Shepherding in the ancient land of Palestine was one of the most humble of all occupations. It is similar to the “sweeper” in India, a low caste destined to that fate even before birth.
David was a humble shepherd boy. He became a man “after God’s own heart” and eventually rose to be anointed as King of Israel. The psalms he wrote were many of the songs he sang. He could paint in words that unique world where he once lived. While our understanding is limited due to different customs and backgrounds, the 23rd Psalm has become a universal song. We learned those beautiful words before we knew the books in the Bible. They became our beatitudes of the Old Testament, and were as familiar to us as “The Lord’s Prayer”.
Now take a cup of coffee or tea and ease back in the high-back rocker and reflect with me on the simple words of this Psalm.
“THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD I SHALL NOT WANT.” David pictures himself as a lamb and the Lord is seen as his shepherd. All needs will be supplied and he could say with Paul, “But my God shall supply all my needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).
When World War two was over the G.I.’s could not keep the orphan kids from having nightmares. During the last days of this conflict those displaced children roamed the bombed out streets, rummaging through the garbage just trying to survive from the gnawing hunger.
One of the soldiers had an idea. After supper, as the kids were being tucked into their cots, they gave each one a fresh slice of bread. But they were not allowed to eat it. A strange silence fell on the camp that night. No screaming, no nightmares. Each child slept, pressing the bread close to their heart, thinking, “I ate today and I’ve got something for tomorrow.”
“HE MAKES ME LIE DOWN IN GREEN PASTURES.” In the Holy Land sheep began grazing long before daylight while it was still cool. Sheep must be herded and led. About midmorning, the good shepherd will find a big bay tree or a large water oak and bed the sheep down. It is time to relax, chew the cud and rest. The shade provides that natural air-conditioning that renews the spirit.
“HE LEADS ME BESIDE THE STILL WATERS.” Sheep are naturally bad swimmers. They are instinctively fearful of water. Small hooves, thick coats, short necks, all contribute to the danger deep water presents. The good shepherd doesn’t mock or ridicule the sheep. He finds a natural pool that is shallow and clear, and calls the sheep to the safety of the drink.
“HE RESTORES MY SOUL.” David knew his sheep by name. When he saw one straggling behind, or one that seemed to be discouraged, he would call them by name, take them aside, scratch his woolly chin and say just those words which would restore his confidence and acceptance.
“HE LEADS ME IN THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR HIS NAME SAKE.” The apostle Peter wrote, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, not by constraint but willingly . . . and when the chief shepherd shall appear, you will receive a crown of glory that does not fade away” (I Peter 5:2-4).
“YES, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL FOR YOU ARE WITH ME.” In the Holy Land there are many ‘valleys of the shadow’. When evening comes, the twilight lingers above but the valleys below are dark and foreboding. One misstep and a sheep could fall to its death. The shepherd leads and the sheep follow, step by step.
“THY ROD AND THY STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.” The rod was of heartwood and the only offensive weapon the shepherd carried. He would defend the sheep against predators. Sheep are helpless and have no natural defense or ability to fight. If the shepherd is not there, they panic and just run in a tight circle, pressing toward the middle. The predator simply selects his prey from one on the outside of the circle and slaughters it. The staff (long crooked stick) is used to fetch a sheep or lamb that has fallen over the side of the cliff. The crook at the end of the staff is used to fit around the small part of the sheep’s chest so it can be lifted to safety.
“YOU PREPARE A TABLE BEFORE ME IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES.YOU ANNOINT MY HEAD WITH OIL, MY CUP RUNS OVER.” There is a poisonous plant that grows in abundance in the Holy Land. The good shepherd would eventually spade out this toxic plant and eventually pile them all together and burns them. In effect, the shepherd prepares the table (pasture) in the presence of the enemy (toxic plant). Come, eat till your full – it’s all good! My cup runs over.
“SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER.” So, the next time you need a “faith-lift”, just open the Book to Psalms 23. Recline in your high back rocker and rest the mind in 118 words. David would later write, “I have been young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread” (Psalms 37:25).