Psalm 23

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Psalm 23 Shepherd

Wednesday 6/26/24

Title: Psalms Book I: Psalm 23

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Psalms Book I: Psalm 23

Tonight we begin with what is almost certainly the most comforting and well beloved of all the Psalms. Psalm 23.

Many have of course picked up on the fact that it was quite natural for David, having been a shepherd in his youth, to envision God through this lens. But I think that even this serves as a lesson to us.

We know that all scripture is inspired of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in right standing with God so that God’s people may be brought to maturity and completely equipped for works which honor God.

As such this is not just the poetic lyrics of a song which makes a good, but human comparison between God and Shepherds, sheep and people – it is inspired!

But what does that teach us about inspiration? Well I believe one thing it teaches is the difference between inspiration and dictation which also tells us something of God’s character. God wants to communicate truth which will enlighten the eye and make sure the path of our feet – that is His stated goal in inspiring human words – whether in the scriptures or through us in our lives.

A key insight is that God does not eclipse personal experiences or personality to accomplish His goals. God LOVES to work THROUGH His people. Draw from their experiences, their responses and feelings to events in life and weave them into the tapestry of His inspired words. Now it is important to not see it the other way about. If it is truly inspired then man is not weaving God’s thoughts into theirs, but rather God is using our all too human experiences and feelings into the purity of what He wants us to know. By doing this, He automatically infuses His words with interest. Because the experiences are human, they resonate with us and we are attracted to them and when we are attracted to them we are more prone to listen and learn.

In the end God is still in control because at least on a limited basis He governs over even our experiences and influences our hearts in their responses to them. His attempts to influence are not always successful, but by the time of inspiration they are cleaned up so as to represent truth apart from human bias. This is the beauty and the wonder of God in scripture and in His people. He does not want us to be carbon copies of Himself, but to be uniquely who we are, only with character which is conformed to His likeness.

All of this being true, the imagries of this Psalm is one of God’s favorites. He uses the comparison of humans and sheep regularly. In fact it is clear that for the purposes of learning by means of comparison with ourselves, is one of the primary reasons God made sheep to begin with. They, in all of their goofiness, insecurities, uncertainties, foolishness and complete dependencies are still precious, enjoyable, mostly harmless and wonderful animals which bring delight.

This is one of many examples where David is revealed to be a man of spiritual understanding. In a time when God was viewed by many as little more than the team mascot of Israel or a deity which is powerful, yet beyond the knowing – David sees God as  personal, knowable and faithful.

I have chosen to read this from the New English Translation (NET) because the unfamiliarity of the words in this translation force us to listen to it with fresh ears and to consider its meaning from a broadened or at least different perspective than our usual.

I will read it through once and then double back for comment.

Psalm 23:1-6, 

“A psalm of David

(1) The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.  

(2)  He takes me to lush pastures, He leads me to refreshing water.  (3)  He restores my strength. He leads me down the right paths for the sake of His reputation.  

(4)  Even when I must walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff reassure me.  

(5)  You prepare a feast before me in plain sight of my enemies. You refresh my head with oil; my cup is completely full.  

(6)  Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days, and I will live in the LORD’s house for the rest of my life.”

To properly understand this Psalm (as well as any scripture) we need to see the overarching focus and purpose. While the imagery is pastoral the purpose is spiritual.

Lush pastures, quiet and refreshing waters, uncluttered and unencumbered paths to walk down are all pointing to spiritual nurturing for the purpose of His great name.

Now the NET has words we are less familiar with in reference to this Psalm which while I believe they are inferior to the traditional, they are in some ways more literal and can expand our thinking.

It is a matter of some consensus that the KJV of this Psalm is by far the most quoted and well known. So let’s compare the word pictures of the KJV with the NET.

KJV NET Compare

All in all not terribly different, but some of the words lead our thoughts in different directions. Language is funny like that.

When I was young I always had trouble with two common phrases quoted from scripture.

“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth”

     and

“The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want”

As a child this sounded like God did not want me to talk about His word and that God being my shepherd was a reality that as a human I would not want or desire.

Of course, I completely misunderstood their meanings, but this is illustrative. 

If I had been privileged to have a translation like the New English Translation (NET) in my youth I would have immediately understood this verse because they represent the phrase as, “The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” 

This too however has its drawbacks.

The translators of the NET in the case of this particular Psalm, I believe, are at a disadvantage. These are scholarly minds to be sure and ones which have a great command of the language but who, in my opinion, lacked the intuitiveness to recognize that the imagery is in fact pastoral in a spiritual sense. A fact to which they clearly mention in their notes and which I will show you in turn.

In regard to the overall Psalm they said,

“Within the framework of the metaphor, the psalmist/sheep is declaring in v. Psa_23:2 that his shepherd provides the essentials for physical life. At a deeper level the psalmist may be referring to more than just physical provision, though that would certainly be included.”

This statement is true, but it also causes a problem. There are in fact times when God’s people have and DO lack natural provisions. As we remember, God in His role of being Shepherd to Israel upon their departure from Egypt actually CAUSED them to hunger for a few days in the wilderness. Also, Paul goes on record saying that he and those who traveled with him were often without daily provisions. So if taken too literally this could actually cause a crisis of faith for the simple, who do not understand how to read and comprehend scripture.

Though the imagery is natural and depicts a shepherd with their sheep, it is in fact to be understood as spiritual. A more straightforward way of wording this was offered by Jesus Who said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right standing with God for they will be made full.

This is NOT to the exception of God providing our natural needs, but the words say “I lack nothing” and such cannot be said absolutely for God’s people at all times. So it is necessary to read this passage as an allegory of our spiritual relationship with God as it was clearly intended to be understood.

Another example of this over literalism is found in verse 2. The NET said they avoided choosing words which were overly pastoral in translating “still waters” as “refreshing waters”. 

Here is their note on that:

“In this case the plural indicates an abstract quality. Some take מְנֻחוֹת [menuhah] in the sense of “still, calm” (i.e., as describing calm pools in contrast to dangerous torrents), but it is unlikely that such a pastoral scene is in view. Shepherds usually watered their sheep at wells.” 

While no doubt they are right that shepherds would often water their sheep at wells when they were available. However, when in transit from one location to another (which they would often do during season changes and when seeking fresh pastures), they would water at streams whose moving waters would spook the sheep. Sheep will not eat or drink unless they are settled and feel safe.

As many of you know from reading, A Shepherd looks at the 23rd Psalm from Phillip Keller, shepherds would often dig simple trenches leading from a stream’s edge to a small trench dug for the sheep so the water would flow into the trench and once full would be relatively motionless. This would encourage the sheep to come, drink and refresh themselves.

[Anyone who does not have a copy of this book a link will be provided on the website for a place to order it. There will also be a link to the Trilogy which includes A Shepherd Looks at the Good Shepherd andA Shepherd Looks at the Lamb of God.]

So it is that the word refresh is not wrong, it only misses part of the beauty of the shepherd’s heart for his sheep. Quiet and still waters reveal a heart of knowing the sheep and making provision for them which takes extra effort and solicitous care. The other reveals care as well. It is no easy task to water a hundred sheep or more from a well which too may have been in avoidance of moving waters, but the words lack the imagery.

Nevertheless, introducing the word refresh is not out of place and can in fact be helpful if taken together with the fact that they were also still due to the apprehensions of the sheep

So when through the provisions of the shepherd sheep are well-fed and watered in an environment where they feel safe and assured it does as much to refresh their hearts as it does their bodies. So both translations here have something of merit to add.

The word soul is nephesh which has direct implications for the mind, will and emotions but often includes the idea of one’s whole life. When in the first and greatest commandment we are told to “Love the Lord our God with all our hearts” it is this word nephesh and carries the full range of meaning. We are to love God with all our emotions, desires and intellect – but when this is lived out it results in loving Him with all that we are in all of our life! 

Then David mentions something which was particularly important to him at many times and for many reasons in his life. God directs our steps in paths of righteousness and He does this for the sake of His great name.

We have studied the idea of God’s great name several times over the years and especially in our trek Thru the Bible. We have discovered that it too is a bit pastoral in that God does what He does in regard to us, because He has placed His name upon us in an open display of Ownership and responsibility. As such, God does what He does out of respect for His name – which name we bear.  This is not to the exception of His love for us, but in fact is one of the greatest expressions of His love for us. God SO LOVED us as to call us His Own. As the beloved John said, See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!…– 1 John 1:1a

So it is that the NET translates this as “for the sake of His reputation”. While this may seem a little less a loving reason, it really is not. 

You may remember this was the argument presented to God by Moses when the Lord, in His anger, wanted to destroy ungrateful Israel and start all over with Moses. Moses said, 

“(15) Now if You kill these people as one man, then the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying,  

(16)  ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring this people to the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness.’  

(17)  And now, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying,  (18)  

‘The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’  

(19)  Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”– Numbers 14:15-19  

This was a far more eloquent proposal that it may appear to be on the surface. Moses was not just appealing to God’s reputation as if God was concerned over the opinion of the nations regarding his power, but was about their knowing Who He really is! If you remember God did WHAT He did with raising up Pharaoh in order to make His NAME famous and His power known. Killing His people in the wilderness would work to the opposite of this goal and God of course knew this. God only said what He said to evoke a spirit of intercession for His people, though God in fact would have been in His rights to destroy them all. Moses brought back up to God what His name represents – longsuffering, abundant mercy, forgiveness…etc. To act purely in terms of justice, would surely make His name famous among the nations, but it would reveal a God Who is different than He really is.

Also because God had placed His name, so to speak, on Israel, to destroy them would work to destroy the understanding of that name and by extension Who He really is. Which God eventually pointed out later in Numbers 14:20-24,

“(20) Then the LORD said: “I have pardoned, according to your word;  (21)  but truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD— (22)  because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice,  (23)  they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it.  (24)  But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it.”

What was meant by this? Well what this passage says in part is revealed in full by Habakkuk the Prophet in chapter 2 of his prophecy.

“For the earth will be filled With the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, As the waters cover the sea.” – Hab. 2:14  

So what God was saying to Moses was, that He would forgive for the sake of representing His name properly before the nations as per Moses’ request, but that justice would still be served which is ALSO necessary in order to not misrepresent His name.

All of Israel who were old enough and therefore experienced enough to make informed decisions would NOT enter the promised land but die in the wilderness with the exception of Caleb who had honored and obeyed Him.

In this way the knowledge of God’s person and glory are revealed!

The next phrase is “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” or as the NET has it, “Even when I MUST walk through the darkest valley”. Again both are correct, but the NET has it more literal while the KJV brings out the meaning better. 

In Israel, as well as other parts of the world, Shepherds would sometimes have to lead their sheep to higher ground in the mountains during certain times of year. This would many times take them through valleys some parts of which were sometimes between steep mountain cliffs. It was treacherous ground to cover due to predators, thieves, murders and even flash floods.  Part of the danger of these areas was how dark it could be.  The Hebrew word translated as “shadow of death” is sal-ma-wet, which means “darkness” or “dark shadows.” It shares a common root as the Hebrew word for “death” (ma-wet). So death is more implied than actually stated, but is good to include since it clearly applies.

David claims fearlessness even in such fearsome times of darkness and vulnerability due to the Lord’s presence.

One thing the NET introduces here is the fact that such treks are sometimes necessary. When the seasons changed it was necessary to either seek high ground or the lushness of the valley. The pathway to either in this part of the world was this ravine. Shepherds would herd their sheep through this necessary danger in order to get to the safety and provisions at the other end. Such is accomplished by God in our lives at times as well.

The extension of the shepherd was his rod and staff. The rod was a relatively short affair while the staff was longer. I do not know for certain if the staves used by Ancient Israel had crooks or not, but the stick served the same purpose.

Shepherds would use a rod to ward off predators and threats.

The staff was used to direct the sheep and most likely both were used to help the shepherd count the sheep.

The Shepherd might use the rod to prod the more sluggish or stubborn of the sheep. The crook was introduced at some point to act as a hook to gently but firmly wrap around the neck of wayward sheep and pull them back into the fold.

Also sheep are pretty dumb animals regarding some matters. While they certainly discriminate between who is their shepherd and who isn’t they will almost eat ANYTHING indiscriminately – including rocks, ruts and even poisonous vegetation.

The staff was often used to steer them away from such food choices.

To a sheep this extension of the shepherd was a comfort and offered them a sense of belonging and safety.

So it is that both comfort and reassurance are mentioned in our two translations.

The next phrase is an interesting one. “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies” or “a feast for me in plain sight of my enemies”. Both are interesting since for the most part, sheep will not be at ease in the presence of a predator. They have a much keener sense of smell than humans and will know if danger is near. They will huddle closer together when they feel threatened and attempt to maintain enough distance to accommodate running away if necessary. So this picture seems out of step with a literal sheep / shepherd scenario.

Phillip Keller offers us his perspective on this as a shepherd himself.  He explains that the meadows in the mountains were called “mesas” which translated means “table”. Prior to leading the sheep to these “tables” shepherds would go before the sheep and scout out the territory. They would clear watering holes, remove as many poisonous weeds as possible and establish a type of perimeter in which the sheep could more safely be patrolled and feed in safety. There were times when wolves would not be too far off, but due to the provisions of the shepherds, the sheep could feed in relative safety.

Perhaps the most unobvious AND wonderful expressions of solicitous care for the sheep is seen in the next phrase. “You anoint my head with oil” or as the NET has it, “You refresh my head with oil”. Here I believe the NET loses hands down. While their word comes somewhat close to the literal meaning which is to fatten or to satisfy, I believe it helps deter from the meaning by eliminating the word anoint. Anointing was used for various reasons but one of them was for medical purposes and in this case for protection. No doubt David intended a double meaning which worked from protection and provision to honoring us with God’s Spirit and refreshing our hearts.

Again Phillip Keller comes to our aid with a wonderful explanation. In the mountainous areas during the summer there were what are known as nose or nasal flies and these are common throughout the world. These flies will buzz around the sheep and land on their noses. Upon first appearance the sheep will often panic. They will stomp about and swing their heads violently for hours to ward them off. The flies which successfully land will crawl up the nose of sheep and lay eggs in the mucous. After a few days the larva will hatch and begin borrowing deeper into the nasal cavity causing irritation, inflammation and pain. These poor sheep will literally go so far as to bang their little head against trees and stones to dislodge these tenacious larva but to little effect. These larvae and resulting flies can sometimes even get stuck in the nasal passage and die leading to a dangerous nasal infection called septic sinusitis which can in severe situations kill the sheep.

So it is that shepherds will anoint the heads and snouts of their sheep with a mixture of oil and other ingredients. Phillip Keller used a preparation of linseed oil, sulfur and tar which would sooth the defenseless sheep and keep the flies at bay. This moved the sheep from a frenzied state to one which was a peace and contentment. This thought of which leads David to say, “My cup runs over” or “is completely full”, meaning the provisions of my provider are more than sufficient; they are extravagant and kind!

Oh how He loves you and me!

As we wrap up David is stirred to near verbal ecstasy by saying is it not a certainty that “goodness and mercy” or “faithfulness” will pursue me ALL THE DAYS of my life?

What a vivid depiction of provision. We are not just cared for, we are chased after. The notion is that you could not run so fast as to escape His care, provision and protection. He will even leave the 99 to save the one and rejoice over the retrieval of that little trouble-maker of a sheep more than over the 99 He was never in any danger of losing!

Oh how He loves you and me!

The NET uses the word faithful instead of mercy here and not without reason.

The actual word is ḥeseḏ which is a masculine noun indicating kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, love, acts of kindness. So either word is both accurate and adds depth to the meaning.

The final word is “forever” in the KJV or “the rest of my life” in the NET.

According to the definition for this word offered by the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, this word is used, among other things, for the qualities of patience (forbearance) as in Proverbs 25:15 and limitless presence (forever) in Psalm 23:6.

The NET sees the former phrase “all the days of my life” as an indicator that this word is meant to refer to the rest of David’s natural life, but I believe the phrase was more a form of parallelism where David moved from the lesser to the greater.

Surely the goodness and mercy and faithfulness of God will pursue me all the days of my earthly journey, but then in the end, I will dwell in His presence forever.

This is such a simple Psalm yet its words are deeply comforting and assuring. It sort of makes you feel like a sheep, being cared for by a loving and doting shepherd who has set His love upon us. Though we are but sheep.

Blessings!

Tri

Hi my name is Mark and though I am opposed to titles, I am currently the only Pastor (shepherd/elder) serving our assembly right now.

I have been Pastoring in one capacity or another for nearly 30 years now, though never quite like I am today.

Early in 2009 the Lord revealed to me that the way we had structured our assembly (church) was not scriptural in that it was out of sync with what Paul modeled for us in the New Testament. In truth, I (like many pastors I am sure) never even gave this fundamental issue of church structure the first thought. I had always assumed that church structure was largely the same everywhere and had been so from the beginning. While I knew Paul had some very stringent things to say about the local assembly of believers, the point of our gatherings together and who may or may not lead, I never even considered studying these issues but assumed we were all pretty much doing it right...safety in numbers right?! Boy, I couldn't have been more wrong!

So needless to say, my discovery that we had been doing it wrong for nearly two decades was a bit of a shock to me! Now, this "revelation" did not come about all at once but over the course of a few weeks. We were a traditional single pastor led congregation. It was a top-bottom model of ministry which is in part biblical, but not in the form of a monarchy.

The needed change did not come into focus until following 9 very intense months of study and discussions with those who were leaders in our church at the time.

We now understand and believe that the Bible teaches co-leadership with equal authority in each local assembly. Having multiple shepherds with God's heart and equal authority protects both Shepherds and sheep. Equal accountability keeps authority and doctrine in check. Multiple shepherds also provide teaching with various styles and giftings with leadership skills which are both different and complementary.

For a while we had two co-pastors (elders) (myself and one other man) who led the church with equal authority, but different giftings. We both taught in our own ways and styles, and our leadership skills were quite different, but complimentary. We were in complete submission to each other and worked side-by-side in the labor of shepherding the flock.

Our other Pastor has since moved on to other ministry which has left us with just myself. While we currently only have one Pastor/Elder, it is our desire that God, in His faithfulness and timing, may bring us more as we grow in maturity and even in numbers.

As to my home, I have been married since 1995 to my wonderful wife Terissa Woodson who is my closest friend and most trusted ally.

As far as my education goes, I grew up in a Christian home, but questioned everything I was ever taught.

I graduated from Bible college in 1990 and continued to question everything I was ever taught (I do not mention my college in order to avoid being labeled).

Perhaps my greatest preparation for ministry has been life and ministry itself. To quote an author I have come to enjoy namely Fredrick Buechner in his writing entitled, Now and Then, "If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that He speaks to us largely through what happens to us...if we keep our hearts open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear Him, He is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, His word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling." ~ Fredrick Buechner

Well that is about all there is of interest to tell you about me.

I hope our ministry here is a blessing to you and your family. I also hope that it is only a supplement to a local church where you are committed to other believers in a community of grace.

~God Bless!

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