary of New
Testament Theology, Vol. 3, “Shepherd”, Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, pp. 564-569.
3 J. P. Fokkelman. The Psalms in Form: The Hebrew
Psalter in Its Poetic Shape (Tools for Biblical Study).
Leiden: Deo Publishing. 2003, pp. 38-41.
4 Guy Deutscher. The Unfolding of Language. New York:
Henry Holt and Co., 2005, p. 47.
5 Bargil Pixner. With Jesus in Jerusalem. Corazin
Publishing, 1996, p. 46.
6 Harold Kushner. The Lord Is My Shepherd. New York:
Random House, p. 47.
7 Nogah Hareuveni. Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical
Heritage. Neot Kedumim (The Biblical Landscape Reserve
(Israel)), 1991, p. 126.
8 Harold Kushner. The Lord Is My Shepherd, p. 72.
Copyright © 2006 Peninsula
Bible Church, Cupertino
Fom a sermon given by our
missionary friend Don Burgess. Used by permission.