A Psalm of David

It is unfortunate that our Bibles do not include these prescripts and postscripts in the verse structure, and even more so that some Bibles leave them out altogether.  These titles are just as Divinely inspired as the rest of the psalm.  This one tells us that this Psalm is by the shepherd-king, David, a man who would certainly know all about both shepherds and sheep.

1.  The LORD is my shepherd,

This defines the parameters of the poetical illustration we are about to read.  David is describing himself as a sheep, with the LORD as his shepherd.  This is not a very flattering picture for David to paint of himself.  As I heard Chuck Swindoll say on the radio the other week, sheep are dirty, smelly, stubborn, stupid, and totally helpless.

I shall not want.

In spite of their total helplessness, the sheep end up wanting for nothing because of the care and direction of their shepherd.  He leads them to pasture, he brings them to water, he fights off their enemies, and he rescues them when their foolish wanderings cause them to stumble into danger.  And if earthly sheep can depend on their shepherd, how much more can David depend on his heavenly Shepherd?  And how much can we depend upon Him as our Shepherd as well?

2.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,

The sheep want for nothing because of the guidance of the shepherd.  This verse (as well as the one previous) describe for us the aspect of the LORD which is described in Hebrew as Jehovah-Jireh…the LORD will provide.  He is the Provider, and because of Him His children want for nothing…that is, nothing that they really need.  I think we would be selling the Lord short here if we assumed that these “wants” are only physical.  How much more does the LORD provide for us the spiritual things that we need most…the love, the redemption, and the reconciliation through His Son, the Shepherd!  The LORD is truly our provider.

As I discussed this psalm recently with a Bible study group, I was struck by how many of them seemed to focus on what this psalm is saying we will get from the LORD.  Many study the Bible this way, only looking for what they can get out of it.  But, as I said in my previous message “Loving God,” our primary goal as believers should not be to find out what we can get from God, but rather to get to know our Lord.  That is the ultimate goal of our walk, and that is what the greatest message of this psalm is.  David is rejoicing in His God and what He is: the Shepherd, the Provider, and, as we will now see, the Guider.

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

The other aspect of God celebrated in this psalm is His role as the Leader, the Divine Guide.  “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:105)  How much more of a lamp and a light is the Living Word Who is the good Shepherd?  He it is who leads beside the still waters, He it is Who brings us to the quiet and restful place where we can walk and listen to His voice.

3.  He restoreth my soul.

I believe that the word “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) is being used figuratively here for “life.”  This statement then can have two applications.  First of all, it is He Who restores our life to us even now.  As the Scripture says, “If He should set His heart on it, If He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, All flesh would perish together, And man would return to the dust.”  (Job 34:14-15, NKJV)  So we see that with every breath our life is restored to us by the Shepherd.  This also will be true even after we die, however, when the Shepherd restores life to His sheep in the resurrection.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake.

A person’s “name” when used in this context speaks not of a simple word like “Nathan,” but of a person’s reputation, and of the regard that others hold that person in.  God does many things in the Scriptures that He attributes totally to His desire to glorify His great Name.  Leading His sheep in the paths of righteousness is one of them.

Again we see the LORD as the Divine Guide, the Guider.  The paths of righteousness are not literal, of course, but we imagine a sheep led by a shepherd along the right path.  In the same way, the Shepherd leads the sheep David in the ways of righteousness…and He does the same for us as well, if we will follow Him.  But, alas, sheep have a tendency to stray, as David himself did more than once in his life!

4.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

We imagine the sheep David and his Shepherd walking through a deep valley.  The high mountains on either side cast dark shadows on their way, masking the many dangers in the trail.  The sheep may stray from the path and stumble into a hidden crevice in the valley floor, or be torn apart by the wild beasts that roam the valley.

The “valley of the shadow of death” here may symbolize ultimately literal death, but it also signifies other, more subtle dangers that may entice the sheep away from his shepherd and lead him into deadly danger.

I will fear no evil,

The sheep, in spite of the dangers all around, is not afraid of calamity.  Why?

For Thou art with me;

This is the reason the sheep is not afraid.  His Shepherd is with him!  He knows that as long as He is there, none of the surrounding dangers, none of the terrors of the valley, can touch him.  I have heard it speculated that the sheep strayed from the path to even be in the valley, but this is not the picture we see here.  The sheep and his shepherd are both walking in the valley.  The shepherd has led him here, and the sheep follows in contentment.

Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

The rod and the staff are not the same instrument.  The rod was similar to a club and would be used as a weapon for the shepherd to fight off the wild beasts of the valley.  The staff, on the other hand, was the tool of guidance that the shepherd used to gently prod the straying sheep back unto the safe path.  It was also the means of rescue whereby the shepherd could reach into a crack between the rocks and pull the fallen and trapped sheep to safety.  In the same way, the sheep David is comforted by the knowledge that his Shepherd is there: to ward off his enemies, to guide him in the right path, and to rescue him when his own foolishness traps him or leads him into deadly danger.

5.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

The sheep does not eat at a table, but David does.  Yet this table answers to the pastures of verse 2, and still can remind us of David as a sheep.  Here David speaks of the unfailing provision of his God, even when he is surrounded by enemies.  A story comes to mind of a young girl trapped in a Nazi concentration camp.  For some reason, through all the hardship, it came to her mind how good it would feel to be able to wipe the dirt and grime from herself with a nice cloth hanky like the ones she used to have before she was incarcerated in that awful place.  So, being a girl of faith, she decided to pray and ask God to give her a hanky.  Imagine, asking for a cloth hanky when in a Nazi death camp!  But, lo and behold, one of the German guards took pity on her and gave her (unsolicited, I might add,) of all things, a cloth hanky!  Surely this girl learned the truth of this verse…God can still provide for His children, even in the presence of their deadly enemies.  While He fights with the rod, they feast at the table!

Thou anointest my head with oil,

David is again compared with a sheep.  The cure-all medicine of shepherds was to pour oil on any wounds that the sheep received.  In the same way, David is anointed by his Shepherd.  I am not willing to be too dogmatic about this, but I don’t think David is here talking about his anointing as King of Israel.  Anointing with oil, as well as indicating kingship, can indicate being set aside for special service, or being distinguished as set apart from the world, or as a symbol of cleansing.  He may be speaking of the gift of the Holy Spirit he had received to aid him in his rule of God’s people.  He may be using this illustration to indicate God’s setting him apart from the enemies that he is surrounded by in this verse.  Or he may be speaking of God’s work of cleansing him of all sin, taking place here even in the presence of those who would accuse him.

My cup runneth over.

Although this may be speaking of the water trough of the sheep, it answers more directly to David as a sheep drinking from the cup his Shepherd has given him.  In his joy, the psalmist here proclaims the abundance of God’s provision for him.  He not only does not want, but he is filled abundantly, and that even in the valley of the shadow of death, even in the presence of his enemies.  And this is all because of the provision and the guidance of his dear Shepherd!

6.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

I remember one time when a close friend of mine tearfully expressed to me the opinion that he must not be a Christian because of all the bad things he had done.  He didn’t see how a Christian could steal or deceive or other things that he dared not tell me.  I tried to explain to him that the very reason these things weighed so heavily upon his heart was because he WAS a believer.  To the unbeliever sin comes naturally, but the believer has that in his heart which he cannot escape, and no matter how hard he tries to run from it, still the goodness and the mercy of God will follow him wherever he goes.  How often the backslidden sinner may wish that the goodness of God would just leave him alone and allow him to sin in peace!  But this will never be the case.  Nor will the mercy of God leave him, even though he should commit a multitude of sins.  No, these will follow the believer always, reminding him of his Shepherd and the all the things he has received from Him, whether he appreciates them now or not.  So David here praises God for the knowledge that goodness and mercy will never leave him alone!

And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

As the sheep dwells with his shepherd, so David dwells with his Shepherd forever.  Common ignorance of the Scripture has no doubt led many to assume that David is speaking of Heaven here, but this is not the case.  Anyone who knows the Biblical facts in the case will know that “the house of the LORD” is always used as a descriptive phrase for the temple of the LORD, and this occurrence is no exception.  But what does David mean, he will dwell in the house of the LORD forever?  For the answer one must go to the last chapters of the book of Ezekiel (chapters 40-48,) where we have the temple and Jerusalem of the Kingdom described in detail.  And there we see that a good part of the glorious structure that will be the future temple is dedicated to a man called the “Prince” and his family.  (Ezekiel 44:1-3, 45:6-17, 46:16-18)  And the Prince is positively identified by Scripture as this same man, David.  (Ezekiel 37:25)  So when David speaks of dwelling in the house of the LORD forever, he is speaking with a prophetic knowledge of what the LORD has revealed to us in other parts of Scripture…that, in God’s future plan, David will dwell forever in the LORD’s temple.  This is the fact that he rejoices in here at the climax of this Psalm. 

Though David has indeed passed through the valley of the shadow of death more than three thousand years ago, nevertheless he knew when he wrote this Psalm that his Shepherd would lead him out of the valley on the other side, and, glory of glories, would lead him into His very house to dwell with Him forever!  What a great future David had to look forward to!  What a marvelous promise he was given by his Shepherd!  And let us all in the same way thank God for our own eternal hope that He has promised us.

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