A Song for Those Shepherded by the King.

Psalm 23 could accurately be called the most well-known Psalm and probably one of the most well-known passages in the Old Testament. We memorize it and recite it at sickbeds and gravesides. When passages become overly familiar, there is a danger that we will miss the details. However, there is needed truth about our great God, power for our godly living, and room to grow to be found in any familiar passage.

The theme of the Psalm is clearly stated in verse 1: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." This is the main point of the passage, and everything else in this small Psalm supports that immense truth. For modern readers, this word evokes a simple, pastoral life. The setting is often envisioned as a deep blue sky contrasted with green hills and pleasant pastures, flowering with white sheep. The shepherd is strong and heroic, a capable and faithful provider and protector, but probably no one as important as a great king or powerful CEO. We must unpack the author’s and audience's understanding of a shepherd to see just how powerful and capable is the shepherd of Psalm 23.

The Placement of the Psalm

Psalms 20-24 are all psalms of King David that speak of the Lord as the absolute Sovereign. Read Psalm 20:7-9, Psalm 21:1, 13, Psalm 22:28, and Psalm 24:8. Each of these psalms show there is a kingly aspect to the image of a shepherd in the Old Testament. This is also evidenced other places, such as 2 Samuel 5:2, 1 Kings 22:17, and Matthew 9:36. Forty-six out of 167 uses of the word "shepherd" in the Old Testament are found in conjunction with the understanding of a ruler or leader, many of them directly tied to the concept of a king’s rule.

Other writings in the ancient Near East record the use of the concept of shepherd as ruler-king. The Persian King Cyrus is referred to by God as the shepherd who will fulfill all His purpose in Isaiah 44:28. The Code of Hammurabi (a written law that has survived from the second millennium B.C.) refers to Hammurabi as the Shepherd of Babylon. Similarly, the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal was called a shepherd of Assyria. Notably, this king spent the majority of his reign merely trying to hold his state together. In contrast, our Shepherd in Psalm 23 is not limited in resources, power, and provision.

Also unlike human leaders who abuse their positions, the people under the care of the King-Shepherd of Psalm 23 will never be crushed or marginalized by self-seeking power or prestige. Indeed, all that this Shepherd does is good (verse 6). His ability provides stability to all under His care.

The Personal Structure of the Psalm

Modern citizens are used to being known by a number, but the King-Shepherd of Psalm 23 knows each of his sheep by name. Governments have limited capacity to know their citizens; but our Shepherd is personal. This is shown even in the structure of the psalm. He is called "my shepherd." Verses 1-3 are in the third person, telling about the Shepherd. Verses 4-5 turns to the second person, speaking to the Shepherd. Verse 6 summarizes the theme and praises this Shepherd as good, loving, faithful, merciful, and providing unlike any other shepherd.

The phrase "I shall not want" also needs further explanation for Western minds. We often confuse wants and needs. The Psalm also speaks of the need for restoration, the shadow of death, and enemies. It is apparent the singer (like us) is not getting everything he wants. By design, our Kingly Shepherd gives us what we need for our good and His glory. His good and necessary provision is vividly illustrated in Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Deuteronomy 2:7 uses the same word as Psalm 23:1 when it says the Israelites "have not lacked a thing." Deuteronomy 8:2-4 explains that God allowed hunger to teach them to rely on Him. He knows our good better than we do. Do we want God's shepherding more than our own ideas?

Metaphors in the Psalm

Psalm 23 uses the metaphor of the shepherd and of a table set for a feast. The royal metaphor combines with the shepherding metaphor in verse 4 in the image of the rod. The same word is used in Psalm 2:9 to describe the shattering of rebellious nations and in Psalm 45:6 denotes a scepter. This word shows that the Shepherd is still in charge even in the valley of the shadow of death.

The banquet table is a generous picture of the able provision for all those who are shepherded by the King. It is easy to be distracted by the allurements of this world until the provision of the Kingly Shepherd is replaced with other potentially good but ultimately unsatisfying things. We must remind ourselves to sit at the table our King provides!

Micah 5:2-4 speaks of the Messiah to come, Jesus, who is our King and our Shepherd. As is promised in Psalm 23, He promised in His commission to the church, "I am with you always, even unto the ends of the age" (Matthew 28:20). This song is for those shepherded by the King to sing about Him and to sing often (Colossians 3:16).

Application Points

  • It is one thing to know that God is provider; it is an altogether different thing to be satisfied and rest in that provision. You may not have everything you want, but is what your wise and sovereign Shepherd supplies enough? Are the Shepherd’s green pastures and refreshing waters enough to restore your soul?
  • Don't be allured by the scraps of the world when you are invited to a royal banquet by the divine Shepherd-Ruler. Think specifically about your Sundays: do you allow so many good things to get packed in to your day that you do not have time for spiritual nourishment? Gathered worship is just the beginning of this.

For Further Encouragement

Listen to a version of this psalm set to music by Maranatha Baptist University.