The 23rd Psalm is probably the best known and loved psalm in the Bible. There are at least two reasons for this: it is written in a simple, clear way with most words of 2 syllables and a few with 3. This makes it easy to understand without leaving a lot of room for different views. Second, it has a deeply personal feel to it. Many times in this short psalm are the words I, me, my and mine used. The truths contained in this psalm are easy to apply directly to our lives.
To know the joy of this psalm, we need a personal relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep (John 10:11). The presence and sacrifice of Jesus are made clear in Psalm 22, where He is portrayed as the One dying for our sins on the cross.
We know that the Great Shepherd in Psalm 23 is Jesus our Lord. This is easy to see in the Scriptures (Heb. 13:20-21). We also know that our Shepherd is mighty God Himself, the Great I AM (Ex. 3:14; John 8:58). (His identity is never more clear than in John 1:1-3).
Psalm 23 opens with the LORD is my Shepherd. It doesn’t say the Shepherd. This conveys a personal, one-on-one relationship with Him. We can say by faith what is said in a famous verse of the Old Testament: He is ours and we are His (Song 2:16). He is our King whose perfect rule will be established (Lk. 23:2-3).
Only Jesus could be our Great Shepherd, who never slumbers or sleeps — but always keeps watch over us (Ps. 121:3-5). We are the sheep of His pasture (Ps. 100:3). We are His creation (Eph. 2:10). Because of His divine protection and care, we have no reason to want anything. We are to be content in our present circumstances (Phil.4:11-12).
Because of Jesus, we are free to “lie down in green pastures.” This gives us a picture of rest and contentment. A sheep will rest when it feels protected from its enemies, is not troubled by the activities of other sheep in the flock and is free from hunger. Our Lord provides such things for the asking when we cast our burdens on Him (Ps. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:7). If we keep focused on Him, we shall feel His peace (Is. 26:3). Is this the experience we have in our own lives?
In order to experience the “rest” written about in the second verse, we must remember WHO is our great Shepherd. With the LORD as our Shepherd & Helper, there is nothing to fear from anyone (Ps. 56:3-4; Is. 12:2). We must remember who it is that is to lead us. As sheep, it is all too easy for us to choose our own path and go our own way, possibly leading to harm or our own destruction. How does He lead us? He does so by His word (Ps. 119:105). If we meditate on His word, He will guide us on the right path.
In verse 3, we read that He restores our soul. Not only does He make sure that our physical needs are taken care of, He also restores us spiritually. Pertaining to the second part of this verse, the King James Version Bible Commentary says the paths are “not rabbit trails to oblivion but are paths of pleasantness and peace” (Prov. 3:17). Once again we are reminded that it is He who should lead us to be sure we are on a path to righteousness and not one of our own destruction.
In verse 4, we discover the Great Shepherd taking us through the valley of the shadow of death. Yet, as frightening as that may seem, we are to fear no evil because we are being led by the greatest Shepherd of them all, the Lord Jesus. The rod and staff are symbols of the shepherd’s office. They remind the sheep of the Shepherd’s rule as He guides them on a dangerous journey to a better pasture.
Verse 5 shows us that we can have perfect peace even in the presence of our enemies. There are 2 questions we might consider when we think about the table prepared: What is on the table and who is at the table? Put another way, we might think of food and fellowship. The food meets the needs of our souls, as reminded by our Lord. Only He can truly provide what we need (Jn. 6:35).
Who do we find at the table? First, our Lord Jesus — our great Shepherd. Second, there are those of us who are lost sheep, found by Him and redeemed. The table is a place where food is shared. Often food is shared by people in fellowship with each other. Jesus uses the idea of sharing meals together to remind us to keep fellowship with Him and each other (Rev. 3:20; Jn. 21:17).
Thou anointest my head with oil. Shepherds would carry a flask of oil and apply it to the scratched faces of their sheep who would get injured looking for food among thorns and thistles. Jesus often provides us healing on our journey. Anointing often infers blessing (Ps. 45:7; 92:10; Ecc. 9:8). Our cups may run over as we are continually filled to overflowing with the hope provided by the Spirit of God (Ro. 15:13).
In the 6th and final verse, we are offered absolute assurance that the graces of goodness and mercy will follow us all of our lives and we will be with Him forever. This is the prayer of Psalm 27:4. We are assured that He will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He will come for us! (Jn. 14:2-3)