The 23rd psalm is known and appreciated by many, but it belongs personally only to those who call God their shepherd. It is a song of David’s confidence in God who faithfully provides for him. David pictures God as a shepherd who guides, provides, and protects (vss. 1-4), and as a dinner host who nourishes and refreshes His guest (vs. 5-6). One gets the impression that David wrote this psalm at a time when he was experiencing hardship (perhaps when he was fleeing in the wilderness from Absalom). The psalm reveals a confidence in David’s soul, no doubt the result of his relationship with God and his trust in the LORD’s goodness and loyal-love. Whatever threat David was facing, he could rely on God’s goodness and lovingkindness, and David knew the end of his life would be “in the house of the LORD forever” (vs. 6).
God as Shepherd
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
David opens his psalm with a simple but profound statement, “The LORD is my shepherd.” The word LORD translates the proper name of God (Heb. יהוה YHWH), His covenant name, which means “I am who I am.” The meaning of YHWH most likely refers to God’s eternal nature, as the One who remains forever constant. When coupled with His other attributes, such as goodness and love, it means that those qualities are as enduring as the One who holds them. It is this exalted God, who created and rules over the universe, that David personally and affectionately refers to as “my shepherd.”
In Israel, as in other ancient societies, a shepherd’s work was considered the lowest of all works. If a family needed a shepherd, it was always the youngest son, like David, who got this unpleasant assignment. Shepherds had to live with the sheep twenty-four hours a day, and the task of caring for them was unending. Day and night, summer and winter, in fair weather and foul, they labored to nourish, guide, and protect the sheep. Who in his right mind would choose to be a shepherd? Yet Jehovah has chosen to be our shepherd, David says. The great God of the universe has stooped to take just such care of you and me.
The LORD as shepherd metaphor resonated with David, for he had spent his younger days as a shepherd for his father (1 Sam. 16:11; 17:15, 34). God used David’s life experience as a shepherd to prepare him to lead His people, Israel. Scripture states, “He also chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him to shepherd Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands” (Ps. 78:70-72).
In the New Testament, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:14), the “Great Shepherd” (Heb. 13:20), and the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4), who provided teaching to those who needed spiritual nourishment (Mark 6:34). God often provides for His people through His under-shepherds, who are to feed them God’s Word (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 33:10; Ezra. 7:10; Jer. 10:21; 12:10; Mal. 2:7; John 21:15; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-2). God told Jeremiah, “I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15). God’s Word is food for the soul (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Pet. 2:2).
Trusting in God as his divine-shepherd, David knew he would not be in want of anything. God’s resources are always enough for those under His care. Of course, the believer must distinguish between wants and needs, for too often we fall into the trap of confusing the former with the latter, not being content with what the Lord provides from day to day. Scripture states, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8).
He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. (Ps. 23:2)
God led David to “lie down in green pastures” and beside “quiet waters” which pictures a place of nourishment, safety and rest. The words “lie down” translate the Hebrew verb רָבַץ rabats, which in the hiphil stem means that God causes His sheep to lie down in restful places. It’s not that the LORD forces His sheep to lie down, but that He creates an environment free from harm and stress so that the naturally timid sheep can relax. The believer who refuses to go where God leads will never find safe and restful places.
He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. (Ps. 23:3)
The phrase, “He restores my soul”, should probably be understood as the result of lying down in “green pastures” and being led “beside quiet waters” (vs. 2). A believer’s soul can be weakened and damaged by the stresses of life, and though we cannot always control our circumstances, we don’t have to be controlled by them either, as we can turn to God to guide us to those places that refresh us. David then states, “He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Being guided in “paths of righteousness” means we are directed to walk where He leads, and in a way that conforms to His righteous character. The phrase “for His names sake” refers to God’s reputation. God’s guidance most often comes through His written Word, but He also guides providentially through circumstances as well as through the counsel of humble and godly people who know His Word and walk with Him. We should not make the mistake of thinking that right paths are easy paths, for the Scripture is abundantly clear that God tests the heart of His people (Ex. 16:4; Deut. 8:2; Jer. 20:12), and will permit us to face hardships in order to develop our character (Rom. 5:3-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Jam. 1:2-4).
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me (Ps. 23:4).
God, who led David to “green pastures” and “beside quiet waters” was also with him in difficult places, which David calls “the valley of the shadow of death.” There were scary places where death seemed to cast its shadow over David, perhaps at those times when he was walking alone with his sheep through narrow ravines where wild animals might attack without warning. David recounted a time when he was tending his father’s sheep, and said, “When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1 Sam. 17:34-35). David knew his successes and victories were from God; therefore, he could say, “I fear no evil, for You are with me.” God’s presence meant David would not face anything the Lord had not foreseen or foreplanned, and this gave David confidence because he knew the Lord would guide and strengthen him for whatever he faced, even death. David also said, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The rod and staff were instruments used by the shepherd for protection and travel when walking. “The shepherd’s rod (a cudgel worn at the belt) beat off attacking animals and his staff (walking stick) kept the sheep away from physical dangers such as precipices.” Though enemies may be all around us, God is faithful to protect us and to keep us from wandering into dangerous places.
It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.
God as Host and Loyal-provider
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Ps. 23:5)
That God would prepare a table for David to eat with Him means that God welcomed him into His presence. The picture is that of a host who lays out food for His guest to eat. The host who provides the food is also responsible for the guest’s safety while in his home. David describes God’s provision as being “in the presence of my enemies.” The word presence (Heb. נֶגֶד neged) can also be translated in sight of, in front of, or opposite to. Perhaps the idea is that God provides and protects His guest in the sight of his enemies so they know where God’s favor lies. David further states, “You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.” This is a picture of God refreshing His guest with such abundance that he cannot contain it all. Such blessing includes things spiritual and material. Living in America, I regularly see Christians blessed with resources the rest of the world will never know and can only dream about. In truth, we live better than the kings of Europe did two centuries ago. We enjoy technological advances, improvements in modern medicine, mass transportation, an abundance of food resources, and many other blessings. Yet, many Christians fail to see all the Lord’s blessings and spend much of their time consumed with self and complaining like spoiled children. Not so with David, for He saw the Lord’s provision and gave thanks.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Ps. 23:6)
David has complete confidence in God and knows His “goodness and lovingkindness” will follow him. God’s goodness (Heb. טוֹב tob) carries the idea of that which is beneficial, pleasant, or favorable, and means that God will give us what we need. God’s lovingkindness (Heb. חֶסֶד chesed – often translated mercy) refers to His loyal commitment to render assistance to us when our circumstances are too great for us. It is interesting to note that the word follow [Heb. רָדָף radaph] is used most commonly in the OT of someone who aggressively pursues or chases down his enemy to defeat him. Moses used the word to describe Abraham and his servants who “went in pursuit” of Chedorlaomer and his forces in order to retrieve his nephew Lot (Gen. 14:14-16), and of Pharaoh who determined to “chase after” Israel after they’d left Egypt (Ex. 14:4), and of Israel who would “chase” their enemies to defeat them (Lev. 26:7). However, David uses the verb in a unique and playful manner, picturing God as One who doggedly chases him down to overcome him with goodness and lovingkindness.
It is God who will pursue him and extend his loyal love to him every step of the way. He will not let David out of his faithful loving care. Why does this love “pursue” him? Was he trying to escape? (cf. Ps. 139:7). No matter where he went, or why, David knew that God would follow him with his love. He had been pursued often in his life; but no man chased him as persistently and effectively as the LORD.
The final expression of God’s goodness and loyal love meant that David would “dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” The phrase “the house of the LORD” refers to the place where believers sought intimate fellowship with God. It was the place where God was worshipped (2 Sam. 12:20; Ps. 135:1-3), where the values of the world were excluded (Deut. 23:18), where believers brought their sacrifices (Ex. 23:19), where they enjoyed God’s beauty and meditated on His Word (Ps. 27:4), and where they enjoyed His abundant provision (Ps. 36:8). The house of the LORD is the place where the believer could enjoy God’s blessings forever (Heb. אֹרֶךְ orek), which word might better be translated as long as I live (CSB) or for the rest of my life (NET).
In this psalm of confidence, David pictures God as a shepherd who guides, provides, and protects His people (vss. 1-4), and as a host who nourishes and refreshes His guest (vs. 5-6). As sheep find provision and protection in the good Shepherd, and bounty by the good Host, so believers find blessing in God as we trust His guidance and walk with Him.
- Trust in the Lord
- Bible Promises that Strengthen our Faith
- Walking with God
- Learning to Live by Faith
- The Value of Suffering
 In the Old Testament, God is referred to as the Shepherd who leads, feeds, and protects His people (Isa. 40:11; Ps. 23:1-6; 80:1; 100:1-3; Ezek. 34:10-16). In several places believers are referred to as God’s sheep, as those under His care (Ps. 78:52; 79:13; 95:7; 100:3; Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:31; John 10:4, 16, 26-27).
 James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 207–208.
 There are other instances in Scripture where God’s presence gave His people confidence to face difficulties. God was with Jacob (Gen. 28:15), and Moses (Ex. 3:12), and He is with us (Matt. 28:20), and for us, always (Rom. 8:31).
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Ps 23:4.
 James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary, 211.
 Allen P. Ross argues that goodness and lovingkindness probably form a hendiadys and translates the passages as “Surely, good loyal love will follow me” (Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1, p. 568).
 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich., Kregel Publications, 2011), 570.