Exposition of Psalm 23

shepherd-and-sheep[I preached my way through Psalm 23 today, clause by clause. I’ve included a link to the sermon hosted on my church’s website here. And below are the notes that I used, which are pretty much identical to the sermon I preached. :) Hope you are encouraged & edified!

-h.]

Exposition of Psalm 23

1. The LORD is my Shepherd:

David does not identify Yahweh as the national deity of the Jews, but as his Shepherd. This is not to deny that God is the God of the Jews, but to emphasize the fact that God deals with his people individually and collectively. The name Yahweh stresses God’s covenantal relationship to the children of Abraham; whereas the personal pronouns my, I, and me stresses the fact that not all Israel is Israel. David is, in other words, not simply an external member of a nationalistic covenant with a nationalistic deity, but is an individual within the body of Abraham’s descendants who trusts in Yahweh and knows him personally as his God and Shepherd.

This effectively demolishes the contemporary efforts of many scholars to set the so-called “Hebrew understanding of salvation” over and against the so-called “Greek understanding.” In more openly postmodern contexts, commentators will not contrast the Hebrew and the Greek understanding but the Ancient Hebrew and Modernist/Cartesian understanding of salvation. However the attempt is made, it fails when the student of Scripture reads the Scriptures themselves. God is in covenant with his people, i.e. the collective body of those who express faith in his self-revelation and promises – and these are individuals, like David.

1a. Is:

Note the present tense of the verb is. The Lord is continually David’s Shepherd, not just on specific occasions. The Lord is presently David’s Shepherd, not in the past or the future only but now. Any movement in Christianity that seeks to deny that the Lord is the Shepherd of his flock must address this word is, for it contradicts antinomianism in several ways.

Firstly, the perpetuity of God’s leading of his people contradicts the antinomian’s idea that men can be saved and continue in a life of blatant unrighteousness and in opposition to the Gospel. Secondly, the present tense of the verb is clearly declares that God’s present relation to his people is one of a faithful Shepherd. Thirdly, the word is teaches us that this is not merely a role that God plays but the very identity of Yahweh. This is to say, God is Shepherd by virtue of his being God. To deny that Yahweh Shepherd’s his people, leading them in paths of righteousness – which is what antinomianism implies – is to deny that God is God. If one’s God is not their Shepherd, then their God is not Yahweh.

1b. I shall not want:

Again note the individual nature of the Lord’s shepherding of his people. I, says David, shall not want. The commandment “You shall not covet” is here met with God’s faithful provision for his people. David’s words condemn our striving after more, for there is nothing we need which God will not provide for us. David’s words, however, also comfort us, for they remind us that God is not ignorant of our needs. In fact, as noted in the previous comments on the first clause of v.1 Yahweh provides for his people because he is Shepherd. He is by nature the one who provides for us and sustains us as we move from this life into the next. Therefore, he cannot cease to be our Shepherd and provide for every true need we have.

2. He makes me lie down in green pastures:

The idea isn’t that God forces David to lie down, but that David is brought to rest by the shepherd and not his own sheepish works. If David has rest, it is because Yahweh has given it to him. Thus, rest is not purchased by the deeds wrought by David. Rest is a free gift for which we sheep are to be grateful. There is, however, at the same time an implicit recognition that these times of rest are temporal. As such, they are also not promised to us. They are external signs of our Shepherd’s loving guidance, but they are not the only signs of his guidance. The believer is given confidence in who God is and, therefore, will fear no evil, will walk in the paths of righteousness, and will be comforted by the rod and staff of our Lord.

2a. He leads me beside still waters:

The word for “still” is the Hebrew word מְנוּחָה (mĕnuwchah), and is typically translated as “rest.”[1] Thus, the Lord leads his people by the waters of rest. But what are these waters of rest meant to signify? In one sense, the waters of rest signify that which is needed by God’s people. God gives his children what they need.[2] But more to the point, the restful waters seem to point beyond the meeting of our material needs. John Gill rightly underscores the nature of these waters as signifying the work of the Holy Spirit, in fact the Spirit himself within our hearts, comforting us, drawing us into communion with the Trinity, teaching us of himself from Scripture, renewing our minds. Gill is also right to note that the waters here are pointing forward to the Age to Come, when “…the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[3]

3. He restores my soul:

Note that the Holy Spirit is explaining the text’s metaphorical nature. The Shepherd’s leading has reference to this life and it’s exigencies, but the more immediate needs of the Christian are spiritual. Hence, Yahweh provides temporal/earthly blessings for his people, and this is done for the spiritual purpose of refreshing our souls. In receiving our daily bread, we see God’s promise to us that we will eat bread, although we have to do so by the sweat of our brows. In receiving clothing, we are reminded of the fact that God, seeing our shame of nakedness and our inability to cover our nakedness provided coats of skin for us, and now clothes us with Christ’s righteousness. Thus, “though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”[4]

We are commanded, therefore, to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”[5] The restoration of the saints is according to righteousness, holiness, and knowledge,[6] as God conforms us to the image of his Son, our Shepherd. As Paul states the matter in 2nd Corinthians 3:18:

…we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

3a. He leads me in paths of righteousness:

This portion of verse 3 confirms that while David’s words do not exclude God’s material providence for his people, they more immediately signify the spiritual provision Yahweh makes for his children. We see that David’s portrayal of the saints’ journey to the house of the Lord is perfectly summarized in Solomon’s words: “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.”[7] For, as Solomon says in the same book, “in the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death.”[8]

3b. For his name’s sake:

The entirety of our salvation is for his name’s sake. To put the matter another way: The final cause of all of God’s works is his own glory. This fact is captured in the Reformation slogan “Soli Deo Gloria.” As Samuel tells Israel: “…the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.”[9] And prior to God’s preservation of his people during Samuel’s time, “[Yahweh] saved [Israel from Egypt] for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.”[10]

Thus, we see that petitions for forgiveness, atonement, and preservation are made with an appeal not to man’s merits but to God’s attributes.

“For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.”[11]

“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!”[12]

4. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death:

Yahweh leads his people from this life into eternal rest, but this does not mean that the journey there will be without the shadow of death. The world is decaying, the spiritually dead are as well, and our time on earth, though blessed beyond measure in Christ, is not immune to the death lingering here until Christ returns. Not only this, but our hearts, although alive in Christ, are still touched by the shadow of death as they desire that which produces death in us and around us, viz. sin.

Here we see the reality of our conflicted life: We walk in paths of righteousness and yet through the valley of the shadow of death. We often forget this fact. Yet here it is, spoken by David in the Psalms! We are saved, redeemed, declared righteous by faith alone, but we are still sinners living in a sinful world amongst sinful people in a fallen universe. Thus, Paul calls the body a “body of death,”[13] which will be redeemed only at the resurrection.

4a. I will fear no evil: 

Yet David’s confidence is in the Redeemer himself. He states that he will fear no evil, and this is precisely what we are commanded to do by our Lord when he says:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[14]

Incidentally, let us note the consistency of the Scriptures in teaching that man is body and soul, neither an animal nor a disembodied spirit. David’s body may be the subject of violence and even death, but his soul prospers. The same is the case for believers. Our souls are secure in Christ; therefore, not even death can separate us from the love of our Shepherd.[15]

While we are in the paths of righteousness, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we must remember that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”[16] For we often fear, due to our unbelief.[17]

4b. For you are with me:

The Lord, nevertheless, is with us. Note again where David places his security and confidence: Yahweh. The material goods and comforts of this world  are temporary, as is evidenced by the very fact of the valley of the shadow of death mentioned above. Why then would we place our hope in those things which perish? This promise is found throughout the pages of Scripture, demonstrating the faithfulness of God and our frailty and unbelief. Hence, the Scriptures declare that our Lord Christ’s name is also “Immanuel  (which means, God with us).”[18]Likewise, the Holy Spirit is our “Helper” whom Christ gave to us, “to be with [us] forever.”[19]

4c. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me:

The rod and staff are representative of God’s leading and protection of his sheep. Consequently, they symbolize God’s Word in the Gospel which, as Matthew Henry notes in his commentary, is “the rod of Christ’s strength.”[20] Luther, too, identifies Yahweh’s rod and staff as representations of the Gospel because of the fact that they comfort the believer, which the law does not do.[21] John Gill, however, includes the law and the Gospel in these two symbols, saying that

the shepherd with his rod, staff, or crook, directs the sheep where to go, pushes forward those that are behind, and fetches back those that go astray; as well as drives away dogs, wolves, bears that would make a prey of the flock; and of such use is the word of God, attended with the power of Christ and his Spirit; it points out the path of faith, truth, and holiness, the saints should walk in; it urges and stirs up those that are negligent to the discharge of their duty, and is the means of reclaiming backsliders, and of preserving the flock from the ravenous wolves of false teachers: in a word, the presence, power, and protection of Christ, in and by its Gospel and ordinances, are what are here intended, and which are the comfort and safety of his people, in the worst of times and cases.[22]

Both the Law and the Gospel, therefore, seem to be intended by these two symbols, but understood in light of the Gospel. Thus, God declares that he will be the Shepherd of his people, and this indicative is a Gospel promise. Yet how does he perform this leading? By the precepts and commandments of his law applied by the Holy Spirit. Thus, Henry and Luther’s position does not contradict Gill’s, but approaches the symbols of the staff and rod from a different perspective. The Psalm is in the indicative mood,[23] in other words, declaring the certainty of our salvation. Nevertheless, in the “working out” of our salvation we are convicted by the law and granted forgiveness through the Gospel, and from the Gospel pointed back to our duties as commanded by God in his law.

As Samuel Bolton has said:

The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified.[24]

And as C.F.W. Walther puts it in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel:

That is genuine sanctification which follows upon justification; that is genuine justification which comes after repentance.[25]

The rod and staff of Christ, then, seem to be symbols of the Law and the Gospel, even as the Psalm is pure Gospel that refreshes and encourages us to love God because he first loved us and sent our Lord to be the propitiation for our sins.

5. You prepare a table before me:

The table prepared for David is a feast, as most commentators agree, but within the context of the foregoing verses seems difficult to identify as a material feast. Some have argued that the transition from v.4 to v.5 is abrupt, but such an interpretation only holds if the feast is interpreted literally. As we have seen already, the Holy Spirit has provided an interpretive framework for us by explicitly speaking of the restoration of David’s soul and the paths of righteousness in which David walks. Given the foregoing interpretation, then, it seems to be more likely that the table/feast of which David speaks must be understood spiritually.

The feast, therefore, is more likely a spiritual banquet of the Word of God. As we have seen in the previous verse, the staff and rod of Yahweh are his Law and Gospel. Here, then, we further develop the emphasis of David on God’s Word. It is not only a rod and astaff, it is also the source of overflowing spiritual nourishment. And God prepares this for his people. We do not have to fill the text of Scripture with meaning in order to be blessed by it. Nor do we have to “make the Bible relevant” (i.e. erode the purity of Scripture by joining it in unholy matrimony to popular culture and its vapid trends). Yahweh prepares a table for us; we receive the Word and it blesses us.

5a. In the presence of my enemies:

There is, therefore, even less of a reason for us to fear them as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. In fact, knowing that even our worst enemies are incapable of harming us in any permanent way, and knowing the wrath of God abides on those who hate Christ and his church, should drive us to pray for them, to serve them from the provisions God has made for us and given us freely, be they spiritual or material. Hence, the scriptures tell us: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him something to drink…”[26] And again, our Lord commands us: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”[27] For if “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,”[28] then none of those good things is ours to use autonomously.

David’s words, then, are not meant to taunt his enemies but to praise the faithfulness of God who prepares the table in front of David’s enemies. It would be more accurate to state that “the Lord holds them in derision.”[29] David is merely stating what is the case. Thus, we are not wrong to see God’s favor upon us, his church, his people. It is, moreover, not wrong to note that God blesses his people in order to call his elect to himself as well as further harden the hearts of the reprobate.[30] Our role as those who have shown mercy, however, is to show mercy as well and demonstrate thereby the reality of the salvation God has provided for us in the atoning sacrifice of his Son, Jesus the Lord.

5b. You anoint my head with oil:

Gill notes that God is giving David

an abundance of good things, not only for necessity, but for pleasure and delight; especially pouring out largely upon him the oil of gladness, the Spirit of God and his grace,the anointing which teaches all things, and filling him with spiritual joy and comfort.[31]

He further notes that

the allusion is to the custom of the eastern countries, at feasts, to anoint the heads of the guests with oil […] It was usual to anoint the head, as well as other parts of the body, on certain occasions;[32]

The oil mentioned here, then, is symbolic of the Spirit of God and his work in the believer’s life. Note that it is God who supplies, gives, and applies the oil – not David. As has been noted above, the entirety of this psalm speaks to us of the life of the believer. So for the believer, for us, it is worth mentioning again that “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[33]

There are some today who claim that good works are necessary for salvation, by which they mean that salvation is somehow conditional, i.e. based upon our works. Yet the psalm declares that this view is false. God does the work, not David. To be sure, David walks in paths of righteousness, but this is because he is lead by the Shepherd. And here we see that God’s working out of David’s salvation is not only external, prompting David to walk in paths of righteousness but also internal by the work of the Spirit.

5c. My cup overflows:

Note again the personal pronoun my, signifying the personal relationship David has with Yahweh. Yahweh is indeed Israel’s God, but he is David’s God. And with what does David’s cup overflow? Seeing as the Lord is the lot of David’s inheritance and the portion of his cup,[34] and seeing as the entire psalm places Yahweh’s love and mercy and goodness above all created and, therefore, temporary goods, the most fitting interpretation is that it is Yahweh himself who overflows David’s cup. In other words, God’s presence to save, love, direct, rebuke, heal, etc cannot be exhausted by any amount of time, or restricted by space, or be siphoned off by even David’s own sin.

This is not to say that David will experience material blessings from God in spite of his obedience or disobedience. Rather, it is to say that the greater blessing David will receive in this life is the leadership, love, and Fatherly guidance that God gives David. Thus, the correction of David’s sin is a mercy from God. David experienced Yahweh’s blessing, in other words, when Nathan the prophet was sent to rebuke him for committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering, via proxy, Uriah the Hittite.

As Hebrews 12:7-8 reminds us:


It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?


If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.

6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me:

The reality of God’s goodness and mercy is not an illusion. David does not have any basis to doubt that God will be merciful and good to him. Rather, because God is Shepherd, he is good and merciful to his sheep. Note once again that the promise of goodness and mercy is not conditional. Our Shepherd-King gives us mercy and goodness, because He is, by nature, good and merciful. Yahweh is “the Lord…a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”[35] The person who asserts that a Christian can lose his salvation, or walk away from his ever-attentive and loving and Sovereign Shepherd is teaching a lie.

What David says here of Yahweh, our Lord Jesus the Christ declares of himself in the Gospel of John. In John 10:14-16, Jesus declares:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

And again, in John 10:27-28, we are comforted by the words of our Savior, when he says:

“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.

6a. All the days of my life:

And so we see that there is no end to the mercy and goodness God showers forth on his elect. The mercy and goodness of God may not be apparent – remember that David identifies his time in the valley of the shadow of death as good because ordained by the Good Shepherd – but it is here with us, for God is with us. As surely as the unbeliever’s every moment is spent under the wrath of God, so is the believer’s every moment spent under the undeserved grace of God.

6b. And I shall dwell:

Having moved from pasture to riverside, and from riverside through the valley of the shadow of death, David now says that he will dwell. He will not continue journeying. David will rest. Yet, though David will no longer be journeying through this world, he will remain with his Shepherd our Lord God.

6b. In the house of the Lord forever:

Hence, David tells us clearly that the sheep who has been shepherded through this life has been brought to rest in the presence of God. There is no mention here of David being unconscious until the resurrection take place. There is no soul sleep. No. Instead, there is a resting in the house of God, eternally consciously  communing with Yahweh.

Amen.


[1] cf. Num 10:33 (“resting place”); Deut 12:9 (“rest”); Ruth 1:9 (“rest”).

[2] cf. Luke 11:5-13.

[3] Rev 7:17.

[4] 2nd Cor 4:16b.

[5] Eph 4:24.

[6] See Rom 12:2 & Col 3:10.

[7] Prov 4:18.

[8] Prov 12:28.

[9] 1st Sam 12:22.

[10] Ps 106:8.

[11] Ps 25:11.

[12] Ps 79:9.

[13] Rom 7:24b.

[14] Matt 10:28.

[15] See Rom 8:28-30.

[16] 2nd Tim 1:7.

[17] See Matt 8:26; Mark 4:40; Luke 8:25.

[18] Matt 1:23.

[19] John 14:16.

[20] https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/matthew-henry/Ps.23.1-Ps.23.6-2093.

[21] Luther:

“In spiritual sheepherding, that is, in the kingdom of Christ, one should, therefore, preach to the sheep of Christ… not the Law of God, much less the ordinances of men, but the Gospel…  For through the Gospel, Christ sheep obtain strength in their faith, rest in their hearts, and comfort in all kinds of anxieties and perils of death.  Those who preach this way conduct the office of spiritual shepherd properly, feed the sheep of Christ in a green pasture, lead them to the freshwater, restore their souls, keep them from being led astray, and comfort them with Christ’s rod and staff.”

(emphasis added)

[22] http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/psalms-23-4.html.

[23] The fact that there are no imperatives in this psalm is often overlooked by preachers today.

[24] The True Bounds of Christian Freedom.

[26] Rom 12:20a.

[27] Matt 5:44.

[28] James 1:17.

[29] Ps 2:4b; cf. Ps 59:8.

[30] cf. Rom 11:11-24.

[31]  http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/psalms-23-5.html.

[32] ibid.

[33] Phil 2:13.

[34] See Ps 16:5.

[35] Exo 34:6-7.

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