1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[a] 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 your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.Psalm 23
[a] Or the valley of the shadow of death
Today I am back in the valleys and this time am considering one of the Bible’s most well known references to valleys. Last term I studied Psalm 23 and I was amazed by how much David packs into these 6 short verses. This amazing Psalm speaks of the care God’s and provision that God gives to his sheep. David of course had been a shepherd prior to becoming King and he knew all too well the characteristics of a good shepherd:
The Good Shepherd (v1-3)
The first three verses shows the care and provision of God in abundance. David says that the Lord is his shepherd (1a). Who is the Lord? He is the initiator, creator, sustainer and Lord of everything. As a result David is able to say that he lacks nothing (1b) because of the care his Good Shepherd had provided him. Yes David is talking about the fact that he has a great Shepherd but he is also expressing a measure of contentment in all that His Shepherd provides: he has found a place of satisfaction.
Next David says that this Shepherd makes him lie down in pastures green (2a). Sheep don’t tend to lie down unless they are free from fear, pests, hunger and the attentions of other sheep. The shepherd’s role is to help provide such freedoms through his care for the sheep. Green pastures don’t just happen by accident but are the result of hard labour. Sheep also need to drink and again David is able to testify that his shepherd leads him by quiet waters (2b). He knows that the sheep need it, he knows where to find it and he takes us there to refresh our soul (3a).
David of course knew what it was to feel downcast (e.g. Psalm 42 & 43) and it mirrors the same experience that the sheep face at times. Part of the shepherd’s care is to attend to the cast down sheep quickly to restore it and get it going again. Perhaps that is where you are right now but the advice of the Psalm is to seek the restoration that only our Good Shepherd can provide.
The shepherd does not leave the sheep to their own devices. These creatures of habit need careful managing so that they don’t destroy the land through over grazing. In the same way the Good Shepherd guides His sheep along the right paths for his name’s sake (3b). We too are stubborn and by nature go our own way (Isaiah 53:6). Only by coming to the Shepherd do we experience life to the full (John 10:10).
Walking in the darkest valley (v4)
The phrase I really want to pick up on here is at the beginning of v4 when David speaks of his own journey through the valley. It is common for sheep to spend different parts of the year in different places. Perhaps they spend the winter on the flat and the summer in the mountains often quite far from their winter base. In the spring and autumn however will be the long journey through the valley to reach these places. For the sheep this journey would be a significant journey spent alone with their Shepherd. David of all people knew from first hand experience about the up and down sides of the time spent in the valley and yet he is still able to say that he will fear no evil for his Shepherd was with him (4b). We can stop here to observe a few things about valleys, both positively and negatively:
- Negatively valleys can be challenging places inhabited by dangerous predators. Sometimes valleys lie at the foot of steep walled cliffs on either side from which rocks, mud and snow can come tumbling down. A few years ago we were hiking a valley only 10 minutes from our base. During the hike a rain storm struck and left some rather grumpy hikers. Yet out of the valley, back at base camp there was no rain at all!
- Positively valleys will often form the best routes to the tops of mountains, following the contours of the mountain en route to the summits. Not only do valleys great hiking routes but they are also rich places in terms of food and water. This makes the valley a place of huge potential to be a source of refreshment to the sheep.
My love for mountains is of course well documented and where there is a mountain there are also valleys! Many will know that the past 5 years have been something of a valley experience for us. There have been lots of high points: times walking the summits which have been a huge encouragement. That said the times in the valleys have at times been really hard places to be travelling through. Valleys however are not an end in itself just part of the journey upwards. Like David, our Good Shepherd has led us to pockets of refreshment en route that have been real life-savers. We have learned so much about how there is nothing to fear because God is with us. Likely there are many more valleys to come but we can be sure that God is always with us as our Shepherd and guide. The final part of the verse talks about how the road and staff are a comfort to the sheep and they are used to control and correct the sheep. Gods input in our lives, however hard, is vital to comfort and guide us on our way.
The Goodness and love of the Shepherd (v5-6)
In this final section of the Psalm David returns to some of the themes of the early part of this Psalm (it is chiastic in structure). Again we see lots about the Shepherd’s care and provision for his sheep: specifically here he speaks of the preparation of a table in the presence of his enemies. This image speaks of the high mountain plateau that the Shepherd visits in advance to find the best places and remove dangers (the so called enemies) that will harm the sheep. We may never fully appreciate the efforts our Shepherd goes to in order to prepare a table for us both in this life and the next!
The next verse (5a) picks up the idea again of pests (flies, mosquitoes, gnats etc) which plague sheep during the summer months. These attention of these pests can work the sheep up into quite a panic as they try, most likely unsuccessfully to escape their harassment. For many years we travelled to a remote lakeside location in Latvia for a kids camp. The place was besieged with mosquitoes who had the amazing ability to drill through clothes! During the evenings they soon became an almost unbearable irritant for many of those with us. For this reason both we and the Shepherds would apply something to repel the pests – we would use bug spray and the Shepherds would anoint their sheep with oil. The difference this made was massive: how much more we enjoy something when we are not being attacked on every front. For this reason we could well see why David would then says that his cup overflows (5b).
David finishes the Psalm with a summary statement about the goodness and love of the Shepherd (6a). Like the sheep who knows they have a fantastic shepherd, so David believes that these things will follow him all the days of his life. This implicit confidence in the Shepherd is drawn from the way that His Shepherd has cared for him in the past. It is a testimony to the faithfulness of the Good Shepherd. I am sure we can all think of times when it has felt like our Shepherd has abandoned us. Times when it seemed like there were only one set of footprints in the sand, yet is not possible that when we look back with hindsight we will see that there was only one set of footprints because we were being carried!
David’s last statement is also a bold and confident assertion that he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (6b). This is the image of the sheep who is satisfied with his lot in life. All in all, this great Psalm helps us see the value of passing through the valley and why there is no need to fear because of the love, presence, care and provision of the one who is our Good Shepherd.