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Psalm 23: Metaphors of Intimacy, Security and Love

Blog by Rob Vandeman

Psalm 23 has rightly found its place in the hearts of Christian readers. Praying the psalm helps one to express trust in God and to experience calm in the midst of life’s troubles, including imminent death. There are, in this best known and most loved of all psalms, two graphic pictures of God’s intimate relationship with one of His people. The first is the shepherd and his sheep, the second the host and his guest.

It was natural for a pastoral community to think of the Lord as their shepherd, who “brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the desert (Ps 78:53; see also Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 40:11). But here the metaphor is made unmistakably personal. “The Lord is my shepherd,” the psalmist boldly claims, and does not even mention the other sheep of the flock.

It is almost impossible to read this psalm without thinking of Jesus Christ, who dared to reapply the metaphor from Jehovah to Himself. It is He who is to us “the Good Shepherd,” “the Chief Shepherd,” and “that Great Shepherd of the sheep” (John 10:11,14; 1 Peter 5:4; Hebrews 13:20).

Once I can say from personal experience the Lord is my shepherd, I can add with assurance the consequence: I shall not lack anything.* The Good Shepherd cares for His sheep and so provides for all my needs. He makes me lie down in green pastures to satisfy my hunger, and He leads me beside refreshing waters to quench my thirst (verse 2). For His name’s sake, that is, out of loyalty to His character and promises, He will guide me in the paths of righteousness: that is, He will not allow me to go astray (verse 3).

Indeed, even when I walk through the darkest valley** whether that be death or some other somber experience, I have nothing to fear and I will not fear, because my Shepherd is with me, protecting me with His club and guiding me with His staff (verse 4). My security lies not, then, in my circumstances or environment – whether green pastures and still waters or the darkest valley – but in my Shepherd. In His presence there is neither want (verse 1) nor fear (verse 4).

The scene suddenly changes. I am no longer out of doors, but indoors; no longer a sheep in a flock, but a guest at a banquet. My Divine host a prepared a table before me. It is not a secret feast, but enjoyed in the presence of my enemies, because when He satisfies the soul, it cannot be hidden from the world.

His provision is wonderfully lavish – a table laden with food, perfumed oils to anoint my head, and an overflowing cup (verse 5). Moreover, what God has begun He will surely continue. As He Himself will lead me (verses 2,3), so His goodness and love will follow me.*** Thus He will guard me behind and before, throughout all the days of my life. Finally I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever – not indeed in the Temple, nor even just in His presence in this life, but in that Father’s house with it many rooms, of which Jesus spoke, where He said He was going to prepare a place for His own (John 14:1-4).

*Some have categorized those things we won’t lack as rest, life, guidance, safety, security, provision and a heavenly home – themes found within this favorite psalm.

**The more traditional translation, “through the valley of the shadow of death” derives from splitting the Hebrew word salmawet (deep darkness) into two words: sel mawet (shadow of death). The former rendering has been considered more likely, however, since a cognate word was found in an archeological excavation. The traditional rendering continues through, because the psalm is often used to console those who are nearing death or have experienced the death of a loved one. Of course, the translation “darkest valley” simply broadens its application, certainly not excluding the difficult time of facing death.

*** A better translation of “follow me” might be “pursue me” as illustrated and immortalized in Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”

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