We who know Jesus Christ follow the Good and Great Shepherd, who leads and provides so thoroughly and compassionately that we have need of nothing else. This is true satisfaction—resting in all He provides.
Following the Best Shepherd Ever
Every time I read Psalm 23 it reminds me of how badly our world needs a shepherd. Whether it’s news of uprisings, rioting, corruption among world leaders, or war between countries, I am reminded again of how desperate the world is today, staggering around morally and ethically and spiritually confused.
The world needs a leader who knows the way to purpose and meaning and hope in life—and can assure those things. There’s only one Shepherd who qualifies to do that.
As David begins this great psalm, he seems to be bubbling over with joy. He says, “The Lord is my shepherd,” as if to say, “I want to introduce the only Shepherd worth following, and it’s the Lord.”
David uses the name Yahweh, translated “Lord” here. This is the Old Testament personal name for God, taken from the Hebrew verb for “I am” (see Exodus 3:14). This Hebrew word Yahweh is sometimes transliterated into English as Yehovah or Jehovah.
This name highlights God’s self-sufficiency. In other words, He doesn’t need anything. He doesn’t even need to be served or helped—even though it is our privilege to serve Him.
Yahweh is self-sufficient, self-contented, and self-sustaining. He doesn’t need anything from you or me. There’s almost a play on words in this psalm—the God who doesn’t need anything is the One who takes care of everything we need.
The key that unlocks this psalm is a personal relationship with the Shepherd. David writes, “The Lord is…” That is present tense. David is not saying, “The Lord used to be my Shepherd,” or, “You know, I’m thinking about trying Him out for a couple of months, and if things work out, I’ll let Him be my Shepherd.” No. David is saying, “Right now—present tense—I am following the Lord.”
The next word here is just as critical: “The Lord is my shepherd.” “My” is possessive. Friend, nothing this psalm promises will apply to you if you are saying, “The Lord is my mom and dad’s shepherd,” or “The Lord is my grandfather’s shepherd,” or “The Lord is my wife’s shepherd.” No. David writes, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Now you will notice that this psalm uses the life of sheep following their shepherd as a metaphor for the believer’s life. In the Old Testament, God is often portrayed as a shepherd. And in the New Testament, Jesus, God the Son, openly calls Himself “the good shepherd” (John 10:11).
David is using this metaphor because he has been a shepherd and he knows that people are a lot like sheep—and that is not necessarily a compliment.
- Sheep don’t clean themselves like other animals; they are content to stay dirty.
- Sheep are not good at finding suitable food or water; they are entirely dependent on their shepherd.
- Sheep wander away and are unable to find their way back; they need to be found and rescued by the shepherd.
That’s the idea here as David begins this list of blessings for following the right Shepherd.
In fact, he completes his opening line here in verse 1 by writing, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” What does that mean? One little boy quoting this verse to his Sunday school teacher got the words turned around a bit and said, “The Lord is my Shepherd, and that’s all I want.”
Well, that is pretty good theology. Beloved, without a shepherd, sheep lack everything. But with the right shepherd, we “want,” or lack, nothing we truly need.
In verse 2, David writes, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” What does it mean, “He makes me lie down”? That reminds me of back when our twin boys were toddlers. Keeping them in their cribs at night was quite the challenge. In fact, we didn’t need an alarm in the morning—there they were, bright and early! We had a lot of trouble making them lie down.
Well, David is not saying that God is making us lie down in the pasture even if we want to get up and run around. What he means is that God makes it possible for us to lie down.
I have learned from the writings of two experienced shepherds that sheep will refuse to lie down until several things are taken care of.
First, sheep will not lie down if they are hungry. They will stay on their feet, foraging for food. That is why David makes a point here that he is lying down in green—that is, fertile, satisfying—pastures. David says, “I can lie down because my soul—the hunger in my heart—is satisfied!”
Second, sheep will not lie down if they are afraid. If they hear the cry of a wolf in the distance or a barking dog, they are going to remain standing, ready to do the only thing they can do to escape, and that’s run.
I have read that as soon as the sheep see their shepherd, they settle down and even lie down. Perhaps that’s why we are encouraged today to keep our eyes on Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Third, sheep will not lie down if they are thirsty. David adds at the end of verse 2, “He leads me beside still waters.”
Sheep will not drink from running, fast-moving water. And if they fall or get pushed into the water, their heavy coat of wool can become saturated and pull them under. So, if a shepherd does not lead them to still, clean water, they are going to drink from polluted water and potentially become sick.
Now in verse 3, David writes, “He restores my soul.” That phrase needs to be understood in light of shepherding terminology.
David is referring to the fact that at times he has been a cast sheep. That is a term for sheep that have turned over on their back, and because of their heavy wool, they often cannot roll back over onto their feet. They need to be restored—and quickly.
Cast sheep become easy prey for wild animals, and in the heat of the day, they can die in just a few hours. There is only one solution—an alert, caring shepherd. You see, David is giving his testimony here. He is saying, “I know what it’s like being a cast sheep, flat on my back spiritually; and I know what it’s like for my Shepherd to rescue me and put me back on my feet.”
Notice the next phrase in verse 3. David writes, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The word for “paths” here describes wagon tracks in a road. Our Shepherd leads us along the wagon tracks of righteousness—this is the right path.
The problem with sheep is that they blindly follow each other—sometimes the wrong way! Even though it can be very dangerous, sheep will literally follow the tail of the sheep in front of them. We get the expression “tailing somebody” from sheep. We often follow people too closely as well.
But David says you can always identify the path the Lord is leading you on. It is going to be marked by the wagon tracks of righteousness—by integrity, truth, purity, and satisfaction.
Do you know what David is doing here? He is bragging on his wonderful Shepherd.
Think about that. Is it not your mission in life as a Christian to do the same thing? You are to tell your wandering, confused, needy world about a Shepherd who is worth following.
You are to say to your world, “Hey, the grass really is greener over here. Why don’t you come over and join me in following the Lord, the Good Shepherd? He is the best Shepherd ever!”
 See Charles R. Swindoll, Living Beyond the Daily Grind, Book 1 (Word Publishing, 1988), 69.
 Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Zondervan, 1970); and Timothy S. Laniak, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (ShepherdLeader Publications, 2007).
 Lloyd John Ogilvie, Falling into Greatness (Thomas Nelson, 1984), 53.
 Keller, 50.
 Ibid., 60.