We know that Psalm 23 was written by David. What’s not quite as clear is what the occasion was that inspired David to write this Psalm. Some think David wrote it when he was fleeing from King Saul, running for his life. Others think it may have been when he was in exile from his son Absalom who wanted to take over the kingdom. Maybe it was something else altogether. We don’t know for sure.
What we do know is that David was familiar with hardship in life. Even from his childhood he faced problems. And his problems wouldn’t go away when he became king; he would just experience them on a larger scale. He had personal problems, national problems, marital problems, problems with his children. Yet it was David who wrote the words of Psalm 23.
Why David thought of God as a shepherd isn’t really hard to figure out. The Bible tells us that David’s primary vocation in his younger years was shepherding. In I Samuel 16:11, when Samuel came to Jesse’s household to anoint a new king of Israel, Jesse had all his sons lined up for inspection. All of them, that is, except David who was out tending the sheep. I Samuel 17, when David ran an errand to the battlefield and saw the army trembling before the Philistine's champion, David volunteered to kill the giant and padded his resume with his experiences having tended his father’s sheep.
Psalm 23 begins with, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” With these words, David is expressing that he knew God, not as some ambiguous idea floating around out there somewhere, but on a very intimate basis. It’s not saying that he doesn’t want the Lord as his shepherd, but that since he has the Lord as his Shepherd, there is nothing more he wants, there is nothing more he needs! It was the kind of relationship David had with God that would make all the difference.
In fact this is not only where the Psalm does begin, but when you consider the remaining content of the Psalm this is where it has to begin. I have heard it suggested that the essence of the Psalm is contained in verse 1 and that everything else is but commentary to this. A lot of people love to read the Psalm because it makes them feel good. The words are soothing. But this is not a generic prayer for the afflicted or bereaved. There is nothing magical about the words. Unless this first part of the Psalm is true, nothing else about the Psalm will make sense.
With the Lord as his shepherd, David experienced God refreshing his life on every front: In the midst of life’s want and need, God made him to lie down in green pastures. In the midst of the noise and clutter and stress of life, God led him beside quite waters. When he felt empty inside and wondered what reason he had to go on, the Lord would restore his soul. In a world of broken relationships, broken promises, and broken lives, God guided David in paths of righteousness. And though death itself would come knocking on the door, David was not going to be afraid; he had no reason to. David was confident the kind of relationship he had with God would bring good to his life.
Perhaps we tend to look at this Psalm all wrong. Maybe our tendency is to look at this as a picture of life without any problems. But as we’ve noted, that’s not the context of this Psalm. What is the context of the Psalm? “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” and, “in the presence of my enemies.”
Like David, we have problems. We’re surrounded by problems in our world; problems at work; problems at home; problems with our health; problems we don’t want anybody else to know about. And we are prone to cry out: “Where are those green pastures and still waters!?”
But the power of the Psalm is not first experienced in the change of our circumstances, but in being able to see a change in ourselves in the midst of out circumstances. The meaning of the Psalm is that your life does not need to resemble the trials you face or the worries of this world. We can live with the Lord as our shepherd. And knowing the Shepherd makes all the difference!
Worship: Sing the hymns “There is a Place of Quiet Rest” and “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”
Prayer: Read Psalm 23 again, slowly. But this time make it your prayer.