The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. – Psalm 23
The above Psalm is probably the most well known Psalm of David, and one of the most popular Bible passages. But what does it really mean, and how have so many people in different lands and times found inspiration from it?
My first thoughts on reading this Psalm were to think about what it means to have God as our shepherd. Shepherds provide for the flocks they look after; they give them food, water, shelter, safety, healing, and comfort.
This encompasses all the basic needs we have in this life, not our wants, just those things we need for survival. The shepherd treats his sheep like his little family, and to him, their needs are the most important part of his job.
This is all very well in practice but where I have a problem is that it’s not always true. I mentioned how many people throughout the ages have drawn comfort from these words – but what about people who live in times of famine? What about people who suffer in war, who lose their homes and belongings and struggle to survive? Whilst we know God looks after our everyday needs, and many of us are lucky enough to have our daily bread provided there is no doubt that some people who trust in God suffer great hardship.
So maybe my initial thoughts, whilst valid, are not the only interpretation of this passage. I think it is also helpful to view this Psalm in terms of the journey we take through life. If we follow God, he is always one step ahead of us leading the way, like a shepherd. Now for some flocks, the way will be easy. The shepherd will lead them on sunny days, through green meadows and past running water. But for other flocks on other days, the weather might be bad, there may be wild animals on the way, and the way itself might be hard going, stony, full of thorns, or with obstacles in the way.
However for all these flocks the end result is the same. The shepherd leads them safely into the fold – just as we know that our path will eventually lead us to the kingdom if we follow God faithfully. Regardless of how easy or difficult the way has been, we will all come safely into that haven and our shepherd will welcome us in.
The lessons we can take away from this Psalm are valuable. Those of us who are blessed with our everyday needs should thank God for his provisions, whilst not forgetting to pray for those who are not so well off as ourselves.
Most importantly, we can all look forward to that day when the shepherd will lead us into his fold with open arms, and say, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord”.