Creation 2.0: On the 23rd Psalm, Part 1

(Psa 23:1-6 ESV) The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

3 He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 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.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.

Imagine David in the Judean wilderness, fleeing from Saul — the king of Israel and a madman, pursuing David with an army intent on killing him.

David had been anointed king of Israel by Samuel, and Saul, in a fit of rage and insanity, drove David into the desert, to flee for his life as Saul pursued him even to the point of neglecting his responsibility to defend Israel against its enemies.

David and his men lived off the land — a dry, barren desert — and the kindness of strangers.

In one scene, David hides in the “stronghold” (1 Sam 24:22), generally considered Masada —

Imagine penning the 23rd Psalm while hiding from Saul’s armies at Masada. See any green pastures? Still waters?

It’s doesn’t seem to fit at all, and yet this is surely the situation from which the Psalm arises.

It was in the Judean wilderness that David was pursued by his enemies — and it’s in the Judean wilderness that shepherds feed their sheep

You see, we Westerners see the Psalm pictured something like this —

We see “green pastures” as vast, rich, and knee-deep in grass — not just-enough food, but overwhelmingly enough. That’s the American way.

But if you were to ask a shepherd in Judea to show you a “green pasture,” he’d show you something more like this —

It’s hard to imagine that many sheep and goats living on such dry and barren land – in the wilderness. But in Israel, farmland is too precious to waste on sheep and goats. That’s for crops — to feed people. The farms are on the western side of the mountains and on the coast, where the rains come.

But east of Bethlehem, the land becomes wilderness. Americans would call it “desert.” And the sheep aren’t allowed among the farms and must stay to the east.

Most days, a fog comes in from the Mediterranean and waters the ground — just a little — just enough for a sprig or two of grass to grow among the rocks — just enough to feed the sheep for day. If you’ve ever lived in Central California, you’ve seen the same kind of fogs that come over the mountains and water the ground.

You see, if you were in a field knee-deep in alfalfa, you wouldn’t need a shepherd to help you find green pastures. A sheep could lay about in the same field for months and be well fed. But in the Judean wilderness, the sheep must stay on the move because the food won’t last for long.

The same was true of David as he fled Saul. He couldn’t stay anywhere for long. There wasn’t much food and the enemy was always in pursuit. And yet he praised God for “green pastures” because he had enough food to survive — enough to make it one more day.

As a sheep relies on its shepherd, David counted on God to provide his food each day. “He makes me lie down” means that it’s God who finds the pastures. David could not do this by himself. Only the Shepherd knows where the next morsel of grass will be, where one more day’s food will be found. And the sheep’s job is to follow the Shepherd — not to go looking for a better field.

And this means change. God leads us all to green pastures. We would often prefer that the pastures be greener, and that we could stay in the same pasture longer. But this is not the nature of a Judean shepherd or sheep. Every day or so, it’s time to move on to find a new place to eat and lie down.

He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.

Sheep are afraid of running streams. After all, sheep can’t swim. When their coats are soaked with water, they are far too heavy.

And in Judea, the problem is even worse. Much of the water is found at the bottom of a wadi — in the American west they’re called arroyos — dried river beds. When the snow melts in the mountains or rains come, the ground is too hard and dry to absorb the water, and so floods come rushing down the wadi.

Often the rain is too far away to see or hear, and so there is usually no warning of the flood until it’s too late to climb out of the wadi.

The most common cause of death in the Judean desert is drowning.

And yet those pools of water at the bottom of a wadi are just incredibly tempting. But they aren’t “still water.” They can kill you and your sheep. And the sheep likely represent the life savings of your family, accumulated over generations.

The shepherd leads the sheep away from dangerous waters — no matter how appealing — and toward still water. And, of course, this means the sheep has to follow the shepherd. There’s no leading unless there’s also following.

The sheep likely think the shepherd is foolish, refusing to head downhill toward a pristine, beautiful pool of water. They don’t know that it’s not safe down there. They question the judgment of the shepherd, and yet they follow him.

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

The Judean desert is filled with paths, worn by sheep and shepherds who’ve traveled the desert for thousands of years before. Some of those paths lead to green pastures and still waters. Some paths were made by the shepherds who drowned along with their sheep. Not all paths are paths of righteousness.

And here’s the difference between sheep and goats. The shepherd walks a path and the sheep follow precisely on the same path the shepherd walks. They follow the shepherd.

But goats are always smarter than the shepherd. They may ultimately go where the shepherd goes, but they are going to go their own way. They refuse to follow. 

And they are more agile than sheep. They have gifts the sheep don’t have. But sometimes the goats miscalculate and get too close to a cliff, show off their talents, and fall down and die.

Now you know why, in Matt 25, Jesus takes the sheep to heaven and condemns the goats. It’s not because goats are evil. They just refuse to follow the shepherd.

They think they’re too talented, too gifted, and too agile to follow someone else.

 

 

 

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

The Judean desert is mountainous. And in the evening, the valleys turn dark before the rest of the desert. And in the desert, when it’s dark, it’s very dark indeed.

The air is so dry that the humidity doesn’t scatter the light the way the air does here. It can become very dark all at once.

If you’re walking through a desert valley and step into a shadow, it can appear almost like night — and robbers, lions, and hyenas like to hide in the shadows. It’s a scary place to be.

But sheep with a shepherd have no fear because they trust their shepherd to keep them safe.

You can imagine what it was like for David. He was fleeing Saul and his army. At dusk, whenever he turned a corner from light into shade, he could’ve been stepping into an ambush. And yet he had no choice but to flee through the shadows. He could only count on God to keep him safe.

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The shepherd carries two sticks, a rod used to defend the sheep against predators and a staff to prod straying sheep back into line. The shepherd’s job was both to defend against wolves and to discipline unruly sheep.

And David praises both — God’s protection and his discipline. We, of course, love God’s protection — but when we’re in the dangerous valley among the dark shadows, God’s discipline matters just as much. If we stray, the shepherd can’t protect us. Safety is found with the herd. If we wander off on our own in dangerous places, we should pray that God’s staff pulls us back to the herd.

Discipline is embarrassing. Discipline requires submission. Discipline is extremely unpopular in the modern church. And yet David thanks God for it — even though the discipline he was experiencing was life in the desert, fleeing from an angry king.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

It seems most likely that David is referring to his anointing by the elders of Judah at Hebron after Saul’s death — the end of David’s flight from Saul and the beginning of his reign as king. David had no enemies when he was first anointed by Samuel. But at Hebron, not only were the Philistines his enemies, but so was Saul’s oldest surviving son, who sat on the throne of the other 11 tribes for seven years.

In this verse, David looks forward to the outcome of God’s leading. Because David follows God wherever God leads, God rewards him with sumptuous food, ample drink, and a crown. David is anointed king — by the elders of Judah, but in recognition of God’s choice of David as king — and so he leaves the desert and goes to live in a palace.

David’s enemies —the Philistines, others who want to take his throne — could only stand back and watch as God blesses David and gives him Saul’s kingdom.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

But “the house of the Lord” is not the palace. Throughout the Old Testament, the phrase refers to the Tabernacle and, later, to the Temple.

During David’s reign, the ark of the covenant was brought to Jerusalem, but the tabernacle was not moved to Jerusalem until the Temple was built by Solomon (2 Chron 1:3). However, because the ark was in Jerusalem, David built a tent there to house the ark and instituted formal singing and instrumental worship (1 Chron 6:32).

Therefore, the “house of the Lord” is surely a reference to this temporary tent, replaced by the grandeur of Solomon’s temple only after David’s death.

David’s real goal was not the palace, where kings live, but the ark — because God sits enthroned on the mercy seat above the ark. David’s goal was to be with God, even though it meant leaving a palace to spend time in a tent.

Having spent so many years in the desert, where his only protection and his only sustenance was God, when things got good, when he could take his ease, he still saw his home as near God’s throne, rather than his own.

Avatar of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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One Response to Creation 2.0: On the 23rd Psalm, Part 1

  1. Terry says:

    Yes, I had a green Texas pasture in mind when I read Ps 23. To me this shows David’s complete reliance on God and the peace that came for it. Thanks Jay, this is a great lesson. God Bless

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