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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. Many people, regardless of their affiliation with church or Christianity, 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. As you and your group prepare to read and study this psalm today, take a deep breath, clear your mind, and open it to the possibilities 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: Teaching this psalm will be tough. It will be tough because people are very familiar with 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, makes use of 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 run across this shepherd/sheep metaphor before. 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 protection of the flock, they run into wild predators.

In the ancient near east, it was common to use a shepherd/sheep image to depict the king and his people. The king as was the shepherd and the people were the sheep (Jacobson, 102). Here, this common image gets extended to God as the one and only divine king, and Israel as his people.

The first thing that we notice is that because the sheep are under the care of the shepherd, they do not want. A better translation for “want” would be “lack” or “need.” For us, the word “want” denotes an item or provision that is not a necessity. We have all kinds of wants which we do not require for our successful survival. Israel wandered in the wilderness and they did not lack any basic need. 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 lay down in green pastures.

The shepherd leads the sheep beside water from which they will be able to drink. These waters are waters which, in addition to 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 and perhaps the sheep are faint and close to perishing. The shepherd leads the sheep to a safe place where they will be able 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 paths that 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 seem to 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 are also paths that lead to relational harmony with God and with others, all for the glory of God the good shepherd.

It needs to be noted here that what this shepherd does for the sheep the sheep are unable to do for themselves. The grammar of the text makes this clear. The shepherd “makes” and “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 pasture, waters of rest and safe paths. If we were able to do those things for ourselves, we would not be in the broken state we are in and we 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 lif