One of the first Bible passages I learned as a child was Psalm 23. It was filled with beautiful, idyllic images of kindly shepherds and fluffy sheep, green fields, and enough dark spots to make me feel like I had the protection I needed. But, it was a superficial image. I didn’t understand the gravity or implications of parts of the passage. At just six verses long, one might be tempted to take it at face value without diving into the societal context, or language too deeply. Perhaps that is why I feel that this Psalm is so underrated.
A Psalm of David.
Sheep need nutritious, soft, healthy grass and lots of it to reach peak physical condition. The shepherd seeks out not just any food – he finds the best, most plentiful sources for his sheep. And, since sheep need water as well, the good shepherd wil findsafe places for his sheep to drink.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
This is one of the more interesting aspects of the text because the shepherd does not start by asking the sheep to do for him – instead he is focused on restoring their health and soul before he then leads them in the path they should go. And he does this not because the sheep are so wonderful, but because he is. The first three verses are today’s Salmon Of Knowledge reading.
4 Yea, 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.
Even though the sheep must walk through dangerous places as they travel from place to place, they are not afraid because their shepherd is with them. Their shepherd carries both a rod for protecting them and beating off preditors, and a staff which he uses to guide them along the safest route.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
This verse is incredibly interesting because why would you eat with enemies? Or, why would you eat with enemies lurking about? It made me think about the times in the bible when God has restored the strength of the weary despite their being pursued by enemies. Whether it was Elijah fed by ravens, Elisha fed by the poor widow, manna in the desert, springing water from a rock, or Jesus feeding the 5,000. In fact, the good shepherd puts oil on the heads of his sheep to prevent them from getting stuck in brambles, infested with parasites, or hurt in fights where they butt heads with others. The annointing is protective and curative and its grace is filled to overflowing.
Imagine that! When we follow the good shepherd, goodness and mercy will not just “follow” us, but according to the Hebrew which translates more closely to “pursue“, are relentlessly attached to us for the rest of our days. The Psalm ends with a promise that because of God’s tender and dogged pursuit – we will be with Him forever in the safety of His care.