23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23
By W. Phillip Keller
“THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD”
The Lord! But who is the Lord? What is His character? Does He have adequate credentials to be my Shepherd – my manager – my owner? And if He does – how do I come under His control? In what way do I become the object of His concern and diligent care?
These are penetrating, searching questions, and they deserve honest and basic examination.
One of the calamities of Christianity is our tendency to talk in ambiguous generalities.
David, the author of the poem, himself a shepherd and the son of a shepherd, later to be known as the “Shepherd King” of Israel, stated explicitly, “The Lord is my shepherd.” To whom did he refer?
He referred to Jehovah, the Lord God of Israel. His statement was confirmed by Jesus the Christ. When He was God incarnate amongst men, He declared emphatically. “I am the good shepherd.”
But who was this Christ? Our view of Him is often too small – too cramped – too provincial – too human.
And because it is, we feel unwilling to allow Him to have authority or control – much less ownership of our lives.
He it was who was directly responsible for the creation of all things both natural and supernatural (see Colossians 1:15-20).
If we pause to reflect on the person of Christ – on his power and His achievements – suddenly like David we will be glad to state proudly, “The Lord – He is my Shepherd!”
But before we do this it helps to hold clearly in mind the particular part played upon our history by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
God the Father is God the author – the originator of all that exists. It was in His mind, first, that all took shape.
God the Son, our Saviour, is God the artisan – the artist, the Creator of all that exists. He brought into being all that had been originally formulated in His Father’s mind.
God the Holy Spirit is God the agent who presents these facts to both my mind and my spiritual understanding so that they become both real and relative to me as an individual.
Now the beautiful relationships given to us repeatedly in Scripture between God and man are those of a father to his children and a shepherd to his sheep. These concepts were first conceived in the mind of God our Father. They were made possible and practical through the work of Christ. They are confirmed and made real in me through the agency of the gracious Holy Spirit.
So when the simple – though sublime statement is made by a man or woman that “The Lord is my shepherd,” it immediately implies a profound yet practical working relationship between a human being and his Maker.
It links a lump of common clay to divine destiny – it means a mere mortal becomes the cherished object of divine diligence.
This thought alone should stir my spirit, quicken my own sense of awareness, and lend enormous dignity to myself as an individual. To think that God in Christ is deeply concerned about me as a particular person immediately gives great purpose and enormous meaning to my short sojourn upon this planet.
And the greater, the wider, the more majestic my concept is of the Christ – the more vital will be my relationship to Him. Obviously, David in this Psalm, is speaking not as the shepherd, though he was one, but as a sheep, one of the flock. He spoke with a strong sense of pride and devotion and admiration. It was as though he literally boasted aloud, “Look at who my shepherd is – my owner – my manager!” The Lord is!
After all, he knew from firsthand experience that the lot in life of any particular sheep depended on the type of man who owned it. Some men were gentle, kind intelligent, brave, and selfless in their devotion to their stock. Under one man sheep would starve, and suffer endless hardships. In another’s care they would flourish and thrive contentedly.
So if the Lord is my Shepherd I should know something of His character and understand something of His ability.
To meditate on this I frequently go out at night to walk alone under the stars and remind myself of His majesty and might. Looking up at the star-studded sky I remember that at least 250,000,000 x 250,000,000 such bodies – each larger than our sun, one of the smallest of the stars – have been scattered across the vast spaces of the universe by His hand. I recall that the planet earth, which is so minute a speck of matter in space that if it were possible to transport our most powerful telescope to our nearest neighbour star, Alpha Centauri, and look back this way, the earth could not be seen, even with the aid of that powerful instrument.
All this is a bit humbling. It drains the “ego” from a man and puts things in proper perspective. It makes me see myself as a mere mite of material in an enormous universe. Yet the staggering fact remains that Christ, the Creator of such an enormous universe of overwhelming magnitude, deigns to call Himself my shepherd and invites me to consider myself His sheep – His special object of affection and attention. Who better could care for me?
By the same sort of process I stoop down and pick up a handful of soil from the backyard or roadside. Placing it under an electron microscope I am astounded to discover it teems with billions upon billions of micro-organisms. Many of them are so complex in their own peculiar cellular structure that even a fraction of their functions in the earth are not yet properly understood.
Yes, He the Christ – the Son of God – brought all of this into being. From the most gigantic galaxy to the most minute microbe, all function flawlessly in accordance with definite laws of finite man to master.
It is in this sense, first of all, that I am basically bound to admit that His ownership of me as a human being is legitimate – simply because it is He who bought me into being and no one is better able to understand or care for me.
I belong to Him simply because He deliberately chose to create me as the object of His own affection.
It is patently clear that most men and women refuse to acknowledge this fact. Their deliberate attempts to deny that such a relationship even exists or could exist between a men and his Maker demonstrate their abhorrence of admitting that anyone really can claim ownership or authority over them by virtue to bringing them into being.
This was of course the enormous “risk” or “calculated chance,” if we may use the term, which God took in making man initially.
But in His usual magnanimous manner He took the second step in attempting to restore by men who turn their backs on Him.
Again in Christ He demonstrated at Calvary the deep desire of His heart to have men come under His benevolent care. He Himself absorbed the penalty for their perverseness, stating clearly that “we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
Thus, in a second very real and vital sense I truly belong to Him because He has bought me again at the incredible price of His own laid-down life and shed blood.
Therefore He was entitled to say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
So there remains the moving realization that we have been bought with a price, that we are really not our own and He is well within His rights to lay claim upon our lives.
I recall quite clearly how in my first venture with sheep, the question of paying a price for my ewes was so terribly important. They belonged to me only by virtue of the fact that I paid hard cash for them. It was money earned by my blood during the desperate grinding years of the Depression. And when I bought that first small flock I was buying them literally with my own body which had been laid down with this day in mind.
Because of this I felt in a special way that they were in very truth a part of me and I a part of them. There was an intimate identity involved which, though not apparent on the surface to the casual observer, nonetheless made those thirty ewes exceedingly precious to me.
But the day I bought them I also realized that this was but the first stage in a long, lasting endeavour in which from then on, I would, as their owner, have to continually lay down my life for them if they were to flourish and prosper. Sheep do not “just take care of themselves” as some might suppose. They require, more than any other class of livestock, endless attention and meticulous care.
It is no accident that God has chosen to call us sheep. The behavior of sheep and human beings is similar in many ways as will be seen in further chapters. Our mass mind (or mob instincts), our fears and timidity, our stubbornness and stupidity, our perverse habits are all parallels of profound importance.
Yet despite these adverse characteristics Christ chooses us, buys us, calls us by name, makes us His own, and delights in caring for us.
It is this last aspect which is really the third reason why we are under obligation to recognize His ownership of us. He literally lays Himself out for us continually. He is ever interceding for us; He is ever guiding us by His gracious Spirit; He is ever working on our behalf to ensure that we will benefit from His care.
In fact, Psalm 23 might well be called “David’s Hymn of Praise to Divine Diligence.” For the entire poem goes on to recount the manner in which the Good Shepherd spares no pains for the welfare of His sheep.
Little wonder that the poet took pride in belonging to the Good Shepherd. Why shouldn’t he?
In memory I can still see one of the sheep ranches in our district which was operated by a tenant sheepman. He ought never to have been allowed to keep sheep. His stock were always thin, weak, and riddled with disease or parasites. Again and again they would come and stand at the fence staring blankly through the woven wire at the green lush pastures which my flock enjoyed. Had they been able to speak I am sure they would have said, “Oh, to be set free from this awful owner!”
This is a picture which has never left my memory. It is a picture of pathetic people the world over who have not known what it is to belong to the Good Shepherd…who suffer instead under sin and Satan.
How amazing it is that individual men and women vehemently refuse and reject the claims of Christ on their lives. They fear that to acknowledge His ownership is to come under the rule of a tyrant.
This is difficult to comprehend when one pauses to consider the character of Christ. Admittedly there have been many false caricatures of this Person, but an unbiased look at His life quickly reveals an individual of enormous compassion and incredible integrity.
He was the most balanced and perhaps the most beloved being ever to enter the society of men. Though born amid most disgusting surroundings, the member of a modest working family, He bore Himself always with great dignity and assurance. Though He enjoyed no special advantages as a child, either in education or employment, His entire philosophy and outlook on life were the highest standards of human conduct ever set before mankind. Though He had no vast economic assets, political power, or military might, no other person ever made such an enormous impact on the world’s history. Because of Him, millions of people across almost twenty centuries of time have come into a life of decency and honor and noble conduct.
Not only was He gentle and tender and true but also righteous, stern as steel, and terribly tough on phony people.
He was magnificent in His magnanimous spirit of forgiveness for fallen folk but a terror to those who indulged in doubletalk or false pretenses.
He came to set men free from their own sins, their own selves, their own fears. Those so liberated loved Him with fierce loyalty.
It is this One who insists that he was the Good Shepherd who cares enough to seek out and save and restore lost men and women.
He never hesitated to make it quite clear that when an individual once came under His management and control there would be a certain new unique relationship between Him and them. There would be something very special about belonging to this particular Shepherd. There would be a distinct mark upon the man or woman that differentiated him or her from the rest of the crowd.
The day I bought my first thirty ewes, my neighbour and I sat on the dusty corral rails that enclosed the sheep pens and admired the choice, strong, well-bred ewes that had become mine. Turning to me he handed me a large, sharp, killing knife and remarked tersely, “Well, Phillip, they’re yours. Now you’ll have to put your mark on them.”
I knew exactly what he meant. Each shepherd has his own distinctive earmark which he cuts into one of the ears of his sheep. In this way, even at a distance, it is easy to determine to whom the sheep belongs.
It was not the most pleasant procedure to catch each ewe in turn and lay her ear on a wooden block, then notch it deeply with the razor-sharp edge of the knife. There was pain for both of us. But from our mutual suffering an indelible lifelong mark of ownership was made that could never be erased. And from then on every sheep that came into my possession would bare my mark.
There is an exciting parallel to this in the Old Testament. When a slave in any Hebrew household chose, of his own free will, to become a lifetime member of that home, he was subjected to a certain ritual. His master and owner would take him to his door, put his ear lobe-against the door post and with an awl puncture a hole through the ear. From then on he was a man marked for life as belonging to that house.
For the man or woman who recognizes the claim of Christ and gives allegiance to His absolute ownership, there comes the question of bearing His mark. The mark of the cross is that which should identify us with Him for all time. The question is – does it?
Jesus made it clear when He stated emphatically, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Basically what it amounts to is this: A person exchanges the fickle fortunes of living life by sheer whimsy for the more productive and satisfying adventure of being guided by God.
It is a tragic truth that many people who really have never come under His direction or management claim that “The Lord is my shepherd.” They seem to hope that by merely admitting that He is their Shepherd somehow they will enjoy the benefits of His care and management without paying the price of forfeiting their own fickle and foolish way of life.
One cannot have it both ways. Either we belong or we don’t. Jesus Himself warned us that there would come a day when many would say, “Lord, in Your name we did many wonderful things,” but He will retort that He never knew us as His own.
It is a most serious and sobering though which should make us search our own hearts and motives and personal relationship to Him.
Do we really belong to Him?
Do I really recognize His right to me?
Do I respond to His authority and acknowledge His ownership?
Do I find freedom and complete fulfilment in this arrangement?
Do I sense a purpose and deep contentment because I am under His direction?
Do I know rest and repose, besides a definite sense of exciting adventure, in belonging to Him?
If so, then with genuine gratitude and exaltation I can exclaim proudly, just as David did, “The Lord is my shepherd!” and I’m thrilled to belong to Him, for it is thus that I shall flourish and thrive no matter what life may bring me.