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THIS little psalm is an idyll of great beauty, describing the peace and calm delight which dwell with one whose trust is wholly in God. David's authorship, asserted in the title, is highly probable; but we cannot fix the poem to any special period in his lifetime; we can only say that he is beyond the days of boyhood, having already enemies (Psalms 23:5), and that he has known what it is to be in danger of death (Psalms 23:4). But, when he writes, he is experiencing a time of rest and refreshment (Psalms 23:1-3), nay, of prosperity and abundance (Psalms 23:5). His thoughts are happy thoughts—he lacks nothing; he has no fear; God's mercy and goodness are with him; and he feels assured that they will continue with him all the days of his life (Psalms 23:6); he has but one desire for the future, viz. to dwell in the house of God—i.e. in the presence of God, for ever.
The Lord is my Shepherd. This metaphor, so frequent in the later Scriptures (Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 49:9, Isaiah 49:10; Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34:6-19; John 10:11-19, John 10:26-28; Hebrews 13:20; 1Pe 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 7:17), is perhaps implied in Genesis 48:15, but first appears, plainly and openly, in the Davidical psalms (see, besides the present passage, Psalms 74:1; Psalms 77:20; Psalms 78:53; Psa 79:1-13 :14; Psalms 80:1—psalms which, if not David's, belong to the time, and were written under the influence, of David). It is a metaphor specially consecrated to us by our Lord's employment and endorsement of it (John 10:11-16). I shall not want. The Prayer-book Version brings out the full sense, "Therefore can I lack nothing" (comp. Deuteronomy 2:7; Deuteronomy 8:9; and Matthew 6:31-33).
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; literally, in grassy homesteads—" the richer, oasis-like spots, where a homestead would be fixed in a barren tract of land" (Kay). He leadeth me beside the still waters; rather, waters of refreshment; ἐπὶ ὓδατος ἀναπαύσεως (LXX.).
He restoreth my soul; i.e. revives it and reinvigorates it when it is exhausted and weary (see the comment on Isaiah 19:7, where the same verb occurs). He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness. Which are also "paths of pleasantness and peace" (Proverbs 3:17). For his Name's sake. To magnify his Name as a gracious and merciful God.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. A sudden transition and contrast, such as David loved. The quiet paths of righteousness and peace remind the poet of the exact opposite—the dark and dismal way through the valley of the shadow of death. Even when so situated, he does not, he will not, fear. I will fear no evil, he says. And why? For thou art with me. The same Protector, the same gracious and merciful God, will be still with him—leading him, guiding his steps, shepherding him, keeping him from evil. Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff—i.e. thy shepherd's crook, and thy staff of defence—they comfort me. They make me feel that, however long and however dreary the way through the dark vale, I shall still have thy guidance and thy protection.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Another transition. The danger of death is past. David reverts to the thought of the tranquil, happy, joyous time which God has vouchsafed to grant him. He has "adversaries,'' indeed, but they are powerless to effect anything against hint They have to look on with ill-concealed annoyance at his prosperity, to see his table amply spread; his condition such as men generally envy; his wealth typified by abundant oil—thou anointest my head with oil—great, his whole life full to overflowing with blessedness. My cup runneth over, he declares—is not only full to the brim, but runs over the brim—an expressive metaphor, indicative of a state of bliss rarely experienced in this life.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. The past is an earnest of the future, As God's "goodness and mercy" have always followed him hitherto, David has no doubt that they will continue to cling to him while his life continues. And I will dwell. in the house of the Lord for ever. Such passages are, of course, not to be understood literally; they express the longing of the soul for a sense of the continual presence of God, and a realization of constant communion with him.
Human experience and Divine inspiration.
"The Lord is my Shepherd." The few verses which compose this psalm would leave but a small blank on the page, if blotted out; but suppose all translations which have been made of them into all languages, all references to them in literature, all remembrance of them in human hearts, could be effaced, who can measure the blank, the void, the loss? To have written this short psalm is one of the highest honours ever put upon man. What libraries have these few lines survived? Yet they arc as fresh as if written yesterday. They make themselves at home in every language. They touch, inspire, comfort us. not as an echo from three thousand years ago, but as the voice of a living friend. The child, repeats them at his mother's knee; the scholar expends on them his choicest learning; the plain Christian loves them for their simplicity as much as for their beauty; the Church lifts them to heaven in the many-voiced chorus; they fall like music on the sick man's ear and heart; the dying Christian says, "That is my psalm" and cheers himself with its words of faith and courage as he enters the dark valley. Mere poetic beauty could not confer or explain this marvellous power. The secret of it is twofold. These words are the language
(1) of human experience, and
(2) of Divine inspiration.
I. HUMAN EXPERIENCE. This is the utterance of weakness and of trust. In the Bible, as in the Person of our Saviour, the human and the Divine are found, not apart, but in closest union. God spake not merely by the lips or pens of the prophets, but by the men themselves (2 Peter 1:21). Were an angel to say, "The Lord is my Shepherd," this would bring no assurance to a frail, sinful human heart. A voice from heaven might declare, "The Lord is a Shepherd," or as promise, "The Lord is your Shepherd;" but only the voice of a brother man, weak and needy as ourselves, can speak this word, the key-note of the whole psalm, "my Shepherd." God could have given us a Bible written, like the tables of the Law, "with the finger of God;" but he has spoken through the minds and hearts and personal experience of men of like passions with ourselves, making their faith, penitence, sorrow, joy, prayer, thanksgiving, the mirror and pattern of our own. This is the voice of personal experience. David is better known to us than any Bible hero except St. Paul. This psalm leads back our thoughts to his youth; but it is no youthful composition—it bears the stamp of deep experience. The young shepherd might have sung of the famous past, or of the glorious future; but the veteran king, looking back to his youth, sees in it a meaning he could not have seen then, and a light shining all along his path.
II. INSPIRED WORDS. Sweet and deep as are these echoes from the depth of the past, they would never have reached us had they been no more than the words of a man, though a hero, a poet, a king; they arc the voice of God's Spirit in him. Hence, with that continuity which is one principal note of the inspiration of Scripture, we find this image taken up again and again, especially in five passages of signal importance—two in the Old Testament, three in the New.
1. In Ezekiel 34:1-31. God is seen as the Shepherd of his people—the nation and Church of Israel. Hence the similitude passes on to the New Testament. Christ is the chief Shepherd, who employs under-shepherds to feed his flock (John 21:15-17; 1 Peter 5:2-4).
2. In Isaiah 40:11 (as in the psalm) Christ's tender care of individuals, even the youngest, is represented.
3 and 4. In Luke 15:3-7 and John 10:1-16 our Saviour appropriates this similitude to himself, as seeking and saving the lost, ruling and feeding each one who follows him, laying down his life for the flock, gathering "other sheep" into "one flock."
5. In Revelation 7:16, Revelation 7:17 we see the Divine Shepherd gathering his whole flock in the safety, rest, and joy of heaven.
CONCLUSION. Can you say, "The Lord is my Shepherd"? If not, the gospel has not yet fulfilled its mission in your heart and life. Observe, the warrant is not in yourself, but in your Saviour; not, "I am one of Christ's flock," but, "He is my Shepherd." If you can say this, then you may fearlessly cast all your care on him, and finish the verse, "I shall not want." (1 Peter 5:7, Matthew 6:25, Matthew 6:26).
The Shepherd of Israel.
To a countryman of David, an ancient Israelite, the shepherd with his flock was no poetical figure, but a most familiar object. From Carmel to Gilead, from Hermon to the pastures of the wilderness of Paran, the green hills of Canaan were covered with flocks. On these same hills and plains the forefathers of the nation—Abraham, Isaac, Israel—had pitched their camps and fed their flocks, when as yet they could not call a rood of land their own. With us the shepherd's trade is a very humble calling. The shepherd, though he may tend the sheep as faithfully as if they were his own, is a hired servant, "whose own the sheep are not." We must dismiss all such associations if we would understand either the poetry or the parables of Scripture. Abraham and his descendants were not the only wealthy chiefs who fed their own flocks and herds. In Homer's poetry, princes and princesses are seen tending their flocks, and kings and rulers are called, as in Scripture, "shepherds of the people." Rightly understood, it is an image of as great dignity as tenderness by which the Lord is spoken of as "the Shepherd of Israel; ' and each believer is encouraged to say, with David, "The Lord is my Shepherd."
I. DIVINE OWNERSHIP. (Psalms 100:3, Revised Version.) This is a sublime contemplation, full of comfort, but also of awe. "I belong to God." God is the only absolute Owner. "The earth; etc. (Psalms 24:1; Psalms 95:5; Psalms 115:16). We talk largely about our possessions—"My money, business, home; my time, labour, life." All well enough—for he "giveth us all," etc. (1 Timothy 6:17)—if only we never forget that all is his, that we belong to him. "Despotism "—q.d. absolute, unlimited, lordship—is a word of terror and degradation among men, because of the cruel, selfish, tyrannical use men have made of it. Doubtful if there lives a man who could safely be trusted with it. But in Divine lordship is no shadow of terror, except for the wilfully, wickedly disobedient, no taint of degradation, no suggestion of tyranny or arbitrary caprice. It would be absurd to suppose there can be a right to do wrong with God any more than with man. God's wisdom, love, righteousness, are a law to himself. That he is Lord of all is our safety, glory, joy. God must cease to be himself before he can inflict the lightest wrong on the weakest or unworthiest of his creatures.
II. DIVINE GOODNESS, COMPASSION, TENDER AND WATCHFUL CARE. Religion, worthy of the name, cannot subsist on the bare relation of Creator and creature, any more than flowers and fruit on granite; it must be "rooted and grounded in love." The assurance that God cannot possibly inflict wrong might free us from the slavery of fear, which otherwise the thought of his absolute ownership might bring with it, but would not suffice to fill our life with Brightness and joy, our heart with trust and courage. To feel in any measure the force and beauty of the similitude, and get into sympathy, with the soul of the psalmist, we must get rid of all that is mean, hard, mercenary in our modern English notions, and dress our thoughts in the bright colours of Eastern life; we must see the shepherd opening the well-guarded fold and walking at the head of his own flock, calling now one, now another, by its name, while the sheep willingly follow, for they know and love their shepherd's voice; see him in dewy morning choosing their pasture, at hot noon leading them to some tranquil pool or hidden well, ever on the watch; ready, like David, to do battle with lion, bear, or wolf, in their defence; rather laying down his life than leaving them to perish (John 10:11). "The Lord is my Shepherd," etc. (Psalms 23:1, Psalms 23:2). In Psalms 23:3, Psalms 23:4 the spiritual meaning shines through the figure, as in Psalms 23:5, Psalms 23:6 it is laid aside altogether; yet still the psalmist speaks of the "rod and staff." "Rod," the shepherd's crook, the received emblem of authority, guidance, and discipline. "Staff," that on which one leans, emblem of Divine strength and support. (Only one word would be used of a real shepherd; the two are employed for the full spiritual meaning.) All is not ease and brightness in the lives which God has in his wisest, tenderest care. Divine shepherding means more than green pastures and still waters; it sometimes means "the valley of the shadow of death." "Paths of righteousness' may be taken to include both the way of duty and the leading of God's providence. In both, the right path must be, in the highest sense, the safe path, but it may be the path of deadly peril and anguish (Psalms 34:19). Oar blessed Lord's own path led through Gethsemane to Calvary. "The valley of the shadow of death" must not be limited to mean only the actual approach and experience of death; it may stand for any crisis of danger, suffering, or weakness, bodily or spiritual Travellers tell of a desolate gorge near Ispahan, "the valley of the angel of death." Through such a ravine, trackless, waterless, gloomy with overhanging precipices, where in every cleft wild beasts or robbers may lurk, the psalmist imagines himself led. But the Divine Shepherd is with him: this forbids fear. In Bunyan's glorious dream the valley is placed midway in Christian's pilgrimage—the image of fierce spiritual conflict (Psalms 18:5). The hardest trial that can befall the believer is, when tempted to doubt God's goodness, to deem himself forsaken. The answer to all doubt is, "Thou art with me" (Isaiah 50:10). The same trials are not appointed for all God's children. Faithful, whom martyrdom awaited in Vanity Fair, had sunshine all through the valley. But there is a point to which all paths converge. If we must not limit the figure, still less must we exclude that one application common to all, that experience in which we must he absolutely alone, unless we can say, "Thou art with me." Death. Here, again, experience wonderfully varies. To some the approach of death is a valley of sunshine, not shadow, or only such as falls from a summer cloud; to some, a momentary passage—through before they know it; to some, dark and rough with long suffering; to a few (even real Christians), gloomy with spiritual conflict. Here, then, above all, we need (both for ourselves and others) that highest application of this comforting image taught by our Lord himself (John 10:1-18, John 10:26-29).
III. THE SAVIOUR'S CONSTANT PRESENCE AND REDEEMING GRACE. (comp. Psalms 23:1, Psalms 23:2 with John 10:9; John 7:37.) It is his to restore the soul, to reclaim the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), raise the fallen, refresh the weak, to lead in the path of duty (John 8:12). But especially in times of urgent need is his presence to Be claimed and felt. With Paul and his companions it was a veritable valley of the shadow of death, when "all hope … was taken away" (see Acts 27:20, Acts 27:23; again 2 Timothy 4:16, 2 Timothy 4:17). Above all, in the hour and moment of death he has passed through it; he has "the keys;" he alone can be with us. Gentle and tranquil often is the actual approach of death; weakness and unconsciousness prevent fear; but take away the gospel, take away Christ, and who in health and strength can calmly face death, and say, "I will fear no evil"? You may be an unbeliever. Suppose the gospel not true, it does not follow there is nothing beyond death. But the believer has a right to say this—knows what is beyond (John 14:2-4; Revelation 7:15-17).
Goodness and mercy.
"Surely goodness," etc. These two words, "goodness and mercy, are to be taken together rather than over-curiously distinguished. Yet they are not mere synonyms. Goodness is the stream, mercy the fountain; goodness the open hand of God's bounty, mercy his loving heart. "Mercy" is not to be taken in the restricted sense in which we often use it, as contrasted with justice—goodness to the unworthy, pardon to the guilty. It is (in the Hebrew) the same word often beautifully Englished as "loving-kindness*' (e.g. Psalms 107:43). "Goodness" reminds us that our nature is a bundle of wants; "mercy," that our deepest, highest need can be satisfied, not by all God's gifts, but only by himself. Faith here employs the great law of experience, and. from the past infers the future. Consider
(1) the wealth of hope,
(2) the blessedness of certainty, expressed in these words.
I. THE WEALTH OF HOPE.
1. "All the days of my life"—days to come, as in (lays past. The course of thought in this psalm reminds us of a path which, after crossing peaceful plains and narrow gorges, climbs the mountain, and from its top beholds the wide, glorious prospect bathed in sunshine. This is the privilege of faith; only faith can see goodness and mercy in all God's past dealings, and foresee them in all to come; for that varied fitness which is one great feature of God's loving-kindness, implies a great mixture of rough with smooth, dark and bright. The "restoring of the soul" implies wandering, and means chastening as well as forgiveness. The "rod and staff" are needed in the dark valley; the table is spread in the desert and amongst foes. A child can see that a cricket-ball is a globe; but it needed much philosophy to convince men that this great world, which to ordinary vision is fiat, is a globe too. So any eye can see goodness and mercy in health, wealth, prosperity, joy; but in sickness, poverty, bereavement, private or public calamity, we are ready to ask Gideon's question (Judges 6:13). It needs strong faith to be sure that "all the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth" (Psalms 25:10). To have David's bold hope, we need David's experience, submission, unreserved trust.
2. "And I will dwell … for ever." This cannot mean the earthly tabernacle. David could not dwell there; even a priest or Levite could not dwell there "for ever." He means the heavenly temple (Psalms 11:4). How bright or dim his faith was we know not. But for us the way into the holiest is made plain (Hebrews 9:8, Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:19, Hebrews 10:20).
II. Here is A GLORIOUS EMPHASIS OF CERTAINTY. "Surely;" "all the days;" "I will dwell," or "I shall dwell;" not simply "I choose and desire," but "I expect assuredly to dwell in my Father's house for ever." Beyond the rough, weary, winding path lies rest; beyond the conflict, peace. The mysteries and seeming contradictions of God's dealings, compared with his promises, cannot last long. Faith sees them vanish in the light of eternity. Whence this calm, exulting security? How can one whose life is "a vapour" (James 4:14), standing on a point which crumbles beneath his feet, ignorant what the next hour may bring, thus boldly challenge the hidden future of earthly life, the boundless future beyond? The answer comes from the Divine Shepherd, the faithful Witness—"Because I live, ye shall live also" (John 14:1-3, John 14:19; John 12:26; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Romans 8:35-39).
HOMILIES BY C. CLEMANCE
The good Shepherd and his flock.
This is one of the sweetest of all the psalms. That it was written by him who was raised from having care of a flock to be the king on Israel's throne, there is no reason for doubting, spite of all that destructive critics may say. No amount of Hebrew scholarship can possibly let any one into the deep meaning of this psalm. No attainments in English literature will ever initiate any student into the mysteries of a mother's love, and no attainments in Oriental learning will help any one to learn the secret of the Lord which is here disclosed. There is nothing to equal it in the sacred books of the East; for none but the Hebrews have ever had such a disclosure of God as that in which the writer of this psalm rejoices. Every clause in this psalm is suggestive enough to be the basis of a separate discourse; but in accordance with our plan in this section of the 'Pulpit Commentary,' we deal with it as a unity, indicating the wealth of material for perpetual use therein contained. We have presented to us—Four aspects of the Shepherd-care of God.
I. GOD'S SHEPHERD-CARE DISCLOSED IN REVELATION. For the Scripture doctrine of God's relation to his people as their Shepherd, the student may with advantage study and compare the following: Psalms 74:1; Psalms 77:20; Psalms 79:13; Psalms 80:1; Psalms 95:7; Psalms 100:3; Psalms 119:176; Isaiah 40:11; Isaiah 53:6; Jeremiah 31:10; Jeremiah 23:1-3; Ezekiel 34:1-31.; Micah 7:14; Zechariah 11:16; Zechariah 13:7; Matthew 10:6; Matthew 15:24; Matthew 18:12; Luke 15:4-6; John 10:1-16, John 10:26-29; John 21:16; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4. These passages summarize Bible teaching on this theme for us. We may set it forth under the following heads:
1. God is related to men as their Shepherd. A purely absolute Being out of relation does not exist. To whatever God has made he stands in the relation of Maker. And when he has made man in his own image, after his likeness, he stands to such a one in a relation corresponding thereto; and of the many names he bears to express that relation, few more tenderly illustrate his watchful care than this word "shepherd."
2. This relation is manifested in Jesus Christ. (John 10:1-16.) He claims to be emphatically "the good Shepherd." The apostle speaks of him as "the Shepherd and Bishop of … souls."
3. As the Shepherd, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. His mission on earth was emphatically for this. He regards men as his wealth, in which he rejoices; and if they ace not under his loving care he misses them—he is conscious of something lacking (Luke 15:4-6).
4. He has risen and ascendent up on high as the great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20).
5. He now appoints under-shepherds to care for the flock. (Acts 20:28.)
6. As the chief Shepherd, he will again appear. Then he will gather in and gather home all the flock (1 Peter 5:4).
7. Only as he gathers men to himself as their Shepherd, do they find safety and rest. (1 Peter 2:25.) Till then they are homeless wanderers, perpetually in danger of stumbling "over the dark mountains."
8. When men return to him they find all they need in his Shepherd-care. (Psalms 23:1-6.)
9. This Shepherd-care is for each as well as for all. Each one may say, "He loved me, and gave himself up for me;" "The Lord is my Shepherd." Let us not forget to note the Shepherd's individualizing care.
II. GOD'S SHEPHERD-CARE EXERCISED IN ACT. The points of detail are set forth in this psalm with exquisite tenderness and beauty, £
1. Repose. "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." In such a restless age as this, there is no thought which a believer has greater need to appropriate than this. As physically we must find time for sleep, however severe the pressure of work, so spiritually we must find time for repose. And God's gracious arrangements are planned with a view to this. "He maketh me," etc. The good Shepherd says, "I will give you rest." When he gets back the wandering sheep he lays it on his own shoulders (Greek, see Luke 15:5). The Master never expects his servants to be always on the stretch. He tells them to "rest awhile;" and if they are heedless of this kind monition, he will himself call them out of the rush into the hush of life. It would be well if some Christians thought more of rest in Christ; their work would be richer in quality even if less in quantity.
2. Refreshment. "Still waters;" literally, "waters of rest," or refreshment. The believer has no craving thirst: he can ever drink of the living stream, and therewith be refreshed (see John 4:10; Revelation 7:17). Dropping the figure, the truth here conveyed is that there shall be a constant supply of the grace of Christ, and of the Spirit of Christ (cf. John 7:37-39).
3. Restoration. (1 Peter 5:3.) This may either mean renewing the strength when worn down, or bringing back after wandering. We need not omit either thought, though the latter seems principally intended.
4. Leadership. (1 Peter 5:3.) "Paths of righteousness," i.e. straight paths. This follows on the restoration. Having recalled him from "by-paths," the good Shepherd will lead him in the right way. The sheep can wander wide easily enough, but if they are to be kept in the right way that can be only through the Shepherd s care. God guides by
(1) his Word;
(2) his providence;
(3) his Spirit.
Sometimes, indeed, the way may be dark, even as death itself; still it is the right way (Psalms 107:7; Ezra 8:21-23).
5. A living presence. "Thou art with me' (1 Peter 5:4). This means, "Thou art continually with me," not merely with me in the darkness, but with me always. The sunshine of the living presence of a Guide, Help, Friend, Saviour, is always on the believer's path; and if the mingling of unbelief with faith did not dim the eyesight, he would always rejoice in it.
6. Discipline. (1 Peter 5:4.) The rod and staff are special emblems of the Shepherd's care in tending and ruling the flock. The Shepherd chides us when we rove, and uses sometimes sharp measures ere he recalls us. And this comforts us! Even so. The disciplinary dealings of our God are among our greatest mercies.
7. Ample provision. (1 Peter 5:5.) The riches of God's love and life are the provisions on which we feed, and on which souls can grow and thrive; and these supplies are ministered to the soul through the invisible channels of God's grace, even while enemies prowl around. Yea, we are entertained as guests st the Father's board. The anointing oil is the token of the right royal welcome which the Host delights to give! So rich, so abundant, are the mercies and joys which are vouchsafed, that our "cup runneth over"!
III. THIS SHEPHERD-CARE OF GOD IS ACCEPTED, AND IN IT THE NEEDY ONE GLORIES. We can but hint.
1. Here is appropriation. "My Shepherd" (see John 10:11, John 10:27, John 10:28).
2. Here is satisfaction. "I shall not want."
3. Here is loyalty. The psalmist not only consents to but delights in this Divine care, and has no wish but to follow where the Shepherd leads.
4. Here is joy. This thought is (perhaps Intently, but really) in the expression, "Thou art with me." The presence of God is life's exceeding joy.
5. Here is fearlessness. "I will fear no evil." Not even the darkest shade can make him fear, for God is with him there.
6. Here is recognition of the infinite grace of the Shepherd. (1 Peter 5:3.) "For his Name's sake." Not for our sakes, but for his own; having undertaken to be the Shepherd, he will for his own glory's sake do all that a shepherd's care demands.
IV. THE SHEPHERD-CARE OF GOD IS CELEBRATED IN SONG. The song has a threefold significance.
1. It is a song of gratitude. "Goodness and mercy" mark every feature of the Divine treatment, and they will, to life's end.
2. It is a song of hope. The psalmist looks forward, without a moment's fear of the Shepherd ever leaving him (1 Peter 5:6).
3. It is a song and vow of consecration. "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." To what extent David thought of a future state when he wrote these words, we cannot say. Yet his meaning is to some extent clear. The house of God was the place where God made his home and manifested himself to his people (see Psalms 132:13-16). And the writer says, "Where God makes his home, there shall be mine. He and I will never part company" (see Psalms 61:4; Psalms 48:14; Psalms 73:24-26). It was not the house of God, but the God of the house, that was to be David's home—and the home of all the saints—for ever and for ever!
There is a picture by Sir Noel Paten, which is a marvellous illustration of this psalm. It is entitled, 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death.' It is worthy of prolonged study. In the foreground is a dismal and dark valley, through which a blasting wind has swept, laying low alike the warrior and the king; the helmet of the one and the crown of the other lie useless on the ground. In the centre of the picture is the Lord Jesus, with a halo of glory over his head, a crown of thorns around his brow, and in one hand a shepherd's staff. On the left is a young maiden, whose face bears traces of the terror she has felt in coming through the valley, and yet of radiant hope as she now sees the good Shepherd there. She grasps his hand; he holds hers; his feet stand on a gravestone, beneath which lie the remains of the fallen; but where the Shepherd sets his feet, the tombstone is luminous with the words, "Death is swallowed up in victory!" The very sight of that glorious picture weaned one from the vanities of the world, and drew her to Jesus; and in the case of "an old disciple" it completely abolished the fear of death! May we all, by faith, catch a glimpse of our Shepherd, and every fear will vanish quite away!—C.
HOMILIES BY W. FORSYTH
The good Shepherd.
Dr. Arnold said that "amongst Christians, all looking upon the Scriptures as their rule of faith and life, there are particular passages which will most suit the wants of particular minds, and appear to them therefore full of an extraordinary measure of comfort and of wisdom." This is true. Most people have their favourite passages of Scripture. But it may be said of this psalm that it holds a peculiar position. It has for more than three thousand years been one of the most precious possessions of the Church. Jews and Christians alike hold it dear, and there are few, if they were asked, but would thankfully confess that of all the psalms, it was to them the sweetest and most precious. It is among the psalms what Daniel was, compared with other men, "greatly beloved." Why is this? Much, no doubt, depends upon association; but apart from this there are reasons, in the psalm itself, to account for the high place which it holds in all hearts. Three may be mentioned.
I. BECAUSE IT BRINGS GOD BEFORE US IN SO ENDEARING A CHARACTER. He is here represented as a Shepherd and a Host. The better we understand what this meaneth, the more will our hearts go forth to him in love and trust. He is all, and in all. Yea, each of us may say, "He is mine."
II. BECAUSE IT GIVES US SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PICTURE OF THE BLESSEDNESS OF GOD'S PEOPLE. They are the sheep of his pasture, and the guests of his table. Here in this world they are ever under his good and gentle keeping, and when they depart hence, it shall be to dwell in his house for ever. "The psalmist describes himself as one of Jehovah's flock, safe under his care, absolved from all anxieties by the sense of his protection, and gaining from this confidence of safety the leisure to enjoy, without satiety, all the simple pleasures which make up life—the freshness of the meadow, the coolness of the stream. It is the most complete picture of happiness that ever was or can be drawn. It represents that state of mind for which all alike sigh, and the want of which makes life a failure to most; it represents that heaven, which is everywhere, if we could but enter it, and yet almost nowhere, because so few of us can" ('Ecce Homo').
III. BECAUSE IT IS ASSOCIATED SO CLOSELY WITH OUR RELIGIOUS LIFE. Though much of Scripture may be neglected, and almost unknown, this psalm is known and loved by all. We learnt it at our mother's knee, and we have cherished it fondly ever since. To young and old, to the rich and poor, to the people of various lands and tongues, it is equally dear. At home and in the sanctuary it is in constant use. In the time of our joy it has been the vehicle of our gladness, and in days of darkness it has brought us comfort. When weary it gives us rest; when lonely it gives us company; when oppressed with sin and care it leads us to him who can restore our souls, and guide us safely through all difficulties and dangers, onward to the bright future. In itself it is exceedingly precious, but in the light of the gospel, and as interpreted by our dear Lord and Saviour, its value is infinitely enhanced. Jesus "the Good Shepherd" is here, and his sheep hear his voice, and follow him—to glory, honour, and immortality.—W.F.
The power of reflection.
The psalmist looks back over his life, and sings with grateful heart of God's love and care. We may use the psalm as bringing before us some of the changes and contrasts of life.
I. YOUTH AND AGE. This psalm breathes the air of youth. It is the echo of the shepherd-life among the hills of Judah. But the psalmist was now old. Still, he cleaves to God. Happy are they who have sought God early, and whose days from youth to age are linked together by natural piety!
II. HELPLESSNESS AND SECURITY. What creatures are, when left to themselves, more weak and silly than sheep? But under the shepherd's care they are safe. So it is of the soul. Christ is the good Shepherd, and cares for his sheep. From first to last, and through all changes and dangers, they are safe under his loving guardianship.
III. SORROW AND JOY. How sweet the picture of the flock feeding in "the green pastures," and by the "still waters"! But there is another scene brought before us—the dark and terrible "valley of the shadow of death." So there are alternations in the Christian life. If there are lights, there are also shadows. If there are times of sweet rest and comfort, there are also times of struggling and of fear. Mark the order—God does not at once call us to face the dark valley. It comes not at the beginning, but near the end of the Christian's course. Christ's disciples who have been with him in "the green pastures," and whose souls have been "restored," when they have fallen into sin, by his gracious discipline, are the better fitted for meeting with trial, and for treading with fearless step even the dark valley itself.
IV. WANT AND SATISFACTION. Always there is want on our part, and always there is supply with God. He who has God, the Possessor of all things, has everything. God is not only our Shepherd, but our Host, and the supplies of his table never fail.
V. TRANSITORINESS AND IMMORTALITY. All things here are fading. Sheep and shepherds pass away. Joys and sorrows come to an end. Our life is hut as a vapour. But we look to the things that are unseen and eternal. God's two angels, "goodness and mercy," not only abide with us here, but will bring us to the everlasting habitation. We shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.—W.F.
A table prepared.
First we may apply this saying to our daily bread. Every "table" needs preparation. There is the material food, which may have come from far; and there are the kind hands that have made it ready. But besides this, there is love of God. We recognize that God has to do with our "daily bread." It is a matter between him and us. "Thou" and "me." How greatly is every blessing enhanced, when it is taken as from the hand of God! Then circumstances may give a special significance to our commonest mercies; difficulties are overcome, and wants are supplied, in a way that surprises us, and that leads us to confess with grateful hearts the loving-kindness of the Lord. Again, we may apply this to our social pleasures. We are not made to live alone. We crave fellowship. How graciously does God provide for our needs! We have not only the joys of home, but the pleasures of society. There are some who forget God amidst the stir an& the seductions of life. They conduct their business and enjoy their pleasures "without God" (Isaiah 5:8-12). But it is not so with the righteous. They desire to set the Lord always before them, and especially to acknowledge his goodness and mercy in the manifold social blessings which they enjoy. But chiefly should we apply the text to our religious privileges. The Word of God is as a "table" prepared for us. Think how much had to be done and suffered before we could have the Bible as a book free to every one of us! Think also how much there is in this blessed book to refresh and bless our souls!—a "feast of fat things." Public worship is another "table" spread for us. When the Lord's day comes round, what multitudes come together, and there is bread enough and to spare for them all! More particularly it may be said that the Lord's Supper is a "table" prepared by God for his people. Here we see his wise forethought. He saw what was needful, and designed this feast for the good of his people. Here we see his loving care. His hand is seen in everything from first to last. The table is the Lord's table. The "bread" is his "body;" the wine is "his blood;" the voice that says, "Come, eat," is his voice. There is not only preparation of the table, but of the guests. When we think of what we were and what we are; of what we deserved and of what we have received,—it is with wonder, love, and praise that we say, "Thou preparest a table before me." We have "enemies," but they have not prevailed. We can think of them with pity, and forgive them; we can even pray for them, that they may be converted into friends, and, should they continue alienated and hostile, we can face them without fear, because "greater is he that is with us, than all they that are against us." The future is for us bright with hope. The dark valley is behind, and the power of God before. The table below is the earnest of the table above.—W.F.
All the days of my life.
Life is made up of "days." Confidence in God gives—
I. STRENGTH FOR LIFE'S WORK. "I shall not want." God is able to meet all our needs. "As thy days, so shall thy strength be" (Deuteronomy 33:25; Philippians 4:13).
II. SUPPORT UNDER LIFE'S TRIALS. There will be changes. The "green pastures" may give place to the dark valley. There may be loss of health, of property, of friends; there may be unknown trials. "Thou art with me."
III. FULFILMENT OF LIFE'S GREAT HOPES. It is a great thing to be one of Christ's flock, ever under the Shepherd's tender care. But more is promised. There will be the going in and out, and finding pasture—all through; but the end is not here, but above. The best is to come. The perfection of manhood; the "rest that remaineth;" the "fulness of joy;" the glorious fellowships that know no break, and that bring no pain, are in our Father's house.
"For ever with the Lord!
Amen, so let it be;
Life from the dead is in that word,
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
God's providential care.
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want" etc. God's care and providence over man are denoted by the following things.
I. HE GIVES REST TO THE WEARY. "Maketh me to lie down in green pastures." Man is a combatant; he has a fight to maintain, a work to do; and he shall have seasons to rest from his exhaustion. He is a pilgrim-traveller. He has rest from bodily toil. So also rest from spiritual work. But the rest is spiritual in its kind. Not mental inactivity. But a clearer perception of those grand truths which afford the truest relief from the distraction of the conflict. Composure amidst distractions. The blessed end we aim at, and the certain issue of it.
II. HE RENEWS THE EXHAUSTED STRENGTH OF MAN. (Psalms 23:2, Psalms 23:3.) Religious strength consists in the power to do and the power to suffer—or courage and fortitude. This power to do—to conquer sin in ourselves and in the world—is strengthened by unshaken faith in God's truth, and by the power of self-denial. These are God's gifts, not by any direct act of his, but as the consequence of striving to do his will.
III. GOD WILL AFFORD PROTECTION IN THE DARKEST AND MOST DIFFICULT TIMES. (Psalms 23:4.) Death is not always dark or difficult to good men. But the general tendency is to view death as dark and evil, and to fear it on those accounts. Darkness creates a feeling of uncertainty and a desire for guidance. God has removed the uncertainty and affords us guidance. The evil of death is the sense of guilt. Christ gives us the victory over that evil by proclaiming the forgiveness of the Father, and the removal of our sin. All who submit to God's guidance may claim him for their Shepherd. Jesus Christ fulfils the character of man's true Shepherd.—S.
Psalms 23:5, Psalms 23:6
Fulness of joy.
The psalmist has hitherto spoken of the care of the good Shepherd in removing the miseries, pains, and sufferings which this life brings—of the rest, refreshing, and protection he had received. Now he rises higher into the rich fulness of joy he receives, and the good things of God's house. Four principal ideas here.
I. THAT THERE IS AN ABUNDANT PROVISION FOR EVERY WANT. (Psalms 23:5.) For all outward and inward want. A feast or banquet is spread for us by a royal Host. There is a feast provided for the senses and appetites in outward nature—if we do not turn it into a riot and a debauch. The enjoyment of it arises from and depends on labouring for it and the moderate use of it. There is also the greater feast provided for the mind and heart, in finding the truth and responding to the love which God has set forth, as the means of building up the true life. Christ is the Bread and Wine of life. David's honour as God's guest was the greater, that it was witnessed by those who had been his enemies.
II. HIS HEART WAS FULL OF SOLEMN THANKFULNESS AND JOY. (Psalms 23:5, "Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.") He had a most vivid perception that the feast, the anointing, the fulness, all came from the Divine hand This sense of God in our lives makes a whole world of difference to our experience. No gratitude possible Without it. No sense of the glory of life without it.
III. OUR ASSURANCE OF THE CONSTANCY OF THE DIVINE LOVE AND GOODNESS. (Psalms 23:6.) What God had been to him in the past, he would continue to be in the future. He had suffered, had been weary, been persecuted, had had battles to fight, had been bewildered in his path; but God had been his Guide and Deliverer, and would continue to be all through the remainder of his life.
IV. HE WOULD BE BLESSED WITH THE FELLOWSHIP AND FRIENDSHIP OF GOD FOR EVER. (Psalms 23:6.) This is the meaning of "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever," so as to be near him and have constant intercourse with him. It includes all kinds of intercourse with God—worship, communion, sonship, obedience, guidance, so as to fill the whole life of thought and feeling and action. "For ever" looking onwards, perhaps, dimly, to the life beyond, which was not so clear to him as it is to us.—S.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Psalms 23". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18