Psalm 23 has been precious to the saints throughout the ages. It gives comfort in the midst of death, and it strengthens our delight and trust in the Lord because He is our Shepherd.
Its author is David who knew the Lord as Jacob did, “the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day” (Genesis 48:15 ESV). As king of the nation, David knew Him as the “Shepherd of Israel” (Psalm 80:1 ESV). And, David, too, was a shepherd—first of sheep and then of Israel. God “took him from the sheepfolds…to shepherd Jacob his people” (Psalm 78:70–72 ESV). David was uniquely qualified to write Psalm 23.
In looking at the first four verses of this psalm, we see that…
Our greatest delight is to know the Lord as shepherd (Psalm 23:1–4).
We can summarize how the Lord ministers to us as our Shepherd in four ways:
First, the Lord gives (Psalm 23:1).
David’s statement “I shall not want” stems from having the Lord as his Shepherd—He gives to us Himself as our Shepherd, which meets our greatest desires.
But how exactly does He shepherd us? Psalm 23:2–4 lists in detail how the Lord ministers as Shepherd.
Second, the Lord guides (Psalm 23:2).
The Lord guides us to be at peace, pictured by the guidance of a sheep to “green pastures” and “still waters,” places where sheep can safely eat, drink, and rest. Through His Word and the gospel, the Lord guides us to be at peace, if nothing else, with Him through Christ who died for us (Romans 5:10). If this is so, we will experience this peace in full when He brings us into His glorious kingdom (cf. Romans 16:20).
Third, the Lord governs (Psalm 23:3).
Using the word “governs,” we capture the idea of the Lord watching over and bringing back a wayward sheep. The word “restore” (šwb) implies these thoughts.
This word can be used to describe physical restoration, whether strength (Lamentations 1:11, 19) or life itself (1 Kings 17:21, 22). Spiritually speaking, the soul can be restored by a comforter (Lamentations 1:16) or faithful messenger (Proverbs 25:3). As David uses the word here, the imagery of the shepherd restoring the sheep indicates that the Lord brings His wayward children back to Himself and makes them spiritually whole.
Isaiah used this word when he foretold that the Christ would restore Israel to the Lord (Isaiah 49:5 ESV). Christ likewise does so for us today: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25 ESV).
The reason for restoring His sheep is “for His name’s sake.” The Lord will not allow His reputation as Shepherd to be shamed by a sheep’s wayward walk. He gathers us away from evil ways to lead us unto “paths of righteousness” so that others think highly of Him as a Shepherd.
Fourth, the Lord guards (Psalm 23:4).
In perhaps the most memorable portion of this psalm, David speaks of when he would “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Death is so close to the sheep that it is overshadowed by it. This “shadow of death” (ṣalmāwet) is not just literal darkness but indeed speaks of death. It is elsewhere paralleled to “the gates of deep death” (Job 38:17) and the death-giving desert, “a land of drought” (Jeremiah 2:6).
Despite walking in death’s valley, “evil” brings no “fear” to David because the Lord is present with him (“you are with me”)—notice how David moves from speaking about to speaking to his Shepherd. An Ancient Near Eastern shepherd led by going ahead. Here the Lord walks beside the sheep in this valley. Only He is present, it seems.
Furthermore, the valley’s evil brings no fear because “comfort comes from the Lord’s “rod and staff,” tools of defense against enemies (cf. 1 Samuel17:35) or for controlling the sheep through such a perilous walk.
Summarizing the Lord’s shepherding ministries up to this point, we saw that our greatest delight is to know the Lord as shepherd because He gives Himself to us, guides us in following Him, governs us back to Him when we go astray, and guards us as death is near (Psalm 23:1–4).
Coming to the last two verses of our psalm, we see that…
Our greatest dwelling is in the house of the Lord (Psalm 23:5–6).
At this point, David breaks from the imagery of the Lord as his shepherd to speak of what it is to dwell in the house of the Lord. We could summarize these verses with two statements:
First, the Lord gives His people a grand entrance (Psalm 23:5).
We see this entrance into the house in how the Lord prizes His people.
The Lord Himself is the table-master who delights to “prepare a table” for his guests. The psalm thus moves from a personal metaphor of sheep and shepherd to something even more intimate—companions at the table who eat together.
The Lord even goes so far as to “anoint my head with oil” and make sure the guest’s “cup overflows.” Anointing a guest with oil was an act of celebration (cf. Psalm 104:15) or welcoming someone into the home (cf. Luke 7:44, 46). An overflowing cup showed an abundance lavished upon the guest. This picture shows us that the Lord lavishes His love upon us as His children who make up the household of God.
Once in the house, we see also that the Lord protects His people. This table, anointing, and overflowing cup are “in the presence of my enemies.” Whereas David once spoke of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, now he has moved to sitting at the Lord’s table because the enemies have been conquered or have been held at bay so that feasting can take place. Either way, the picture is one of protection—He keeps us in His house, and once there, there is no one that can harm us.
Second, the Lord gives His people a grand eternity (Psalm 23:6).
The psalm moves from (1) being led by the shepherd (Psalm 23:3) to (2) walking with the shepherd (Psalm 23:4) to (3) eating with the Lord (Psalm 23:5) and finally, to (4) dwelling with the Lord forever. The intimate setting for a meal in Psalm 23:5 anticipates constant fellowship in Psalm 23:6.
In this final scene, we see this grand eternity in how the Lord pursues His people. They are not the one’s to chase “goodness and mercy,” but these blessings rather “follow” them. This takes place, yes, “all the days of my life,” but it is something true for the one who will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Besides this promise, a note of comfort closes the psalm with one last use of šwb. Earlier translated “restores” in Psalm 23:3, the semantic range of šwb allows for “dwell” in Psalm 23:6. While “dwelling” is the primary thought, having Psalm 23:3 in mind, David may have meant to recall that wandering sheep, if truly God’s sheep, will be shepherded back into the fold and with such grace that such a one will one day never wander again. Just as the Lord pursues His residents with blessing, so also He preserves them in bringing them to heaven.
Summarizing our look at Psalm 23:5–6, we saw that the Lord meets our every desire to want nothing else (cf. Psalm 23:1) because He does more than minister to us in the present—He will faithfully love us for all our days in heaven and graciously ensures that we will be there.
Whether we are facing the best of times (Psalm 23:1–2, 5–6), looking death in the face (Psalm 23:4), or walking away from the Lord (Psalm 23:4) – if we are God’s sheep, we will see (Psalm 23:1) or be faithfully and firmly shown (Psalm 23:3) that our greatest delight in this life and the one to come is only found in Him. May we delight in our Shepherd all the days of our life and for eternity.1