Jean’s Gospel: Psalm 23
Written entirely in the first person singular form, Psalm 23 is a deeply personal psalm. Just as the Good Shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one lost sheep, so each one of His sheep may claim the care promised to the whole flock. Psalm 23 is a psalm of comfort.
Jesus said “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11) “I am” who appeared to Moses in the burning bush in Exodus 3 has claimed the appellation, Good Shepherd. Therefore, where the Old Testament speaks of God or the Lord as “shepherd” (e.g., Isa 40:11; Ezek 34:11-16), Christians should read: Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Psalm 23 “A Psalm of David.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
The theme of Psalm 23 is located at its center: “For you are with me” (v.4). This is a confession of trust that Christ is always with each one of His sheep. However, being “with us” is not a matter of physical proximity; Christ is always near everyone. What David confesses is that Christ is with him in a personal way: as his Good Shepherd as promised in His Word.
What distinguishes Christ from all other shepherds is that He “lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:12) It is true that any shepherd could die for his sheep, but with any other shepherd, his death would only leave the sheep unattended and vulnerable to predators. But unlike any other shepherd, the Good Shepherd not only laid down His life, He also took it up again!
Jesus willingly gave himself up unto death to the predators – sin, death and Satan, to save us from them. His death is a ransom for many, and His resurrection is God’s vindication of His victory over these predators. To the sheep who hear His voice and believe in Him, Christ is their Good Shepherd.
“I shall not want.”
Throughout much of David’s adult life, he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but even there he lacked nothing. Whether it was his own sins afflicting him or the sins of others pursuing him, David trusted in the abundant mercy and steadfast love of his Good Shepherd to bless him with: rest in green pastures (forgiveness, life and salvation); still waters (peace with God and a clear conscience); the restoration of his soul (comfort and encouragement); and paths of righteousness (safety through the valley) for His name’s sake.
It is remarkable that the only reason provided for the blessings given David has nothing whatsoever to do with David, much less his worthiness or obedience; everything Christ gave David was for the sake of His name and reputation. David was a sinner every bit as much as any of us, but he trusted in the abundant mercy and forgiveness of Christ. In the same way, the Father forgives our sins for the sake of Christ who paid for them in full, so that we may receive all of the blessings in this psalm. Thus: “I shall want not!”
“4 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.”
Like David, we also walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The depth of the valley and intensity of the darkness will vary for each one of us and with the circumstances of life. Physical death will overtake all of us eventually.
Jesus also traveled through the valley, and in darkness that we can scarcely imagine. Yet, Jesus conquered the valley and its darkness and has promised eternal life to the sheep of His flock: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:9b) He teaches us to pray: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matt 6:13) On the basis of His Word, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
The sheep of His pasture have a unique perspective: Christ has already delivered us in faith out of the valley and into green pastures, beside still waters, in paths of righteousness, to His banquet table (v. 5) and into His house (v. 6). Paul also wrote concerning the baptized in Christ: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3). Therefore, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
It is difficult for independent minded American Christians to humble themselves before the Good Shepherd and count themselves as helpless sheep. There are many competing voices (internal and external) who wish to teach us to create our own green pastures, our own peace, security and good living. All the competing voices are either wolves or hirelings who flee before the wolf. None of them (or ourselves), can remove the sting of death (temporal or eternal) or atone for our sins. Christ alone is the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28) Therefore, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The source of David’s comfort is the Good Shepherd’s rod and staff, which is the Word of God. Luther said the “rod” symbolizes the Law, and the “staff” symbolizes the Gospel. With those two words, Law and Gospel, Christ is with us and leads us. God’s Word is trustworthy and eternal.
When we are baptized into Christ, he places us into His body the Church. There, He provides us with pastors to preach and teach us His Word and a communion (or fellowship) of believers for mutual encouragement and comfort.
We do not have to wonder how or where the Good Shepherd is leading us. He leads us in His Word. When we hear His Word, we hear His voice. Let us hold fast to His rod and staff, and never grow weary of hearing His voice.
“5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
The Good Shepherd is also the King. His sheep are His honored guests at the King’s banquet. In safety, our King nourishes us with His means of grace. At His table, He is present in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In Baptism, He anoints us with the Holy Spirit. The house of the Lord is His Word!
No matter where his enemies drove him at any particular time, as long as David held fast to God’s Word, he was in the house of the Lord. His enemies could never deprive David of the house of the Lord, because His house is wherever His Word is heard. Therefore, David defied sin, Saul, the Philistines, his own family, the devil and every other tyrant, with the truth: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
May our Good Shepherd keep us, together with David and the saints of all time, in His house, that is, in His Word, both now and forever. Amen.