The metaphor of God as our shepherd and God’s people as the sheep of his pasture runs through Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The most famous of these references is certainly Psalm 23.
Many people are acquainted with the words of this psalm—some of us have known it by heart since childhood. Take a moment now to read this psalm slowly, asking God to help you see it with fresh eyes.1 Then we’ll walk through it together, noticing its natural breakdown into three parts, each focused on a different role of our Shepherd God.
Loving & Caring (verses 1–2)
First, the psalm describes God as a shepherd who loves and cares for us (Psalm 23:1–2). The starting phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd” (23:1a), should humble us right off the bat. If He’s our shepherd, then we must be the sheep, and sheep are not exactly clever animals. In fact, it is the responsibility of the shepherd to nourish the sheep and meet all of their needs, or the sheep will be unable to do so for themselves and they will die. This is the picture given in the first two verses of the psalm, which continues:
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside quiet waters. (Psalm 23:1b–2)
Sheep cannot lie down and rest unless their needs have been met. The image of lying down, therefore, is one of satisfaction and contentment. A good shepherd also must keep the sheep away from polluted, stagnant water, which the sheep will drink from if not led by the shepherd to “living [that is, moving] water.”
It is the responsibility of the shepherd to nourish the sheep and meet all of their needs, or . . . they will die.
This first section of the psalm, then, impresses upon us our complete dependence on our Lord Jesus for contentment, satisfaction, and nourishment, and our complete helplessness without Him.
Guiding & Protecting (verses 3–4)
Second, the psalm describes God as a shepherd who guides and protects us (23:3–4).
He restores my soul.
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. (Psalm 23:3)
If a shepherd does not constantly guide the sheep into good pasture, those sheep will die. His guidance is ongoing, not once and done. Just as a shepherd guides his sheep to good pasture, so the Lord continually guides us “in the paths of righteousness.”
The “valley of the shadow of death” mentioned in verse 4 may refer to the journey after winter to a higher grazing land. On this journey, the sheep must be led through dangerous valleys where predators lurk. But the sheep are not afraid, the psalmist says, when the shepherd is with them.
The sheep are not afraid when the shepherd is with them.
When you’re going through a time in your life that looks like “the valley of the shadow of death” (23:4a), draw nearer to God and trust in His protection as a sheep trusts its shepherd. Do not abandon Him in that time when you need Him most. It’s in those times of darkness when you may grow closer than ever to the Lord your Shepherd.
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
A shepherd uses the rod both to guard the flock against predators and to discipline wandering sheep. He uses the staff to draw sheep together, lift newborn lambs to their mothers, and give special attention to certain sheep in the flock. These two instruments of the shepherd may be understood as metaphors for the word of God, which protects and reproves us, and the Spirit of God, who unites and comforts us.
Providing & Abiding (verses 5–6)
Finally, the psalm describes God as a shepherd who provides for and abides with us (23:5–6). A shepherd will often go ahead of the flock to prepare the way and ensure there will be plentiful food where he is leading them. This is perhaps what the psalmist has in mind when he says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (23:5). The good shepherd ensures provision for his sheep even though there are enemies present.
The anointing with oil described in verse 5 also refers to a common shepherding practice. A shepherd would anoint the sheep with a mixture of olive oil, sulfur, and spices in order to treat against flies, so that the larvae of the flies would not hatch and spread in the nostrils of the sheep. This anointing corresponds to God’s anointing of us with His word and the Holy Spirit, which treat our souls for everything that aggravates us or drives us to anxiety.
God anoints us with His word and the Holy Spirit, which treat our souls for everything that aggravates us or drives us to anxiety.
The psalmist concludes:
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:6)
Having endured the summer months in the high country, the sheep are led full circle back to their “home ranch” at the end of each year. The psalm thus takes us through an entire year of a sheep, and applies this to the people of God. Because God is full of “lovingkindness,” we are ensured that ultimately He will carry us safely home.
We are ensured that ultimately He will carry us safely home.
With its six short verses, the 23rd psalm is a wonderful piece of Scripture with which to start and/or end your day. (Alternatively, you can set a reminder for yourself to read it every day at lunchtime.) Consider doing this for a week or longer, and ask God to help the image of Him as your Shepherd to sink in deep. Ask Him to implant in you a keen awareness of His love, care, and presence, and a deep trust in His promises to guide, protect, and provide for you.