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Psalm 23

Lesson Focus

God is with us and for us. His goodness and faithfulness constantly pursue us to lead us where we need to go. We must learn to follow his leading.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that God is with us and for us always.

  2. Understand that God’s goodness and faithfulness constantly pursue us.

  3. Seek to learn to follow God’s good leading.

Catch up on the Story:

Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved psalms of all time. Regardless of their affiliation with church or Christianity, many people know or could recognize these poetic lines. It is very familiar to us.

That is the trouble. Anytime we are confronted with a familiar passage of scripture, the challenge is to read it with fresh eyes and ears so that we might hear what it has to speak to us today. So, please take a deep breath, clear your mind, and open it to the possibility of receiving something new.

Of course, there’s a good chance that this psalm carries with it the same meaning as we have come to know and love.

As with many psalms, we lack a specific context. Psalm 23 can be classified as a psalm of trust, and psalms of trust usually are formed within the context of conflict.

There is no reason to believe that this psalm is different. It will speak well to us in the context of the Lenten season, where we are constantly learning, amidst all circumstances, to place our trust in the God who created and now sustains the world.

The Text

The psalm can be split into two sections which use two different metaphors to speak about our relationship with God.

The first section, verses 1-4, uses a shepherd/sheep metaphor. The second section, verses 5-6, uses a host/guest metaphor.

These two metaphors work in concert to paint a picture of God’s relationship with us that is active and comforting.

My Shepherd: Psalm 23:1-4

As we have been studying the psalms these last few weeks, we have encountered this shepherd/sheep metaphor.

Domesticated sheep are not the brightest animal and are prone to get lost. They will eat a bit of grass here and then wander off to the next bit of grass, not paying attention to where they are going. They either become lost or because they are away from the flock's protection, they run into wild predators.

In the ancient near east, using a shepherd/sheep image to depict the king and his people was common. The king was the shepherd, and the people were the sheep (Jacobson, 102). This common image extends to God as the only divine king and Israel as his people.

The first thing we notice is that because the sheep are under the shepherd's care, they do not want.

A better translation for “want” would be “lack” or “need.” For us, “want” denotes an unnecessary item or provision. We have all kinds of wants we do not require for successful survival. Israel wandered in the wilderness, and they did not lack any basic needs. It’s the same sentiment here.

As we turn toward verse 2, we are presented with three sentences that all begin with “He” followed by a verb, “He makes,” “he leads,” and “he restores.” The “he,” of course, is God the good shepherd. The shepherd makes the sheep lie down in green pastures.

The shepherd leads the sheep beside water from which they can drink. These waters are waters which, besides being drinkable, will provide rest and safety.

The next line in verse 3 provides a little more context. The waters by which the shepherd leads his sheep will be life-giving.

The “soul” of verse 3 could be better translated as “life.” Keep in mind the context of psalms of trust: some kind of conflict.

The shepherd has led the sheep away from conflict; perhaps the sheep are faint and close to perishing. The shepherd leads the sheep to a safe place to rest and receive new life again.

The shepherd leads the sheep in paths that will be safe and secure. The shepherd knows that the sheep cannot remain in a place of safety and security forever. Life is fraught with dangers and is seldom ever stationary. Yet, the shepherd accompanies the sheep as they seek to navigate this life.

The “right paths” of verse 3 are safe from danger. Perhaps there is a double meaning here, as “right paths” have often been translated as “paths of righteousness.” The King James Version, the version that we use when we memorize this psalm, translates it that way. These right paths are not only paths that may be free from danger, but they also lead to relational harmony with God and with others, all for the glory of God the good shepherd.

It must be noted here that what this shepherd does for the sheep, the sheep cannot do for themselves. The grammar of the text makes this clear. The shepherd “makes,” “leads,” and “restores.” These are all verbs where the action is coming from the shepherd and being imposed on the sheep.

Of course, as Wesleyans, we believe in our ability to choose. We chose to follow the shepherd, but the fact remains that on our own, we have a history of being completely unable to find long-lasting green pastures, waters of rest, and safe paths.

If we could do those things for ourselves, we would not be in the broken state we are in and would not need a shepherd.

Perhaps that is the biggest lesson of this psalm: we desperately need a shepherd, yet too often, we think that we do not.

Verse 4 is the center of the psalm, both theologically and structurally. The sheep continue to follow the shepherd, even through the darkest places of life. The sheep fear no evil because the shepherd is with them.

The “you are with me” is the central claim of the psalm. Indeed, the central claim of the gospel is that God is with us.

Here, the psalmist turns from talking about God as a shepherd to God as the shepherd. The reality of the first few verses manifests itself to the psalmist in a real way.

God is with us to do what we cannot do for ourselves. The shepherd brings the tools of the trade: a rod and a staff. The rod and the staff are tools that help guide the sheep and ward off the dangers surrounding the flock. That the shepherd is there with tools in hand is a comfort to the psalmist.

The Table: Psalm 23:5-6

In verse 5, the image shifts from shepherd and sheep to host and guest. Providing continuity, however, is the provisional nature of the host image. The host remains with the guest and provides for the guest what they cannot provide for themselves.

The social climate of the day was largely based on honor and shame. Throwing someone a banquet, especially a subordinate, was a mark of great honor. God, the good host, prepared a banquet for his guest, setting a grand table. Those also invited are those who wish the psalmist ill. Theirs is a position of shame because their enemy has been lifted (Jacobson, 104). The confession of verse 4 still rings true: God is with us, actively working for the good of his people.

The anointing with oil could signify the guest’s chosenness and an image of healing. Those chosen to participate in God’s work in the world were often anointed with oil. At the same time, oil was often used as healing ointments for wounds (Brueggemann and Bellinger, Jr., 124).

Either way, the image we continue to receive is that God, the good host, is working to honor and heal those he has chosen. The result of God the good shepherd and the good host’s being with and for the psalmist is goodness, mercy, and safe dwelling in the house of God.

There are a few things to note here.

First, “mercy” in verse six could better be translated as “faithfulness.” In Hebrew, it’s hesed, a word that should be familiar to you by now, meaning “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Second, God’s goodness and faithfulness “follow” the psalmist. Here, “follow” is insignificant in communicating the force of the Hebrew verb. The force of the original language communicates a pursuit or a chase.

So, the first line in verse 6 could be read like this, “Surely goodness and God’s faithfulness shall chase after me all the days of my life.”

As Wesleyans, we often discuss prevenient grace or the grace God sends to pursue us and draw us to himself. We do not do this intentionally, but we often relegate God’s prevenient grace to before we decide to follow God. Psalm 23 reminds us that God’s grace and faithfulness never cease to pursue us.

It’s always there, gently nudging us in the right direction, much like a shepherd nudges his sheep. It leads us to fresh waters and restful and restorative patches of grass. It chases after us when we wander off. It reminds us of our chosenness as God’s people. It anoints our wounds when we have veered too far from the path. It honors us, and it provides for us when our enemies surround us. It will eventually lead us home to be safe and sound in God’s loving arms, in God’s house, and in God’s kingdom.

So What?

The central claim of Psalm 23 is that God is with us and for us always. Amid danger and darkness, enemies and death, God as the good shepherd and good host, pursues us with his grace and faithfulness all the days of our life. Not only is this the central claim of Psalm 23, but it is the central claim of Israel’s faith as told by the authors of the Old Testament. This is the gospel proclaimed centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ embodied it.

The psalmist makes this testimony about the God of Israel during uncertainty and conflict. We need to remember this fact.

During Lent, our primary goal is to prepare our hearts and minds for the death and resurrection of Jesus. We do this by confessing how we have not lived like Jesus. We confess how we have wandered from the path and have found ourselves in conflict, beaten and bruised. One thing that allows us to examine ourselves, to remove any pretense to our self-proclaimed righteousness, is that God’s goodness and faithfulness chase after us even when our wounds are of our own doing. When we fail, God is with us. When we wander off, God chases us down.

So, confess. Confess your sins, your shortcomings, and your failures. Rest in the knowledge that the good shepherd loves you despite those things. Rest in the knowledge that the good shepherd is with us, rod, staff, and anointing oil in hand, ready to lead us to clean water and restful pastures. Then, be content that the places the good shepherd has led you are where you need to be.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. What is the difference between a want and a need? What are some of the things you want? What are some of the things you need?

  2. In the psalm's first section, the psalmist talks about God as a shepherd. What does a shepherd do? Why does he do those things?

  3. How do the sheep benefit or not benefit from the things the shepherd does? Are the sheep able to do those things for themselves? Why or why not?

  4. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust. Psalms of trust are usually set in times of conflict. How does this psalm sound during times of conflict?

  5. Verse 4 is the structural and theological center of the psalm. What is the central claim of verse 4?

  6. In verse 5, the image shifts from sheep and shepherds to host and guest. Why would it be a big deal for the host to prepare a table for the guest in the presence of his enemies?

  7. Why would the host anoint the guest’s head with oil?

  8. In verse 6, the word "follow" could better be translated as "pursue" or "chase." How does that make a difference when you read that verse? What does that say about God's goodness or his faithfulness?

  9. God is our good shepherd and our good host. He does for us what we have been unable to do for ourselves. What is our response to those things? What happens if we refuse to lie down in green pastures or by still waters or stay on the right path?

  10. What is God saying to you through this passage?

  11. What are you going to do about it?

Works Cited

Rolf A. Jacobson, "Psalm 23,” in Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary, ed. Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2009).

Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr, Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).