A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23

Shepherds have uniquely valuable insights into this most beloved of Bible passages.

It was almost Christmas as my young family and I left for church from our town house in Bad Kissingen, Germany, a few miles north of Schweinfurt. A middle-aged German couple lived next door, and one day I asked the wife if they attend church, and what were their holiday plans. She replied that she and her family had attended services occasionally long ago, and were planning a quiet Christmas. Hoping to encourage her to go back to church, at least for Christmas, I mentioned that the Bible has some wonderful passages and asked her if she had ever heard of the 23rd Psalm. “Der Herr ist mein hirte!” she shot back, “Of course! Germans learn that as children. Do you think we know nothing?” I apologized for my inadvertent insult, but couldn’t help thinking about Psalm 23 as cultural classic versus Psalm 23 as living truth. My neighbor memorized Psalm 23, but showed no sign of living it. Followers of Christ must know it, and live it.

God uses the research, experiences, and insights of other Christians to help us see into the Scriptures. Much of the Bible is written in the language of farmers and herders. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful, symbolic description of our Father’s care for His people through a shepherd’s eyes. As a professional shepherd and the author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller shares some valuable insights, which I have included here.

I work as a medical doctor, not a veterinarian, which would be handy at times like this, but nonetheless I have added a few thoughts of my own.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want

Just as a shepherd does not leave his sheep to fend for themselves, so Christ does not leave us to fend for ourselves. He takes care of us. Darwinian philosophers might argue that the fall of rain, the growth of crops, and other natural processes that produce food have nothing to do with God. Sociologists might object that individual and corporate human effort produces social systems that distribute natural resources to members of society, again excluding God, if there is one. Christians do not deny natural processes or human effort, but understand that an all-powerful, all-loving and utterly sovereign God created and controls these processes. In an inexplicable sense, and while allowing for human responsibility, He controls people too.

As a result, followers of Christ can and should have complete confidence that He will care for us. His children can indeed say, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

He maketh me to lie down

Sheep cannot lie down unless four requirements are met: They must be free from fear, free from tension with other sheep, free from aggravations (like pests) and free from hunger. The shepherd provides these freedoms by his care of the sheep. There is nothing like Christ’s presence to dispel the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown. 9/11 brought home to all of us the uncertain life in which we live. “He maketh me to lie down” When we rest in Christ’s presence, we can physically and emotionally rest.

Why are we perpetually in such turmoil? Why do we let worries gray our hair and wrinkle our brow? In brazen disobedience to John 14:1, why do we let our hearts be troubled? Is it because we don’t actually want God to take care of us, lest we relinquish control? Is it because we have not taken the time to remember God’s faithfulness in our lives and in our churches, and so we don’t believe Him?

In green pastures

The land where David wrote the 23rd Psalm is parched. In order for sheep to survive, pastures must be prepared. Animal handlers work long, hard hours to clear land, plow, seed or plant and irrigate. The result is lush, green pastures.

God lead His people from Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey (agricultural terms which denote a land of plenty). He wants abundant lives of joy for His people. Our Father attempts to break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried clay. Truly, our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, has prepared lush, green pastures where we can find peace and plenty.

Philip Keller writes that his neighboring rancher was cruel and did not provide for his sheep. The starving animals watched the animals under Philip Keller’s care receive plenty to eat and tried to get through to their property. One day Mr. Keller found several of the sheep collapsed on his property, they had managed to get through. He loaded them in a wheelbarrow and took them back to his neighbor. The neighbor slit their throats on the spot. What a picture of what Satan is anxious to do!

He leadeth me beside the still waters

Sheep need water that is still, deep, and pure. Their sources are dew on the grass, streams and springs, or deep wells, but it is up to the shepherd to find them and to bring his sheep safely there. Philip Keller once watched a flock being led down into enormous hand-hewn caverns. They were like great rooms with ramps running down to the water troughs. Pure water awaited the flock but deep down in the cistern was the shepherd, bailing the water so the sheep could drink. A good shepherd works hard for his sheep, but our Good Shepherd went much farther. He provides natural water for our physical bodies, but also sacrificed his life to bring us the Living Water for which our souls thirst.

He restoreth my soul

What does this have to do with a sheep? These animals can sometimes become ‘cast’ or ‘cast down’. This is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again. Sheep become “cast down” when they are too fat, when they have too much wool or when they get too comfortable in a resting spot and simply roll over. If the shepherd does not find the sheep which is cast down, and pick it up within a short period of time, it will die.

Christians can become “cast down.” Too much wealth and too many possessions make us spiritually fat and loaded down. Too much ease makes us too comfortable in our lives. The Lord restores us, if we will let him, when things creep into our lives that shouldn’t be there, such as when we become slaves to possessions. As a shepherd talks to his sheep with tenderness and love, and sets them aright, so our Savior does for us.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake

The greatest single safeguard for the shepherd in handling his sheep is to keep them on the move. If left to their own devices, they would graze the same land repeatedly and ravage it. So it is with us.

My wife, five children, and I have moved 13 times in 27 years of marriage. Some of these moves were unwanted, but the Lord moved us anyway. Even when Christians stay in the same geographic location, God wants us moving emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to become more like Him. Hebrews 12 describes the Christian life being like a race, and so it is.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me

A good shepherd takes his flocks to the high summer ranges to graze. There are many dangers along the way. The shortest routes, and also the ones with the best watering places, are through the valleys. The shepherd always prepares by going to the ranges in advance. He finds and moves obstacles along the path. He looks for signs of predators and tries to eliminate their threat. Nonetheless, the shadow of death always looms over the shepherd and his sheep.

We sing a chorus, Touch Me Again Lord, and one verse states “Wherever I’m going, you’ve already been.” The shepherd never takes his flocks to a place where he has not been.

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me

The rod was used for discipline, protection, to count and examine. Any sheep who had ‘passed under the rod’ felt the shepherd’s care. When we obey Him, God searches us with the ‘rod’ of His Word. By reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating on the Bible, our souls gain a Christ-like mind, and protection from the confusions and lies of the world.

The staff represents that which is longsuffering and kind. The staff is used for drawing sheep together, for drawing a sheep close to the shepherd, and for guiding the movements of the flock. Just as safety for sheep is found in staying with the shepherd and the flock, so safety our lives is found in staying with the Lord and the Church. The staff of Christ guides those who follow Him.

Let us remember the words of Ps 143:8, ‘Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in You. Show me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul.”

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies

The summer ranges are referred to as tablelands. The Spanish word for table is mesa. What David referred to as a table could have been the summer ranges. The shepherd prepared in advance, making the ranges ready. He would take salts and minerals, determine where camps would be and remove poisonous weeds. Whether in the fold, in the valleys, or on the high ranges, only the shepherd’s constant care and watchfulness protected the sheep from predators. Christ provides for us in the presence of our enemies.

Thou anointest my head with oil

At certain times of the year, shepherds rub the heads of their sheep with a preparation such as linseed oil. This keeps them free from pests and the resulting conditions. The protection wears off after several weeks and must be repeated often. We need to be anointed by the Holy Spirit daily through prayer and Bible study. This keeps us in touch with our Good Shepherd.

My cup runneth over

No other season finds the sheep so strong as autumn; they are refreshed from grazing on the summer ranges and are free from pests. No wonder David wrote ‘My cup runneth over’. At the same time, unexpected blizzards and storms can come up and cause the sheep and shepherd much suffering.

Jesus referred to His agony in Gethsemane and the subsequent trial, scourging, and crucifixion as His cup. The Lord’s cup ran over with the sins of the world, the iniquities of you and me. At His death, Christ’s cup overflowed with his lifeblood, that washed away the wickedness that we had put in it. Jesus’ blood made His cup holy. Otherwise, we would have perished.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life

Pasturing sheep on land enriches the land. They eat weeds and undesirable plants and with their manure richly fertilize the pasture on which they graze. Through good works done for the glory of God, we as children of God leave behind goodness and mercy in every life we cross. Through evil deeds or even indifference, we leave behind turmoil, bitterness, conflict and frustration. Our legacy is our choice.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever

Sheep that are well-cared for are very contented; they do not look for other pastures. They are happy to dwell in the pastures of their shepherd forever. As Christians, we will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever. How thankful we should be to say, “The Lord is my Shepherd”


Advent Tree Family Devotions – December 12

Shepherd’s Crook

Exodus 12; Numbers 27:16-17; Isaiah 53:6; Psalm 23; John 1:29; 10:11‑18

More than any other class of livestock, sheep require constant and meticulous care.  Sheep are timid and fearful, stubborn and stupid, and will move with the mob, even to their own destruction.  At the sight of a predator, sheep panic, losing their babies through miscarriage and even their lives in unrestrained fear.  Within the flock there is tension, rivalry, and cruel competition.  Sheep lead other sheep down treacherous paths and then butt them into injury.  Sheep are notorious for getting “cast down”, in which they have rolled on to their back with their feet in the air.  A “cast down” sheep is helpless to right itself, and will die in a few hours if not turned upright.  Sheep that have too much wool, are too fat, or rest too long in a soft and easy place are in grave danger of being cast down. 

A brief look at human behavior in the past, and in the present, is enough to make anyone with insight realize that people are very much like sheep.  That is why we desperately need a shepherd.   

A good shepherd loves his sheep.  He walks with them over many hard miles, carries them when they hurt, protects them from predators, and sleeps with them in the cold.  He finds food and water for them even in rough places, lifts them up when they are cast down, and is willing to put their needs before his own.   Jesus Christ is our Good Shepherd.  The Shepherd’s Crook is a symbol of the shepherd and was one of the earliest symbols used by Christians. It helped them find strength and comfort, and the courage to face ridicule and persecution.

The Shepherd’s Crook also reminds us that the lamb was sacrificed in Old Testament worship to atone for the peoples’ sins.  The blood of the lamb protected the Children of Israel from the Angel of Death when it was passing over the Egyptians in judgment.  Ultimately, Jesus’ sacrificed Himself for the sins of the whole world.  He is the true and final “Lamb of God”. 

We can never understand human behavior until we accept that we truly are like sheep.  How often do we remark, when told of another’s foolish act or sin, “How could he have done that?”  Instead we must realize that without the common grace of God given to all men, and the special grace given to those who trust Him, mankind could never do anything else. We cannot exalt in the pinnacle of grace until we confess the depth of depravity of the human heart. 

Jesus, the Lamb of God, took the just penalty for all of our sins upon Himself.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cares for His sheep, protects them, and loves them.  The power and life of what He did, and does, for us, beggars description.  Take a few minutes, or hours, to meditate on Him and His works.  Whenever you see a sheep or a shepherd’s crook, let these memories and thoughts flood your heart with a peace that only the Lord can provide. 


O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King,
And Peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born to us today!
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!