The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. Psalm 23.1-2
I have read several books that exposit Psalm 23. Much of my exposition has been influenced by people smarter and more experienced than me. Very little of my thinking is original, because I have been influenced by many writers and expositors. I would like to recommend two books that I have found helpful and prefer over others (He Leadeth Me: Shepherd Life in Palestine-Psalm 23 by C.W. Slemming, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller) But I hope that what I write will be encouraging.
There have been many different expositions of Psalm 23, specifically verse two. For example, I have read about a pecking order among sheep and the anxiety that exists as a result. If this is true, the Shepherd is responsible for calming the sheep and providing safety for the young and weak. I have also read exposition that suggests the shepherd provides the best form of sustenance, the greenest, most healthy grass.
Regarding still water, I have read that the most loving shepherds take the sheep to the pasture very early in the morning. Because early in the morning the grass is still saturated with dew, the best form of still water. I have also read the exposition that shepherds use their staff to dig a trench near each water source to ensure still water. Still water is necessary, because if a sheep falls in the water, it will likely drown.
There is probably truth in all of these expositions. I am not exactly sure what David was specifically suggesting as he wrote this Psalm. But I believe I have a broad explanation for what he was trying to express.
1. The Shepherd loves and cares for the sheep.
David spent many hours, days, and weeks in the pastures with sheep. We already know that the shepherd calls the sheep by name, and that the sheep only responds to the voice of the shepherd.
To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. John 10. 3-4
I cannot relate to the shepherd metaphor because I have never owned a sheep and I have never been a Shepherd. On a side note, I once entertained the idea of buying a single sheep. I wanted to better understand the shepherd metaphor. However, I was persuaded by a sheep farmer that even though I had good intentions my endevour was not a good idea. I can relate to domestic pets. In my lifetime I have owned several pets, I loved them very much and did what I could to care for them and protect them. I assume that any pet owner who reads this blog can testify to the loving bond that exists between a pet and its owner. I believe that David is testifying to the great love and caring protection of the Shepherd. David can understand this love, because he knows perfectly the love that he has for his sheep. David knows perfectly the amount of care and affection that he must invest in his sheep. How much greater is the love and care of the Good/Chief Shepherd? David tried to explain this love and care in Psalm 23, I believe the answer is clear.
2. The Shepherd Provides for the Sheep
I imagine that different shepherds, in different locations, in different times have provided for their sheep in different ways. The above expositions, although different, imply one thing, the shepherd does his best, to provide the very best, for the sheep that he loves. It is a known fact that sheep are skittish, anxious, and emotionally fragile. What can be seen in Psalm 23 is a calm environment suitable for such an animal. Not only does the shepherd provide sustenance to meet physical needs, but he also provides a calmness and peaceful environment to soothe the complexities of sheep life. Ironically, the complexities of human life parallels the complexities of sheep life. David observed the same tendencies in people that he observed in the sheep, anxiety, fragility, and emotional instability. In his worship he recognizes that the Lord is the only one who can calm anxiety, hopelessness, and fear. Which is why in verse one David claims that he is without want. Similar to the sheep, we as humans also have a social/pecking order, one that includes economics, the disabled, and ethnic hierarchy. Unfortunately, this hierarchical system has also crept into the church. Jesus has broken down our pecking order, it is time to live in this reality. Jesus provides real peace.
3. The Shepherd Leads the Way
The Shepherd goes before, he leads. The shepherd knows where the greenest pastures and the stillest waters are located. The shepherd has experience with sheep. The shepherd understands the sheep. I am not certain what David understood about the Lord, if he fully understood the Lord’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. As we look back we have a better understanding; we can see that the Shepherd became a sheep. It is interesting to note that hundreds of years before Christ’s birth the prophet Isaiah described the Lord as a sheep.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. Isaiah 53.7
And, John the baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God! Worthy is the Lamb!