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Psalm 23: The Love of the Good Shepherd for His Sheep

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Psalm 23: The Love of the Good Shepherd for His Sheep

Commentary by Cassy Benefield

February is known as the “love” month, with Valentine’s Day right in the middle of it, and I’ve been thinking how I can tie that in with just how much God loves humankind. I found one of the best pictures of God’s love and care for his followers is in Psalm 23, which compares God to the “good shepherd” and those who follow him as his “sheep.”

With that introduction, let us now take a deeper look at the 23rd Psalm, which I’ll pepper with some facts about sheep and how it relates to the verse or section we are looking at. Then, I’ll give one of my thoughts. While this piece is written more for Christians, I am hoping that whether you believe in the Christian God or not, these pictures bless your heart as they have mine.

Sheep / Photo by Sam Carter (Unsplash)

1  The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Sheep are totally defenseless without a shepherd. This reminds of me of newborns. When you look at other creatures, generally speaking, the newborn needs to be up and walking and surviving somehow on their part, immediately. This is not the case for human children. They are completely dependent on their caregivers. They, too, are utterly defenseless if they don’t have the care they need to survive. Tying that into this verse, then, what better caretaker can we have than the Lord, himself?

And as if to emphasize the quality of care he provides his sheep, the Psalmist says, “I shall not want.” What if we take hold of that truth when we go through stressful times when there just doesn’t seem to be a solution on the horizon, and we say to ourselves, Because you are my shepherd, Lord, I will not want for anything. I am in your perfect care. And although I may not see it or understand why I am going through what you are allowing, you say to me, ‘I shall not want.’ Lord, help me trust you more.”

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

Sheep need food and water to survive, and the best sources of those for them are green pastures and still waters. The waters need to be still because sheep startle very easily and when they do, they scatter. They can’t find these places on their own, and this is why they need a shepherd to guide them and manage their areas of grazing. If left to themselves, they will overgraze their ground, which then gets polluted with diseases and parasites. Same with unclean waters. They will obliviously drink from sources that bring disastrous consequences upon them.

This speaks to me about how we think we are OK on our own, taking care of our own business and needs, when we may be drawing from resources that are full of filth, which then makes our situations worse. Our Good Shepherd wants to bring us to nourishing and healing resources, green pastures and still waters, that have our best interests at heart. I want to trust him more in waiting for his direction to the green pastures and still waters he knows are best for me, rather than hastily moving toward the sources I think are best.

Backlit sheep lying down on grass facing camera on a sunny winters day / Photo by Crispo (Depositphotos)

3  He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Peace doesn’t come easily to sheep. Many think the images of sheep lying down in green pastures is one of the most serene things they’ve ever seen. But in order for this to happen, sheep need to be completely free of worry. The shepherd plays a key role in making sure the sheep in their care are led well, provided for and nurtured. I see a parent’s joy and responsibility over their children with this same lens. How much greater, then, is our Heavenly Father’s care over his children?

Another interesting fact about sheep are they can be “cast down,” meaning they can all-to-easily fall in some way onto their backs and are unable to get themselves back up. They’ll just wriggle and flail, and ultimately have to wait for their shepherd to put them back on their feet. Ironically, the Hebrew word for “cast down” is shachach and means “to be in despair, to be hopeless.” The word “restore” in Hebrew is shuwb and means “to refresh, to be brought back, to return back to God.” What a picture of God’s children who can’t free themselves from the pickles they get into, and how only our Gentle Shepherd can come to our aid perfectly and replant us back onto our feet.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

Sheep can get frightened and unsettled easily. Once they do, they have a tendency to take off and run, mostly into danger. One resource I used to study sheep had this to say about why the shepherd is the “only cure for panic” among sheep: “When the shepherd senses fear, he quietly moves among the sheep reassuring them of his presence. As soon as the sheep become aware that the shepherd is with them, the desire to run vanishes because fear has been replaced by trust.”* This reminds me of the second part of Matthew 18:20, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” What reassurance that our Good Shepherd will never leave us and that no one can pluck us out of his and his Father’s hands (John 10:27-30).

Shepherd at work on Italian Alps / Photo by jukai5 (Depositphotos)

Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Shepherds in Scripture are pictured carrying both a rod and a staff. The rod is used as an example of the shepherd’s power and authority; the staff represents the shepherd’s compassion and kindness. One without the other provides care that is not balanced nor helpful to the training of the sheep. One book in my study illustrated it this way in the context of parenting: “The rod sets boundaries and corrects while the staff gently guides and restores. The rod without the staff leads to harshness. The staff without the rod leads to permissiveness.”**

As a kind of “parent” to us, God knows the perfect balance of his “grace and truth” that we need to grow into his image. Sometimes, we may need the truthful “rod,” which comes from the Hebrew word shebet and means “scepter, club, or authority.” Other days, we may need the gracious staff, which comes from mishenah and means “support of any kind, to lean on.” Some days we may need both. Our Good Shepherd knows the perfect way to mold us into his image.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

Another resource I used in my study says this of sheep: “The welfare of the sheep depends solely upon the care they get from their shepherd … when you see sheep that are weak, sickly, and infested with pests, you can be sure that their shepherd does not really care for them.”* One of the things a good shepherd does is to study out a mesa, or a flat piece of land where their sheep can pasture, before he ever brings his sheep there to eat. He will carefully root out poisonous plants, note the wolves and other predators in the area, and make sure there is a good source of water for them. If such tender care is given to sheep by their good shepherd, how much more does God do going before us in all our days?

Sheep traffic on the road between autumn trees / Photo by vverve (Depositphotos)

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Flies are a source of tremendous irritation for sheep. The nose fly, especially, as they can deposit eggs inside the sheep’s nose, which result in larvae that work their way up into the sheep’s head. This causes the sheep such aggravation that they wind up beating their heads against anything they can find, sometimes to the point of death. The way shepherds help sheep to avoid that discomfort is to anoint their heads with oil, a concoction of linseed oil, some sulfur and a little tar. The flies don’t stop pestering them, but they aren’t able to land on them and deposit their eggs.

Life is full of flies, little irritations that can make us crazy. But the Lord, anoints our heads with his grace and mercy, giving us abundant opportunities to endure our temptations, finding our way through them. Just like the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” I can also think of no better “oil” than reading God’s word and allowing the Holy Spirit to use what we learn there to buttress us against the flies of our day.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I will end my observation of this Psalm with a picture of what total submission to a shepherd looks like for a sheep. One of my studies led me to this picture of a lamb being sheared. “When shearing a lamb, a shepherd simply slips his arms under a lamb’s chest and sets it down gently on its rump. Once all four feet are off the ground, the lamb relaxes completely in his competent hands. A really good shepherd can shear a lamb in about a minute. Goats, on the other hand … resist everything, all the time, in every way. It’s no wonder that Jesus used sheep and goats to portray the difference between the righteous and the rebellious.”**

When I reflect on this, I think about how I should be in my potter’s hands (sorry to mix metaphors!). I should be compliant and moldable, willing to walk with him in this life through whatever path he decides to lead me on. And while my life on earth may not be outwardly peaceful and easy, if I relax myself and surrender my will into his hands, surely that’s when I will feel the presence of the Lord, his goodness and mercy following me through it all. And in the end, my final resting place will be with him for all eternity in his “house” in Heaven.

Resources Used for this Article:

*Precept Ministries’ study on John Chapter 10, which drew from “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” by Phillip Keller

** “All We Like Sheep” by Larry Guthrie and Robert Newhouse

Cassy Benefield
Cassy Benefield
Cassy (pronounced like Cassie but spelled with a 'y') Benefield is a wife and mother, a writer and photographer and a huge fan of non-fiction. She has traveled all her life, first as an Army brat. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (2004-2006) to Romania where she mainly taught Conversational English. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from Cal Poly Technical University in San Luis Obispo, California. She finds much comfort in her Savior, Jesus Christ, and considers herself a religion nerd who is prone to buy more books, on nearly any topic, than she is ever able to read. She is the associate editor of FāVS.News.

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