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[Note. Some think that this psalm was written by David in the early days of innocence; but against this view Psa 23:5 is quoted. Besides, it is doubted whether any youth could have had an experience so rich and large. Common opinion assigns the psalm to David. The images of the shepherd watching over his flock, and of the banquet where Jehovah presides over the just, are familiar in Hebrew poetry. It has been said that the mention of the House of Jehovah appears to be decisive against the Davidic authorship. Some have suggested that if David's fortunes coloured the psalm it must have been through the mind of some later writer. The twenty-third Psalm stands apart in all its most tender and fascinating characteristics. Imagination can hardly dissociate it from the royal shepherd on the hillsides of Judah, where he studied nature so profoundly and communed so deeply and lovingly with God.]
The Divine Shepherd
"The Lord is my Shepherd " ( Psa 23:1 ).
It is vital that we should define God's relation to us, and our relation to God. Every one may have an image peculiarly his own; an image which most clearly typifies the divine nearness and care, and through which, therefore, he can see most of God and understand him best. God is the infinite name shepherd, father, healer, deliverer; these are the incarnation of it, not in the sense of limiting it, but in the sense of focalising its glory, and subduing it into daily use and daily comfort.
"I shall not want" ( Psa 23:1 ).
An indirect tribute to the earthly shepherd. Some titles are characters as well as designations. A shepherd that allowed his flock to want would divest himself of his character, and rank himself with the horde of hirelings whose business it is to fleece the flock, and deliver it as a prey to the wolf. The assurance of nurture has here large meaning. It may be paraphrased variously: I am God's child, so I need not yield myself to anxiety; I am religious, therefore I am provided for. Or the reasoning may start from the other and better point: God is for me, who can be against me? God is housekeeper, so there will be bread enough. God reigns, the universe is safe. There is no selfishness in the reasoning: the Psalmist is not magnifying a little personality, he is stating the practical and universal sequence of fundamental reasoning. The violet is not immodest when it says in its mossy dell, The sun shines, I shall be warmed.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters" ( Psa 23:2 ).
He knows what I need: he treats me according to my quality: he proves by easily comprehended blessings that higher benefactions shall not be withheld. Pasture and water are the earnest and pledge of truth and grace. Did we know things as they are, we would know that they are all parables, whose meaning is spiritual. Bread is sacramental. Providence is the visible and historical aspect of theology. If God clothe the fields, will he not clothe the husbandmen? if he clothe the body, will he not clothe the soul? if he feed the flesh, will he starve the spirit? If we knew the earth aright we should have some understanding of heaven.
"He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake" ( Psa 23:3 ).
So the sweet singer has not missed the higher significance of his music. Already the green fields have lured him into the sanctuary; already the "waters of comfort" have brought him to the river of God. This is the very purpose of nature. All the stars lead to Bethlehem. All the waters trickle to the pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Oh that men were wise! then all nature would be but the vestibule of the sanctuary, and all providence but the many-figured gate which opens upon the soul's storehouse. Soul-restoration is peculiarly the work of God. He alone knows that wonderful instrument, and he only can keep it in tune. "The inward man is renewed day by day!" Day by day the soul must be judged, re-adjusted, fed, comforted by the Living One. The proof of renewal will be a stedfast walk in the paths of righteousness. Morality will prove religion. Sentiment will be crystallised in character. Is our piety rhapsody or service? Is our restoration a dream or a discipline? Do we know in our very heart of hearts that he who made the rainbow a covenant made the Cross the only way to heaven? These are the questions which shock the complacency of self-satisfaction, and bring men to penitence, confession, and prayer.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" ( Psa 23:4 ).
It is indeed the valley of shadows, the valley of night. However much the expression may be softened by Hebrew etymology and usage, we know what the valley is. It is ever before even the youngest life. It must be traversed, and the darkest part of it must be passed alone. Sweet mother cannot follow her child right through; and ardent love, the love which makes two souls one, must stand back in wonder and be made dumb with awe. Opinions come and go; laughter and madness have their times of riot and triumph; attention is arrested by politics, business, war, and pleasure: but there is the black, silent, gloomy valley, waiting for us all! Is there no escape? May we not fly on white wings away to the city of light, the home of bliss? We know the answer. We bow our heads, and our hearts are cold with fear. "We must needs die." "There is no discharge in that war." Proud man, boastful, foolish man, let the "valley" sometimes come within thy purview, and sober thee into a moment's considerateness!
"For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" ( Psa 23:4 ).
Then the pious boast is not irrational, or presumptuous, or sentimental. It is a sanctuary built upon a rock. The Psalmist will be without fear, simply because he is in vital fellowship with God. Nor is he left with the overpowering thought of Deity a magnificent intellectual conception he has something he can see and handle and enjoy, even a "rod" and a "staff." In many forms do these helps present themselves, the written word, the palpable ordinance, the sympathetic friend, the remembered and realised promise, all those may be as the rod and staff of God meant for inspiration and comfort when the darkest cloud descends upon the expiring day. The peculiarity of the Christian religion is that it is most to us when we need it most The night cannot frighten it; the storm has no effect upon its courage; death owns its sovereignty and retires before its approach. This is the sweet necessity of the case, for God can know no fear, and to be in God is to be like God. "Thou art with me," my hand is locked in thine, my life is drawn from thine, my future is involved in thine; God and the saint are one. When death triumphs he slays not the saint only, but also God. Take heart, then, for this we know is impossible.
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over". ( Psa 23:5 ).
God is a hospitable host; he furnishes or spreads the table on a high mountain, and the enemy looks on with rage and impotence from the deep valley. God is the cup or portion of his people, and each can say, as in this case, "My cup is abundant drink." God does everything for his people. Rod, staff, table, unction, cup, all are God's. "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" Truly, my soul, God treateth thee as a favourite and setteth on thee special seals. So every believing man can say. Each of us seems to be God's only child God's one ewe lamb God's chosen delight. But all this favour involves corresponding responsibility. Nothing is said in mere words about the responsibility, but it is in the very heart and necessity of the case. We cannot receive all and return nothing. Gratitude must find its own most appropriate expressions. I must judge my piety as certainly by its gratitude as by its mercies. No gratitude means that the rain of love has been lost in a desert of insensibility.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever" ( Psa 23:6 ).
It has been thought that this reference to the house of the Lord is decisive against the Davidic origin of the psalm. Perhaps so, in a purely literal sense, but certainly not in the larger interpretation of the singer's thought. The house of the Lord is a wide term. Jacob saw "the house of God" in an unexpected place. Surely there is a house for the heart a sanctuary not made with hands a hiding-place and a covert from the storm. Is not this suggested by the very words "for ever"? No man can literally abide in a literal house for ever. Man dies, stone crumbles, all things earthly vanish as if but a phantasm. But this sweet singer says he will abide for ever in a house that cannot be destroyed. The house of God is Truth, Wisdom, Holiness, Worship, Sacrifice, it signifies nearness to God, communion with him, a perpetual abiding under the shadow of the Almighty. My soul, seek thou no other home! In thy Father's house there is bread enough and to spare, and they that trust him shall want no good thing.
This sweetest psalm holds a place of its own in sacred minstrelsy. By many figures may its place be signified. It is the nightingale of poems, for it sings in the darkness of death's valley. Yet it is a poem that trills like the lark high above green pastures and landscapes, yellow with golden wheat. Nay, it is more than all this, for it seems to be sung by some one high in the summer light, and thus to come down from heaven rather than rise from earth. Did some angel open heaven's gate and sing this lyric as the sun rose on the dewy pastures, and as morning made burnished silver of the tranquil streams? No no. It is a human psalm. Even man may sing. Even sinners may celebrate "free grace and dying love." Sad is the psalmless heart, orphaned, indeed, and shepherdless is he who sits in silence when all nature celebrates the honour of her Lord. Shepherd of the universe, seek thy lost one!
Almighty God, we bless thee that Jesus Christ has told us of his suffering and his death, especially that he has told us of his rising again from the dead, for no grave can hold his almightiness, and as for the darkness, lo! he openeth his eyes upon it and it fleeth away for ever. We bless thee that he has known the pain of death and the loneliness of the tomb, because, having himself suffered as the captain of our salvation, he is able to sympathise with those who are in suffering: he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are but dust, and there is nothing in our life that he himself has not first gone through. There hath no temptation assailed us with which he is unfamiliar: he was in all points tempted like as we are: he is touched with the feeling of our infirmities: we have not a high priest who is far exalted above our lot of sorrow and distress, but a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, in whose great woe we may forget our light suffering which is but for a moment. We gather in his name; may he come into our midst and send a warm glow of new and sacred love through all our hearts. There are no words like his: we know his voice it is the shepherd's tone, it is the gentle word, the soothing accent: it is full of gospel, it is full of promise behold, thou dost give those who follow thee, O Son of man, great light and measureless liberty, and an outlook upon things to come, far and bright. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 23". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26