Psalm 23 is one of the most quoted Bible passages ever. What's striking about this psalm is that it's written in such a way that a people like us, who have so little understanding of the idea of a shepherd, can still appreciate the message it speaks about our God.
When this psalm was written, everyone knew at least one shepherd. Not only that, but everyone knew the importance of having a good shepherd. Livestock was an important commodity; you needed a shepherd that understood that and took good care of the flock. So when the psalm begins, The Lord is my shepherd, the original audience had a strong understanding of what that meant. And when it continues, I shall not want, they knew that the psalmist was not talking about just any old shepherd; he was talking about a good shepherd. The flocks had everything they needed.
But it's a verbage that doesn't mean a lot to us in a technological society. Is this good shepherd, this provider of all things, something like a Siri or a Cortana? At the push of a button, we can have all our questions answered. At the sound of our voice, we can have whatever we want. Is that anything like the shepherd?
See, we've lost our frame of reference for the kind of provision the psalmist is talking about here in the image of the shepherd. In our digital world, provision means something else entirely. In ancient Israel, provision wasn't virtual; it was real. It wasn't connected to the Amazons and the Walmarts and the three coffeeshops that are fairly close to you. It came from the one man, the one shepherd, the one central figure that was responsible for it all. And the psalm goes on to tell us what that looks like. From the NLT:
He lets me rest in green meadows. The shepherd was responsible for rest. It was his job to make a place for the flocks and the herds to safely lie down without fear of what dangers might lurk around them and without expectation that they would have to move somewhere immediately. He took away the threats and the pressures of the world to create this sacred space for rest.
He leads me beside peaceful streams. The shepherd was responsible for water, for real water. It was the kind of water you could leisurely drink. It wasn't rushing by too fast, wasn't going to splash up all over you or carry you away. It wasn't stagnant; it was still a stream, which meant the water was drinkable. It wasn't full of algae the way a pond might be. And the shepherd showed the way to this place that was designed for the drinking. He knew just where to go.
He guides me along right paths. Flocks move. It's what they do. They go from place to place, either to get to a new place where the family is moving or to keep the vegetation fresh as they circle back home. Either way, there's an end in mind. There's a place to which they're going, and the shepherd knows the way. He's leading them to a place called home, and they could trust that if they just kept following him, they'd get there. They'd end up where they were going, and it would be good.
Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. The shepherd stays near his flock. No matter what. Even in the darkness. Even in the shadows. Even in the face of death, he is there. And they know it. He is their constant presence; they will never be alone.
Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me. The shepherd is responsible for protection and for comfort. The rod protects the flock because the shepherd is not afraid to use it to beat away the wolves. The staff comforts the flock because the shepherd will hook it gently around a stray neck and pull them back near himself. It's this beautiful interplay of pushing away the dangers and pulling close the cherished.
You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. The shepherd is not afraid to lay out the good food, knowing there are wolves around. His rod at the ready to defend the flock, he takes them to the best fields, the best grasses, the best meadows to graze in and does not withhold from them the best the land has to offer.
You welcome me as a guest. Every now and then, I can imagine, a stray sheep might wander into another flock somewhere. And there are laws in Israel for what you can and can't do to a stray animal that you find. And I imagine that the good shepherd, who takes such great interest in his flock, would welcome this stray into the fold until such a time as its own shepherd comes looking for it. He lets it simply wander in, gives it a share and a safe place until it can find its way home.
See, this is what the shepherd does - rest, nourishing water, guidance, home, presence, protection, comfort, a feast, welcome. This is what the good shepherd does, and the psalmist has written it all here for us so that even in times like these, where I have to admit that I don't even know one shepherd (and I'm probably not alone in that), we can still understand what it means to be in God's flocks. What it means to be one of God's sheep. It means rest. And living water. And guidance. And a place called home. And a constant presence. And fearless protection. And tender comfort. And an elaborate feast. And a gracious welcome.
What more could we possibly want?
The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need.