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“The king who had been the shepherd-boy, and had been taken from the quiet sheepcotes to rule over Israel, sings this little psalm of Him who is the true Shepherd and King of men. We do not know at what period of David’s life it was written, but it sounds as if it were the work of his later years. There is a fulness of experience about it, and a tone of subdued, quiet confidence which speaks of a heart mellowed by years, and of a faith made sober by many a trial. A young man would not write so calmly, and a life which was just opening would not afford material for such a record of God’s guardianship in all changing circumstances. If we think of the psalm as the work of David’s later years, is it not very beautiful to see the old king looking back with such vivid and loving remembrance to his childhood’s occupation, and bringing up again to memory in his palace the green valleys, the gentle streams, the dark glens where he had led his flocks in the old days; very beautiful to see him traversing all the stormy years of warfare and rebellion, of crime and sorrow, which lay between, and finding in all God’s guardian presence and gracious guidance? There is nothing difficult of understanding in the psalm. The train of thought is clear and obvious. The experiences which it details are common, the emotions it expresses simple and familiar. The tears that have been dried, the fears that have been dissipated, by this old song; the love and thankfulness which have found in them their best expression, prove the worth of its simple words. It lives in most our memories. The psalm falls into two halves, in both of which the same general thought of God’s guardian care is presented, though under different illustrations, and with some variety of detail. The first half sets Him forth as a Shepherd, and us as the sheep of His pasture; the second gives Him as the Host, and us as the guests at His table and the dwellers in His house.”—A. Maclaren.
THE DIVINE SHEPHERD AND HIS FLOCK
I. The Divine Shepherd supplies every want. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalms 23:1). The shepherd is, literally, one who feeds. It is an image that would be specially suggestive to a nation of shepherds. Most beautifully does it symbolise the character of Jehovah as the provider, protector, guide, and unfailing companion of His people. To appreciate the force of the image, it is necessary to understand the difference between the modern shepherd and the Oriental shepherd of olden times. “Beneath the burning skies and the clear starry night of Palestine,” says Robertson, “there grows up between the shepherd and his flock a union of attachment and tenderness. It is the country where, at any moment, sheep are liable to be swept away by some mountain torrent, or carried off by hill-robbers, or torn by wolves. At any moment their protector may have to save them by personal hazard. Alone in those vast solitudes, with no human being near, the shepherd and the sheep feel a life in common Differences disappear, the vast interval between the man and the brute: the single point of union is felt strongly. One is the love of the protector, the other the love of the grateful life; and so between lives so distant, there is woven by night and day, by summer suns and winter frosts, a living network of sympathy.” Between the Good Shepherd and His people there exist the tenderest relations—on the one side of unfathomable affection, on the other of calm unlimited confidence. “I shall not want”—I want nothing. With Jehovah for my shepherd and guardian, whose hand rests on all the sources of supply, I can lack no temporal or spiritual good. When the holy John Fletcher, of Madeley, was asked by George III. if he would accept preferment in the Church as an acknowledgment for an able and timely paper he had written on American affairs, he returned the respectful but characteristic reply—“Sire, I want nothing, but more grace.”
II. The Divine Shepherd affords tranquillising rest to the weary. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, and leadeth me beside the still-waters,” or, waters of rest (Psalms 23:2). “It is the hot noon-tide, and the desert lies baking in the awful glare, and every stone on the hills of Judea burns the foot that touches it. But in that panting breathless hour, here is a little green glen, with a quiet brooklet, and a moist lush herbage all along its course, and great stones that fling a black shadow over the dewy grass at their base; and there would the shepherd lead his flock, while the ‘sunbeams, like swords,’ are piercing everything beyond that hidden covert. Sweet silence broods there. The sheep feed and drink, and couch in cool lairs till he calls them forth again. So God leads His children.”—Maclaren. With all the haste and worry and toil of life, there is much of quiet, pleasant restfulness. Seasons of repose are necessary to recover and fit the jaded worker for the ever-pressing and imperative duties of active life. The soul must rest peacefully in God’s favour and in placid, hallowed communion with Him, in order to satisfy its keenest hunger and slake its fiercest thirst.
III. The Divine Shepherd prepares the soul for the loftiest service. “He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalms 23:3.) The designed result of rest and refreshment is the accession of new vigour to both mind and body. The weeks spent in purposeless loitering on the shining sands of the summer sea, or in rambling among the huge, silent hills, or on the banks of the brawling trout stream, with its tree-shaded nooks, its rustling sedges and glittering weirs, tend to refresh and invigorate the whole man, and prepare for the stern, tugging warfare of life and for nobler enterprise. So is it in the spiritual life. He restoreth my soul. “When the soul grows sorrowful, He revives it: when it is sinful, He sanctifies it: when it is weak, He strengthens it:” when it wanders, He brings it back. God blesses not simply to impart happiness; but to fit the soul for holier service and more extensive usefulness. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness. “Life is not a fold for the sheep to lie down in, but a road for them to walk on. We get blessings, not to let them pass away like waste steam puffed into empty air, but that we may use them to drive the wheels of life. The waters of happiness are not for a luxurious bath where a man may lie, till, like flax steeped too long, the very fibre be rotted out of him; a quick plunge will brace him, and he will come out refreshed for work. Rest is to fit for work, work is to sweeten rest. There is nothing more evanescent in its nature than a mere emotion, even though it be that of joy in God, unless it be turned into a spring of action for God. Such emotions, like photographs, vanish from the heart unless they be fixed. Work for God is the way to fix them”—Maclaren.
IV. The Divine Shepherd provides protection and consolation in the darkest peril “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4). The soul fears not to enter the “sunless gulfs” of sorrow when assured of the supporting presence and protecting care of the Good Shepherd. The darkness of death is but a shadow after all. The trusting soul enters the gloomy gorge only to emerge into the brighter day of immortality. “Some evils may come; some will probably come,—one at least is sure to come. However bright may be the path, somewhere on it, perhaps just round that turning, ‘sits the shadow feared of man.’ But to the Christian heart there is the conviction that the hand which guides us into the dark valley, will guide us through it and up out of it. Yes, strange as it may sound, the presence of Him who sends the sorrow is the best help to bear it. The assurance that the hand which strikes is the hand which binds up, makes the stroke a blessing,—sucks the poison out of the wound of sorrow, and turns the rod which smites into the staff to lean on.” When Dr. Guthrie, the celebrated and eloquent Divine, felt himself treading the deep, dark valley, he exclaimed. “Death is mining away here, slowly but surely, in the dark. Blessed Jesus! what would I do now but for Thee?”
1. The sheep of Jehovah are saved from poverty.
2. From wandering.
3. From uselessness.
4. From fear.
5. From sorrow.
A ROYAL BANQUET
The image is changed, but we have substantially the same ideas as those given in the earlier portion of the psalm. There are, as before, the food, the guardianship, the peril, the journey. Jehovah is here regarded as a Bountiful Host and His people as guests at His banqueting table. The verses illustrate certain striking features in the Royal Banquet.
I. This banquet is provided in the midst of conflict. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Psalms 23:5). Life not only involves work, but also conflict. Our enemies are numerous, powerful and cruel. The fight is fierce, prolonged and exhausting. Yet, spread by invisible hands is the table in the wilderness, in the presence of our grim-visaged enemies who, while looking on, are restrained by some irresistible spell from harming. Unlike the soldier on the battle-field, who, if he eats at all, snatches a hasty meal and, wearied and but half refreshed, hurries again to the fight, the Christian warrior pauses to rest and feast. There is no hurry, no confusion, no fear, though the eyes of his enemies flash upon him with vindictive glare, the presence of the Divine host is an impenetrable shield about him. So is it ever in the progress of spiritual life. There is always the conflict, always the foe; always the guardian, always the banquet.
II. This banquet is promotive of abundant joy. “Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” (Psalms 23:5). The allusion is to the custom in the East of anointing with oil on festal occasions as a means of refreshment, and as indicating prosperity and rejoicing. The words also point out the lavish outflow of the Divine beneficence, and the limitation of the human capacity which trembles with joy under the overflowing current. My cup runneth over. “He had not only a fulness of abundance, but of redundance. Those that have this happiness must carry their cup upright, aud see that it overflows into their poor brethren’s emptier vessels.”—Trapp. “Drink the cup of gladness as men do when their foe is at their side, looking askance over the rim, and with one hand on the sword, ready, aye ready, against treachery and surprise. But the presence of the danger should make the feast more enjoyable too, by the moderation it enforces and by the contrast it affords—as to sailors on shore or soldiers in a truce. Joy may grow on the very face of danger, as a slender rose-bush flings its bright sprays and fragrant blossoms over the lip of a cataract.”—Maclaren.
III. This banquet will satisfy all the wants of a lifetime. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalms 23:6). Goodness and mercy are the staple viands of the feast, and give a flavour and virtue to all the rest. Man needs goodness to supply all his wants, and mercy to cancel all his sins. The words are expressive of simple and unbounded confidence in God as to every event in our earthly future. “Shall follow me all the days of my life.” Through all its changes, its shade and sunshine, its perils and deliverances, its sorrows and joys, to its close. “His enemies had pursued him even to the presence of his host, henceforth grace and joy will pursue him and load him with blessings.” New tokens of His pity and love shall shine upon us, before us, and behind us, on our right hand and on our left, throughout the whole of our earthly pilgrimage. The most indigent are rich indeed when encompassed with the Divine loving-kindness. “What, all this, and Jesus, too!” said a poor cottager, as she broke a piece of bread and filled a glass with cold water.
IV. This banquet is the type and pledge of the everlasting feast in the heavenly banqueting hall. “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Psalms 23:6). Suggestive of the closest intimacy with God and the ceaseless enjoyment of His favour. I will dwell there, “where, without a veil, irradiation from the Eternal Three shall dart unutterable joys into my glorified spirit, transformed into the image of the God whom I behold; and near His throne, high and lifted up, where bright angelic hosts, His train, fill the vast temple with His glory. His love my all-sufficient portion, and my happy labour, everlasting praise.” In these words, as if reluctant to dismiss the thought, the psalmist returns to the image of the Good Shepherd, who, at length, conducts His flock to a place of safety and undisturbed repose. “The sheep are led by many a way, sometimes through sweet meadows, sometimes limping along sharp-flinted, dusty highways, sometimes high up over rough, rocky mountain-passes, sometimes down through deep gorges, with no sunshine in their gloom; but they are ever being led to one place, and when the hot day is over, they are gathered into one fold, and the sinking sun sees them safe, where no wolf can come, nor any robber climb up any more, but all shall rest for ever under the shepherd’s eye.”—Maclaren. Very quaint but expressive is the paraphrase on these two verses by an old Elizabethan poet. (Francis Davison)—
“Thou my board with messes large
My bowles full of wine Thou pow’rest,
And before myne enemies’
Balme upon my head Thou show’rest.
Neither dures Thy bounteous grace
For a space;
But it knowes nor bound nor measure.
So my daies to my life’s end
I shall spend
In Thy courtes with heavenly pleasure.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 23". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25