Psalm 23: A Sheep's Testimony

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Almost everyone knows Psalm 23. Even non-Christians have heard it because it seems to be a favorite at their funerals. But it’s not a psalm of death, but of life, rest and peace. It is a psalm that heals, delivers, comforts and set free. And for something 3,000 years old, it is extremely relevant for our lives today!

Psalm 23 is the best known and most popular of all the psalms. Many people know this psalm by heart. The psalm is loved by Jews and Christians alike, speaking as it does of God’s protection and care.

Psalm 23 may be divided into two sections. The first explores the image of God as Shepherd, guiding and caring for his sheep. And the second section is the image of the sheep talking to the shepherd.

In order to understand Psalm 23, you MUST know something about the shepherd, and you MUST know something about the sheep, and you MUST travel along with the sheep. There are three distinct places in this psalm. First the sheep are in the green pasture, then in the valley of shadow of death and finally they are dwelling in the house of the Lord.

In order to understand Psalm 23, you MUST know that Psalm 23 is really the testimony of the sheep. David speaks of the relationship of the shepherd to his sheep. David lists all the benefits that the sheep receive from the shepherd. As we go through this short psalm of 6 verses and 117 words, think of yourself as a sheep with the Lord as your shepherd.

Psalm 23, Verse 1: “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.”

This is A Testimony of Sufficiency. The sheep do not worry because they know the shepherd will provide them with everything they need. A good shepherd is personally concerned with the welfare of his sheep. Saying I shall not want means it is not only present tense but future tense as well. I shall not want now in the present and I shall not want in the future.

Psalm 23, Verse 2: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

This is A Testimony of Satisfaction. Let’s talk about the green pastures first.

Green pastures are where sheep eat. Sheep graze from around sunrise until late morning. They then lie down for three or four hours and rest. The good shepherd starts his flocks out in the early hours on the rougher terrain, moving on through the morning to the richer, sweeter grasses, finally coming to a shady place for the afternoon rest in fine green pastures, for the best grazing of the day. Sheep, while resting in such happy surroundings, feel contented. Sheep must be made to lie down lie down in green pastures. Otherwise, they would fall asleep while standing up.

Every shepherd knows that sheep do not like to drink gurgling water. There are many small springs high in the Holy Land, whose waters run down the valleys only to evaporate in the desert sun.

There is plenty of water, but it can be dangerous to get to. So shepherds lead his sheep beside still waters. He just doesn’t lead his sheep to whatever water he can find. He makes sure it is fresh, cool water locate in a safe place. Although the sheep need the water, they prefer not to drink from these fast-flowing streams. The shepherd must find a place where rocks or erosion have made a little pool, or else he fashions with his hands a pocket sufficient to hold at least a bucketful. A sheep could easily fall into the raging current and be swept down stream. And a sheep really doesn’t stand much of a chance when he’s in the water.

The combination of green pastures and still waters portrays God’s refreshing care for His own.

Psalm 23, Verse 3: “He restoreth my soul, He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” This is A Testimony of Sovereignty.

Sheep are not very smart. They have a predictable inclination to lose their way. They can be in a pasture with plenty of grass and adequate water and still wander aimlessly until they have nothing to eat or drink. Once lost, they can’t find their way back. Many animals seem to have inborn compasses - not so with sheep. Once lost, the shepherds must go and find them.

People are like sheep. Isaiah the prophet wrote in Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray...”

Sheep aren’t the masters of their domain. They are owned by their shepherd. The shepherd leads them to where he wants them to go. The sheep don’t get a choice, they don’t make decisions for themselves.

Like sheep, we have a profound tendency to desert what is good for us. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. So often we go away from God into sin, but Psalm 23:3 gives us some good news. And that good news is that . . .

“He restoreth my soul.”

We are saved by grace, restored by grace and kept by grace. There are three kinds of sheep that need to be restored to fellowship with the shepherd: the straying sheep who are restored by the rod; the straying sheep who are restored by the staff; and the sick sheep who are restored with the oil.

The straying sheep are restored by the rod. The rod is used as protection against the wild animals, but also used as a means to discipline the stubborn sheep. Note that discipline is more than punishment. It is preventative development. There is danger in no discipline. The rod serves at least two purposes. One purpose is to keep us from danger. Another purpose is to help us develop.

The straying sheep are restored with the staff. The staff is sometimes called the shepherd’s crook. The hook was just the right size to fit around the neck of a large sheep, or around the body of a little lamb. The shepherd would use the staff to draw sheep to him, to guide the sheep or to lift fallen sheep.

The sick sheep are restored with the oil. The shepherd would bring his sheep into the fold one at a time calling them by name. He thoroughly examined the sheep for thorns, bruises, scabs, and raw places. A soothing oil would be applied to the wounds.

Still in Psalm 23: 3, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness...Even when the Shepherd had restored the sheep, He was not finished. He restoreds them so they might continue along their way. Since sheep have poor eyesight, they must stay close to the shepherd so they can observe him and listen so they can obey him. Sheep cannot see more than fifteen yards ahead of them, so they need to be led.

Please notice here that before the sheep could be led in the paths of righteousness,they needed to be restored. The problem with so many of us is that after we are restored, we don’t want to be led in the paths of righteousness. If we are only restored, we will be right back in the same condition. After restoration, we should be like sheep who follow and stay very close to the shepherd.

“...for His namesake.”

He leads us in paths of righteousness for our sake and for His name’s sake. The Good Shepherd’s name is judged by the behavior, condition, and welfare of His sheep. God has connected His name and His glory with the walk and conduct of His people. Only if we walk in “paths of righteousness” can we uphold the reputation of the Good Shepherd and bring glory and honor to the name of God.

Psalm 23, Verse 4: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me: Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”

This is a Testimony of the Sheep’s Security. Let’s take each part of Verse 4 and explain it separately.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...”

There really is a valley of the shadow of death in the Holy Land through which all shepherds had to lead their sheep. It is south of the Jericho Road leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and is a narrow passage way through the mountain range. Climatic and grazing conditions make it necessary for the sheep to be moved through this valley for seasonal feeding. The valley is four and a half miles long. Its sidewalls are over 1500 feet high in places and it is only 10 or 12 feet wide at the bottom. Travel through the valley is dangerous. Actual footing on solid rock is so narrow in places that a sheep cannot turn around. If the sheep slips and lands in the gully, the shepherd’s staff is placed around his neck and the sheep is pulled back up to safety.

Many wild dogs, bears, lions, hyenas, and robbers would lurk in the shadows of the valley looking for prey. It was a treacherous valley - a dark valley of perpetual shadows and dangers.They named it “Shadow of Death” because the possibility of danger and death was always present when the shepherd entered entered it with his sheep.

Notice that the psalmist did not say, “Yea though I walk in the valley.” He said, “Yea though I walk through the valley.” And, then, it is not “the valley of death,” but “the valley of the shadow of death,” for death in its substance has been removed, and only the shadow of it remains. Someone has said that where there is a shadow there must be light somewhere.

To get the sheep safely through the valley, there must be a Shepherd. To get through our own valley of shadow of death,we too must be led by a Shepherd.

"I will fear no evil for thou art with me."

The shepherd who guides is always with the sheep. The sheep do not worry about nor fear this valley because they trust the Shepherd. And we should trust the Lord as our Shepherd as well.

"Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”

The staff is like the familiar shepherd’s crook. It was used to herd the flock along and to rescue a sheep that may need to be pulled out of the briars. The rod was more of a weapon that the shepherd could use to beat off an attacking prey. The shepherd does not beat his sheep with the rod or staff. When the shepherd is in the field with his sheep, it is customary to carry the bare minimum of equipment. The shepherd’s staff becomes his main weapon of defense for both himself and his sheep.

Also, the rod was used in the counting of the sheep. This meant not only being counted, but being carefully inspected by the shepherd. The shepherd stretches out his rod, the sheep stop, and then the inch-by-inch examination of each sheep is performed in intimate detail. Because of their long wool, it is not always easy to detect disease, wounds, or defects in the sheep. The shepherd would take his rod and part the sheep’s wool to determine the condition of the skin. The shepherd carefully inspects each and every sheep leaving out not even one.

Psalm 23, Verse 5: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.”

This is the Testimony of Safety. This is where the psalm changes from speaking about the Shepherd in the third person to speaking directly to the Shepherd. The first part of the psalm while in the green pasture, David says, The Lord; but here he says, Thou which means You.

“Thou preparest a table...”

Full sheep are happy sheep, but the sheep must have a table land prepared for them because of their enemies. The shepherd would go ahead from time to time to seek out and prepare safe feeding places. The Shepherd prepares a table but it is not a table as we know it. It is not a table with four legs. The Shepherd makes a square with his rod on one side, his staff on the other side, his coat at the bottom and he himself would lie down to sleep with the sheep; thus making a table for the sheep to be protected from enemies.

Thou anointest my head with oil...”

As each sheep passes by in a single file, the Shepherd quickly examines it for briers in the eyes, snags in the cheek, or scratches. When such conditions are found, he dropa the rod across the sheep’s back and it steps out of line. The shepherd would rub oil on a sheep’s cuts and scrapes and also into its ears and around its eyes to keep flies and bugs away. This was the shepherd’s method of healing and comfort for the sheep and was done several times a day because the oil was a cooling and soothing effect upon the sheep when they are in the blazing sun.

“My cup runneth over.”
After each sheep’s wounds were carefully cleaned, the shepherd dips his hand into the olive oil and anoints the injury. A large cup was dipped into a jar of water that had been kept cool in pottery. The large cup was brought out; never half full but ALWAYS overflowing so the sheep could sink its face into the water to clear his eyes and to drink until refreshed.

Psalm 23, Verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This is the Sheep’s Testimony of Surety.

Everyone knows about the goodness and mercy of God. God’s goodness is His provision for the good times and His mercy is His provision for the bad times. Goodness takes care of our steps and mercy takes care of our stumbles.

“all the days of my life.”

This mean eternally, forever, forevermore, and as long as you live. God’s love, care, protection and provision are not seasonal, but all the days of your life.

As we come to the end of the 23rd Psalm we are given some great news . . . “you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The word “dwell” means to settle down and be at home. The “house of the Lord” is a state of constant joy; no more sorrow, no more separation. It will be for eternity - a long time. If the Lord is our Shepherd, we too can dwell in the house of the Lord for all eternity.

What do you think David wants us to remember from the 23rd Psalm?

I believe David wants us to know that the basic job description of a shepherd is to guide his sheep. He guides them from pasture to pasture. He guides them from one watering hole to the next. He guides them onto safe paths and away from the thorns and briars. He’s constantly giving his sheep direction.

To say, “The Lord is my shepherd” is to say God is always guiding you and you are following close behind Him. Sometimes God has to prod you along but like sheep He does it not to punish you but to protect you.

After restoration, God puts you on the paths of righteousness and prepares a table for you in the presence of your enemies.

You have read my explanation of the 23rd Psalm as it has resonated within my heart. No matter how well you know the 23rd Psalm, I believe you should revisit it from time to time so God can speak to you through it. Please join me now in reciting the 23rd Psalm. Are you ready? Let’s begin...

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Comments 2 comments

heavenbound5511 profile image

heavenbound5511 5 years ago from Under the shadow of the Almighty God!

Hi Revmjm!

This is a really good study on Ps 23, thanks for sharing!

God bless you.


Michael Adams1959 profile image

Michael Adams1959 5 years ago from Wherever God leads us.

I heard a story of an old orator from the 1800's. As he was close to ending his speaking for the night he asked if anyone had a request. An old man stood up and asked if he could do the 23rd Psalm. The speaker said sure but will you come up and do it with me. The two shared the stage and the orator recited Psalm 23, then the old man did it. The orator asked the old man if he knew the difference between the two of them as they recited Psalm 23. Puzzled the old man said no and the speaker said I know the 23rd Psalm and you know the writer of the 23rd Psalm, He told the man I speak by the gift of a great voice you speak from the heart.

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