The Lord Is My Shepherd and Host
How old were you when you first memorized Psalm 23?
I was five. My kindergarten class out in Caronport memorized it. And all these years later, the words are still ingrained in my mind in all of their King James glory.
I still really respect my Kindergarten teacher. You try getting a room of give-year-olds to say “maketh” and “leadeth.”
But there’s no doubt that for many of us, Psalm 23 is the best-known Psalm and perhaps one of the best-known parts of Scripture.
Now there’s a few more questions I want to ask: what does Psalm 23 mean to you, today? When’s the last time you’ve pulled it out, so o speak, and have been helped or comforted by it? Is there a chance that the words to this Psalm are so familiar to you, and perhaps so associated with your childhood, that they maybe don’t affect you the way that they should?
It’s worth asking.
Or maybe, despite being familiar with these words, you struggle to understand what they all really mean. I remember someone telling me that they could never figure out why David didn’t want God to be their shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”
And so today, my aim is twofold. I want us to understand Psalm 23, and really get what these familiar words mean, and then I want us to see what these words mean for us today. And my prayer is that we’ll leave here today cherishing these words and loving and putting them to use in our lives more than we ever have before.
The Lord is My Shepherd
So we’re going to start by walking through the Psalm and exploring what it says and what it means. Ad we’ll begin right there in verse 1 with that opening phrase: “The Lord is my shepherd.” And right away, w need to stop and take a few minutes to unpack just how incredible this statement is.
First of all, note the first words. “The Lord.” You can see in your Bibles or the bulletin that “Lord” is small caps. This is translating God’s personal name. Yahweh.
That name is so meaningful. It’s not just a title. This is God’s name. And it’s a name that He revealed to His people in the context of covenant promises. It’s a name that served to remind His people of what He had done and all that He had promised to do, including His promise, given to Moses, to always be with them (Exodus 3:12).
So when David says that “Yahweh is my shepherd,” this statement carries with it so much weight. “Yahweh, whom Abraham called on and who saved Israel from Egypt and who has rescued His people over and over again in fulfillment of His promises—this one is my shepherd.”
And now just think about that word shepherd for a moment. This is such a wonderful word and the meaning is often lost on us in modern times. See, we don’t have many shepherds kicking around today. And when we think about a shepherd, we probably picture someone from a Bible story, wearing a bathrobe and a towel around their heads. And there’s something sort of unique to that picture.
But in ancient Israel, shepherds were not unique. A shepherd was a normal, common job. Like farmers or construction workers or truck drivers.
But beyond being a common job, it was also a humble job. You get that sense when David’s older brothers go to the feast with Samuel, or go off to war with the Philistines, and leave him with the sheep (1 Samuel 16:11, 17:28). His older brothers weren’t saying “pick me, I’ll stay with the sheep!” Being a shepherd was not a prestigious job.
But it was necessary work. In the Middle East, green grass and drinkable water aren’t everywhere. And back then they didn’t have massive pastures where they could just let the sheep graze unattended. The sheep had to be moving all the time from one patch of green grass to the next, from one drinking spot to another. And all the while, being vigilant for the wild animals who are looking for a free lunch of their own.
And there are some animals who can do this on their own. They know how to find fresh food and water and they do an ok job of defending themselves. But not sheep. Sheep were clueless with finding food or water in the Judean wilderness and they had no ability to defend themselves.
And so sheep were completely dependant upon a shepherd to perform the demanding and humble work of leading them and providing for them and protecting them. And Psalm 23 tells us that God was the shepherd of His people.
It’s a very humbling thing for David to say this. It means that he sees himself as helpless and defenceless—just like a sheep. And it’s an astounding thing to say about God—that He would stoop o the common, humble job of shepherding his people.
But several other Scriptures point to this idea. Psalm 75:52, speaking about the Exodus from Egypt, says, “Then he led out his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.” Isaiah 40:11 promises, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
Those are wonderful words, but Psalm 23 is so special in how personal it is. It does not say, “The Lord is our shepherd.” It says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” David is not speaking for the people here. He is speaking for Himself. Yahweh is his shepherd.
This is not out of place in the shepherding metaphor. A good shepherd doesn’t look out and see only a flock, a big mass of white and black. He sees individual sheep. He knows his sheep by name and knows how to care for them individually.
And so it is with Yahweh. David can say “He is my shepherd. He knows me personally. He is taking care of me.”
Yahweh is His shepherd. And He is a good shepherd. We see this in the second phrase in verse 1: “I shall not want.” In other words, “there’s nothing else that I want. My shepherd has so perfectly taken care of me that I am completely provided for. I have all that I need.”
Acts of the Shepherd
And so, in verses 2 and 3, David describes what his good shepherd does. How is it that David has no needs, that he’s not wanting anything?
First, because his Shepherd makes him lie down in green pastures. What are green pastures if you’re a sheep? Food! Green pastures means that the shepherd has done his work of finding where the good food is and he’s brought the sheep there to enjoy.
Second, He leads him beside still waters. He’s found out the perfect watering hole and has brought him there to drink.
Both of these ideas speak of the way that God has provided for David’s needs. Just like food and water were basic to a sheep’s existence, so God has provided everything that David needs.
And so David says, in the beginning of verse 3, “He restores my soul.” The word “soul” here has the sense of “life.” God so provided for him that his whole life is revived.
Now for a good shepherd to provide for his sheep, he needs to lead them. He needs to guide them from one place to the next and help them find the provision they need. And so David says in verse 3, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Yahweh has helped David find and walk in the right paths, the right way of life.
If you’ve read through the book of 1 Samuel, you’ll read all about David’s years of wandering, often in the literal wilderness. Just like a sheep, he couldn’t be in one place for too long. But God was with him as he went from one place to the next. God provided for him. God took really good care of him.
And when David strayed from the path of righteousness, God sent people like Abigail or Nathan to put him back on the path.
God did this for His name’s sake. We’ve already seen how God’s very name, Yahweh, is a reminder of His promise to be with His people and fulfill His promises to them. And God’s reputation is on the line in the way that His people live and conduct themselves.
And so God’s concern for the glory of His own name caused Him to lead David to conduct his life in a righteous way.
Even in the Valley
We also know that David’s life was often difficult, filled with incredible suffering and pain. He was out in the wilderness because there was a bloodthirsty king hunting him down. For years he lived in constant danger, and after it all settled down, his own son came for him.
So how does this image of a cared-for sheep fit with those experiences? Where was his good shepherd when that stuff was going down?
David tells us in verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
“The valley of the shadow of death” might be referring to an experience where literal death was drawing near and casting its shadow over David’s life. He certainly had his fair share of those experiences.
This Hebrew phrase may also refer to a “valley of deep darkness,” as footnote in your ESV Bibles says. And in this sense, it’s continuing the sheep metaphor. In the Judean landscape, as the shepherd leads his sheep from one place to another, it’s common for them to need to pass through literal dark valleys.
And these are scary places. The sheep can’t see if there are wild animals waiting for them or precipices they could fall into. And so the valley of deep darkness was a place where death was not unlikely.
And yet, even there, even in a place of danger and darkness, David says that he will fear no evil. He is absolutely confident. Why?
Because his Shepherd is with him. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Yahweh is right there with him in that deep, dark valley. And David the sheep draws comfort from the shepherd’s rod and staff.
The rod was a weapon that the shepherd would use to fight off wild animals and predators. And the staff was a crooked stick used to guide the sheep and keep them from straying.
In other words, David does not fear because Yahweh is with him, protecting him and guiding him, helping him to make the right decisions and go the right places and to not fall into evil. David is comforted by the active presence of his shepherd.
God as Host
So that’s the first half of the Psalm, using the metaphor of shepherding to speak about the way that the Lord had cared for David
Now in the second half of this Psalm, beginning in verse 5, David actually switches metaphors. This used to cause me a lot of confusion as a child, because I didn’t understand what a sheep was doing at a table or holding a cup.
But that’s because David has moved on to a new metaphor. Drawing on ideas that were really familiar to his original readers, in verses 5 and 6 David describes God as a host, who has set a rich table for David and has invited him to feast.
Verse 5 tells us that God has prepared a table before him “in the presence of my enemies.” The idea here is that David has enemies, and they are right there at the feast, but they are powerless to harm him. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been captured in battle, and this is a victory feast. Regardless, Yahweh’s table is a safe place.
Two more phrases in verse 5 describe Yahweh’s hosting activity. First, David says He has “anointed his head with oil” (v. 5). This is not the kind of anointing as when David was anointed as a king. It’s a totally different Hebrew word.
This word refers to the common practice in that era of giving oil to your guests to put on their foreheads. This might seem kind of weird to us, but it’s something that good hosts did. The oil would make their faces shine and their dry skin be moisturized and they’d often add fragrance to the oil to cause them to smell nice. Just remember, nobody wore Old Spice back then.
So this idea of anointing points to Yahweh being a generous host. We see this further when David says at the end of verse 5 that his cup overflows. Hoses provided their guests with wine, and David has so much that his cup is overflowing. Yahweh is not holding anything back.
And Yahweh is not a grudging host. He’s not showing David hospitality just because He needs to or just because He doesn’t want to appear rude. No, as David says in verse 6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” That word for “follow” is often used of an enemy chasing someone to harm them. But here David says that Yahweh’s goodness and mercy are chasing him down. This generous host is eager to show Him steadfast love.
And so, David concludes, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” The sense of the Hebrew here is that he’s going to come back and live in the house of this generous host for the rest of His days.
In David’s experience, this could be a desire to return to the tabernacle to worship. It could be referring to God’s heavenly dwelling. But either way, David is confident of a bright future because of the generous care of Yahweh, His shepherd and his host.
For You & I
So as we think about the life of David, it’s not hard to see how meaningful and rich these words would have been to him. And as this Psalm would have been picked up and sung by faithful Israelites, their hearts would have been comforted as they used these words to express trust in Yahweh’s tender, covenant-keeping love for them.
What about us today? What do these words mean for you and I at our part of the story?
A lot! For starters, this is our God. Our God has not changed. And in our New Covenant setting, we can appreciate and understand the truths of this Psalm in an even deeper way than David Himself did.
Yahweh as the shepherd of His people has been revealed to us even more clearly by Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15).
I hope you see something powerful there: when Jesus says he is the good shepherd, He was not inventing a new idea. The people knew this idea that Yahweh was the shepherd of His people. And so when Jesus declares Himself to be the good shepherd, He is stating that He is God.
And just like Psalm 23 tells us, you and I can be confident in our Good Shepherd’s promise to provide for us. Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread (Matthew 6:12). And He promised to answer this prayer. Listen to what Jesus said to us: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31–33).
The Lord is our shepherd, and we shall not want. This is an important promise for us in a season when the economy is not doing so hot. We can and should take comfort this morning in the promise of our Good Shepherd to provide for everything that we truly need.
And we know that sometimes, what He provides is not more money or more stuff, but the supernatural ability to be content with what we have. Thank of Paul’s words in Philippians 4: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13).
But whether we need money, or food, or clothing, or contentedness, our Good Shepherd knows and He will provide for us as we seek His kingdom first.
Next, think about verse 3. You and I, from our New-Covenant vantage point, know better than anyone else what it means for Yahweh to lead us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Through Christ we have the Holy Spirit Himself dwelling inside of us, leading us to live in a holy way that honours Him.
Think about Galatians 5, which speaks about being “led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:18), and says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” And it goes on to talk about the fruit that is borne in our lives as we walk by the Spirit.
These are just different words for what Psalm 23 describes: God, through His Holy Spirit, leading us to walk in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Or what about verse 4? Just like David, you and I can confess that even in the midst of danger and darkness, we need not fear, because He is with us.
Isn’t this what Paul celebrated in Romans 8:35? “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). And then in verse 37: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37–39).
That’s the promise, the same truth that David clung to and the same truth that so many of you in this room have found refuge in. Some of you even right now are walking through valleys of deep darkness. You’ve been touched by the realities of death and pain and loss.
And these words should come to us as a profound comfort: that in the darkness, He is with us. The darkness will not separate us from His love. He is protecting us from Satan and is making sure that we don’t wander away from Him.
Sometimes this takes so much faith to believe, doesn’t it? Because so often, in the darkness, we feel alone. We feel like God is absent.
But we’re just like Shasta on the mountain pass from Archenland into Narnia. Feeling alone and miserable. But all the while being guarded and guided by the invisible Lion who has been with us all along. And if you have no idea what I just said, you need to go read “The Horse and His Boy” by C.S. Lewis. It’s in our library over there.
It’s because our feelings are so fickle that these words are here: to remind us of what is true and what is real. God is with us in the darkness. He does not let Satan touch us one bit apart from His perfect plan. He is guarding our faith and will not let one of His sheep wander away and be lost forever. He is with us.
So don’t trust your feelings. Don’t listen to your inner skeptic. Fight back against the doubt with these razor-sharp promises of God’s word. Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death you need not fear any evil, for He is with you, protecting you and guiding you.
He is working all things together for your good (Romans 8:28). If He gave up His son for you, He will not hold back anything else that you need (Romans 8:32). And no valley is too dark to separate us from His love. These things are true, and Psalm 23 is given to us to help confirm and strengthen our faith for those times when we need to remember.
Before we close, let’s not forget the final image of the Psalm, of God as a host. Oh, there’s so much there for us today. But let’s remember that while God so often does richly care for us in this life, in Christ we have the promise of a very literal table spread for us in the Age to Come.
Think of Christ on the night before He died for us, breaking bread and pouring wine, and then telling His disciples, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29).
There is a real feast being prepared for us. And while David may have hoped to return to the sanctuary throughout the rest of his life, we have the real hope of dwelling in God’s presence literally forever and ever.
“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:4–5).
So what do we do with all of this? What do we do with the precious words of Psalm 23 and these bucketloads of rich promises?
We believe them. We trust these promises and hold them to be true.
And like we’ve already acknowledged, that may not be a simple thing. Every day, the world and the devil and our own flesh all work against us to make this hard to believe. In our world we’ve got a million perspectives and a million distractions that can make this idea of Yahweh as our shepherd feel distant and unreal.
So take up Psalm 23 and fight back. This is who God is. This is what’s true. This is who He has been and this is who He shall always be.
Memorize this Psalm, if you never have before. Tell it to yourself throughout the day. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Use these words to help you walk by faith and not by sight.