The Shepherd Psalm
J. R. Miller
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever!" Psalms 23:1-6
The Twenty-third Psalm is the most familiar passage in the Bible. It is the children's Psalm, memorized first of all the Scriptures by countless thousands. It is the Psalm of the sick room, dear to the hearts of sufferers, because of the divine tenderness revealed in the words. It is the Psalm of the deathbed. Rarely does a Christian pass from earth, without repeating the words, "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." It is the Psalm of old age.
"The Lord is my SHEPHERD." Shepherd seems a homely name for God, yet when we know the story of shepherd life in the East, it is a very fitting name. The shepherd lives with his sheep. He guards them by night He defends them when they are in danger. He leads them out to find pasture. He takes the little lambs and the weary ones in his arms—and carries them. He seeks the lost or straying ones. He even gives his life in protecting them. When we know all this about the shepherd, we see how the name interprets God to us.
"The Lord is MY shepherd." It would not be the same to us if the words ran, "The Lord is a shepherd." He might be a shepherd to a great many people, all that that rich word means, and yet not be anything comforting to me. But if I can say with joy, "The Lord is my shepherd," I can sing the song through to the end.
"The Lord IS my shepherd." The present tenses of the Bible are rich in their meanings. That is the way the promises and assurances of the Scriptures are written. "The Eternal God is your refuge"—not was. It might, then, have been true a year ago, yesterday—but not to be true now. The other day, one was speaking of a person and said: "He used to be my friend. He was a great deal to me, did much for me. I went to him with my perplexities, my trials, my questions. But he is not my friend any more. He passed me yesterday on the street and did not even look at me." That is not the way with God. "The eternal God is my refuge; underneath are" —not were, not will be—that is too indefinite,—"Underneath are the everlasting arms." "The Lord is our refuge." "Lo, I am with you always." "My grace is sufficient for you." "The Lord is my shepherd." There will never come a moment when you cannot say this. "Loved once" is never said of Christ. He loves unto the end.
"I shall not WANT." The other day a man said, "I have a good portion of money laid up for my old age, enough to keep my wife and me as long as we expect to live." Yes—but that is not a sure portion. Earth's bags all have holes. The writer of this Psalm did not say, "I have plenty of good investments; therefore I shall not want." This is what he said, "The Lord is my Shepherd, and therefore I shall not want." When we have God, there is nothing we may ever need—that He cannot and will not give us. When we do not have God—we are pitifully poor, though we are millionaires. When we can say, "God is mine!" we are rich.
"He makes me to lie down in GREEN PASTURES." Pastures are for nourishment. In the East the matter of provision was always a serious one. There was but little rain and ofttimes the fields were parched so that pasture could not be found. Then the shepherd would lead his flock away, mile after mile, until they found in some quiet nook, in some shaded valley, green, lush grass.
But also is implied in these words—"He makes me to LIE DOWN in green pastures." The sheep are fed and satisfied, and then they lie down to rest. We cannot go on forever in strenuous activities, and God is gracious and kind to us, giving us many quiet resting places on the way. Night is one of these places. We leave the toil and struggle of the day and draw aside to rest.
Sometimes there are enforced rests. "He MAKES me to lie down in green pastures." We do not want to rest. We think our work needs us, that we would be losing time if we stopped even a day. Then the Good Shepherd makes us lie down, because He knows we need the rest to renew our strength. Perhaps we are not doing our work well—and the joy is fading out of our heart. One was speaking the other day of a Christian man who was formerly a model of patience, kindliness, and peace. "He is growing irritable and querulous," the friend said. "He has none of his old patience with people. He seems cold and stern." He has been living so strenuously, driven by his work, that he has grown nervous and easily vexed. He needs to lie down in the green pastures. Perhaps more of us need to be made to lie down to feed and rest. Perhaps we are doing more work, running to more meetings, giving more money, talking more about religion—yet losing in peace, in sweetness of spirit, which is the real test of spiritual life.
The shepherd makes his sheep lie down—that they may get rested and grow strong and beautiful in their spirit. That is what the Good Shepherd does with us sometimes, when we fall sick, for instance. We think we have not time to rest—and yet He calls us aside and draws the curtains, and shuts us in. Notice, it is in the green pastures that the shepherd makes his sheep lie down—and we find our sick room a bit of pasture. A friend who had been in the hospital several weeks and was convalescing, wrote, "I have found my little white cot here in this quiet room, a bit of God's green pasture." He never makes us lie down on the rough hillside, or on the dusty road, or among the rocks; it is always in the soft, rich grass, where we may feed while we rest.
Be sure you do not miss the blessing of sickness, of sorrow, of trial of any kind. God wants you to grow in sweetness, in patience, in trust, in joy, in peace, in all gentleness and kindness; whenever He makes you lie down in the green pastures.
"He leads me beside the STILL WATERS." Green pastures suggest provision—the sheep must be fed. The streams of water suggest drink—the flock must have water. So the shepherd leads them to where the brooks flow. Often in the Old Testament, we have the picture of the shepherd watering his sheep. Jacob found Rachel watering her father's flocks at the well. Moses found his future wife drawing water for the flocks of Jethro. Our Shepherd leads His sheep to the waters of quietness, that they may drink and be refreshed.
The Syrian shepherd sometimes led his flock up steep paths, over rough roads, through dark gorges—but it never was to make the way hard for them—it always was to take them to a bit of green pasture or beside still waters, that they might be fed and refreshed. Sometimes we fret and chafe when we have had hard experiences. We are sick, or our work is hard, or we have keen disappointments or sore losses. We wonder why God takes us by such a painful and wearisome way. Have you ever thought that He is leading you along these rough paths—that you may come to green pastures, to streams of water? At the end of every steep pinch of road, beyond every day of struggle or pain, a blessing waits for you, something that will enrich you, make you stronger, holier, less selfish, more helpful.
"He RESTORES my soul." There may be several meanings in these words. A wolf may fly upon the flock and one of them may be torn. The shepherd takes the poor hurt sheep into his tender care and nurses it, as if it were a child, until it is well again, its wound healed, and the sheep restored. Or, in the hot sun one of the flock may faint in the road and sink down, unable to go any farther. Does the shepherd leave it there to perish, while he leads the stronger ones on in the way? No, he cares for the fainting one, he takes it up in his arms, lays it in his bosom, and carries it until it is rested and able to walk again. Or, one of the sheep may drop out of the flock and wander away. Does the shepherd let the lost one go, giving it no thought, not even missing it? No, one of the most touching stories in the Bible tells of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine and going away to the mountains to find the one sheep of his that was lost. Then, you remember that exquisite picture, at the end of the story, of the shepherd finding his sheep, laying it on his shoulder, and carrying it back to the fold.
All these are illustrations of the words, "He restores my soul," and all suggest ways in which our Good Shepherd restores us. We are fallen upon by the prowling wild beasts of temptation; wounded, torn, hurt almost to death. The Shepherd with infinite gentleness and patience heals us, restores us. Or we faint by the way, get discouraged, and sink down. The Shepherd comes, bends over us, comforts us, speaks brave words of cheer to us, not giving us up—but getting us on our feet again, with a new hope and courage. Or, we err and go astray, like lost sheep, and the Shepherd follows us to the mountains and seeks us until He finds us, and then restores us.
If this little clause had been left out of this Psalm, much of its beauty would have been lost. It is because the Shepherd restores my soul, not once—but a thousand times, that I am going to dwell in the house of the Lord forever!
Very beautiful is that line in Dr. Matheson's hymn, "O Love, that will not let me go." No other love would suffice. If our Shepherd ever wearied of us—we could not be saved. "He restores my soul."
"He LEADS me in the paths of righteousness." We need guidance. We do not know which way in life to choose. We do not know where this path or that one will lead us—if we follow it. We all need guidance. If we will, we may have it, too, and walk in God's right way. It may not be the easy way—but it will lead us home.
"Yes, though I walk through the VALLEY of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil—for You are with me." This means a peculiarly dark and gloomy valley, a deep gorge, into which the sunlight never pours. We have grown accustomed to applying this verse to death. But there are darker valleys in this world, than the valley of death. There are sorrows worse than bereavements.
Here are two homes where hearts are bowed. In one there has been no death-crape on the door. None of the neighbors know there is any grief there. Things are going on, to all external appearance, just as usual. But in that household there is a sorrow black and terrible. One life, fair and beautiful heretofore, honored and happy—has been touched by shame, and all the home lives are stricken with a bitterness which no comfort can alleviate.
The other home has been marked recently with death-crape. People passing felt their hearts grow tender and lowered their voices. One day the house was thronged with neighbors and friends who came together to say their farewell. But there was no bitterness in any heart in that household. The sorrow was turned to joy by the Christian hope that filled every heart. Which of these two homes is the real valley of the shadow of death?
"For YOU are with me." The sheep need never fear any evil—when the shepherd is with them. A Christian man tells of an experience of his boyhood which illustrates this. He worked several miles from home. Saturday night he worked late, and then went home to be with his loved ones for the Sunday. On the way was one very dark valley, between two hills. No star shone into it, and there was no light from any window. It was called "the valley of shadows," and sometimes men lay in hiding to rob people passing through. The boy was at the blackest point of this lonely, dreary way one Saturday night, brave yet trembling, fairly leaping over the road, when he heard—a hundred yards before him—a voice strong, clear, and full of cheer, calling, "Is that you, John?" Instantly he knew the voice. It was his father's. The good man knew that on that black night, that his son would have a hard ordeal in coming home through the valley, and so with a father's love he was there to meet him at the blackest point in the way. All fear vanished, when the boy heard the voice and recognized it. Does not this illustrate how God's children are comforted when they enter the valley of shadows? The way seems dark and strange. They have never passed through it before. But as they enter it—they hear a voice calling their name, and then see a Presence of Love. "Fear not!" the voice says, "I am with you!" Then all fear vanishes. As human faces fade out, the face of the Good Shepherd will appear, radiant with peace and warm with love, and all dread will vanish. "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil—for You are with me."
We need not linger on the remaining words of this Psalm.
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." There are dangers on every side—but the shepherd is not deterred by these from caring for his sheep. Our Good Shepherd is Master of the world, stronger than all enemies, Conqueror of all, and is able to provide for His sheep in any place! We remember that Jesus spread a table for His disciples the night of His betrayal, and we know in what peace He fed them—with enemies plotting, scheming, gathering for His arrest. No one could disturb Him or them until the meal was over.
"You anoint my head with oil." God does not want us to go through this world with sad faces. He wants us to rejoice.
"My cup runs over." A writer tells of a friend who literally kept a daily book account with the Lord. On one side he put down all he did for God; on the other side he put down what the Lord did for him. If a friend helped or cheered him, he put that down. If he was sick and then was restored, he put it down. All favors and mercies he recorded. After a few weeks of this book-keeping he gave it up. "It's no use," he said, "I can never get a balance. I am always hopelessly in debt." That is the story of every life—the divine goodness overflows.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." All the past has been goodness; all the future will be goodness. Goodness and loving-kindness from God all the days—the dark days and the days of pain, the days of disappointment, the days of sickness, the day when death comes to your home, the day of the funeral—goodness and loving-kindness all the days of my life—then—"I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!" All the days of this life, goodness and loving-kindness—but that is not the end; indeed, that is only the beginning. "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!"
A mother came a thousand miles to the hospital to see her boy, who was dying. When she reached the office the doctor said the boy was sleeping and must not be disturbed. It might kill him. She must wait until he wakened. The mother begged to be allowed to go in and sit beside his cot—she would not speak to him. As she sat there her heart grew hungry and she reached out her hand and laid it gently on his brow. He did not waken—but instead he said, "Mother, you have come." And at once he began to recover. Christ lays His hand of love on the heads of suffering ones, weary ones, burdened, sorrowing ones, today. This Psalm is the blessed hand of Christ to you. Do you not feel it!