Psalm 23: Anything BUT Pastoral

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures … he restores my soul.” When you think of the 23rd Psalm, don’t you picture a couple of nice, peaceful, sheep strolling unconcernedly through a quiet meadow? Did you know that’s the opposite of the picture David paints throughout the Psalm?

First of all, let’s recognize that a pasture isn’t the safest place for a sheep, especially in David’s time when big cats, bears, and wild dogs were common. That’s why the shepherd carries a rod as well as a staff. A better translation for “your rod” is “your cudgel” – a tool which the shepherd was expected to use to defend his furry little charges.

Then, two verses later when David gets out of the pasture, he finds himself in the “valley of the shadow of death” (vs 4) The word for “valley” here doesn’t mean the lowlands – instead picture a narrow gorge or crevasse. The threat of death is hemming the Psalmist in from both sides, looming over him and leaving him in a seemingly inescapable predicament. Somehow he escapes the valley but in verse 5 sits down at a banquet table in a spot where he is surrounded on all sides by those who mean him harm (the literal meaning of “presence of my enemies”). Bon apetit, Dave!

But surely there’s no downside of “you anointed my head with oil, my cup runneth over,” (vs 5) is there? Well…first consider that the word the Psalmist uses for “anointed” isn’t the verb describing the act of getting covered with oil. Instead it’s the word used to describe the consecration of the ashes that are left over after an acceptable sacrifice. Yikes! Further, recent scholarship reveals that the phrase “my cup runneth over” is a colloquialism that means one’s allotment of trials and hardships. Read in this way this cup is part of the burning of the offering, not the prepared table.

And so David pictures himself as a sacrifice with the expected amount of troubles. And when he considers his plight he’s either like a sheep standing fully exposed in the middle of some open pasture, or he’s completely surrounded by his enemies, or he’s walking in some darkened, narrow passage with death looming over his every step.

None of these sound like the peaceful scene I have associated with this Psalm! The question that immediately springs to mind is how did David get into such dire straits in the first place? Was he walking outside the will of God and therefore getting punished? Or did God get distracted and forget to watch over him? In Paul’s words, “May it never be!” The answer is contained in the Psalm – the psalmist got into these pickles because he was following God. The table in the midst of his enemies: that was prepared and placed there by God. And that wide open pasture with no protection from varmints: made by God. Then there’s that valley-of-the-shadow place – verse 3 tells us how David ended up there: “He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” David didn’t stumble into the valley, nor did he end up in this awful place because of some whim of fortune. He was following God on the path set out for him.

So how can David project such a powerful attitude of peace in this Psalm when he’s confronted with endless threats, trials and persecutions? “The Lord is my Shepherd,” he says, “I have no other need” (which better captures the sense of “I shall not want”). Most of us don’t herd sheep so it’s important to understand that sheep simply will not lie down in that open pasture unless they have no fear of attack (and they’re so flighty that a tumbling weed might be seen as an enemy) AND aren’t being bothered by parasites or bullies in the herd AND they are convinced that they are in the best tasting part of the world. So when David says the Lord “makes him lie down,” he’s saying that all these fears and personal desires are just not important enough to be brought to mind once he looks up to see the Shepherd.

The very real presence of the Lord is nowhere more obvious to David than when he is in that dreadful “valley of the shadow.” When moving through a dangerous area, the sheep not only have the shepherd with them but they can feel his staff on their side, gently keeping them on the safe and narrow road. (I’ll pass quickly by the thought that the shepherd sometimes has to use his rod – or cudgel – on the more recalcitrant sheep). And David’s focus on the shepherd allows him to sit in peace at that banquet table, ignoring the glares of his enemies on all sides.

And that overflowing cup of sorrows? Well it simply pales in comparison with God’s goodness and lovingkindness of verse six. David makes it clear that he doesn’t have to work hard to attain these attributes of the Shepherd. He doesn’t have to search or struggle, instead they “follow him,” a word that means “pursues relentlessly.” In modern terms we could say that God’s goodness and lovingkindness are stalking His people! In David’s analogy of the shepherd, these characteristics of God are depicted as the dogs that come behind the herd, keeping them safely within sight of the shepherd (again, we’ll gloss over the fact that they sometimes have to nip at the heels of the slower members of the herd).

You know, when you read through this Psalm it is only David himself who is “pastoral.” Surrounded by enemies and trials, and imminently threatened with death he is at peace solely because he is secure in the company of the Lord his shepherd. In some sense the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” almost in surprise! It’s as if he hadn’t necessarily made a decision to give up his personal fears and desires – it was instead a natural result of being with the Good Shepherd. The treasures of Heaven overwhelmed anything this world could offer.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in His wonderful face,
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
in the light of His glory and grace.

Doug Ebert, Rock Hill Church
Ϯ 2015, all rights left on the cross

1 thought on “Psalm 23: Anything BUT Pastoral

  1. Lee Martin Reply

    Living in the Psalm’s daily is a safe and healthy place to pick up greats words of wisdom and this one did not let us down.

    Thanks for sharing.

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