This sin-cursed world is not always a safe and pleasant place. But we are not here alone. Psalm 23 reminds us that the one who created us, redeemed us, and leads us also protects us and assures us of His everlasting goodness and mercy and an eternal dwelling with Him.
From the Pasture to the Palace
In the first three verses of Psalm 23, David has described the provision of the Lord. Now, in the last three verses, he will describe for us the protection of the Lord.
David writes here in verse 4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” I want you to notice here that David does not write, “Even though I walk through the valley of death.” No, he writes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
That is a world of difference. Shadows cannot hold onto you; shadows cannot harm you. David says here that death is just a shadow. Death did not hurt your godly mother or grandfather or little child. To be absent from the body, Paul wrote, is to be immediately in the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
The grip of death is no more powerful than a shadow. And that means the valley of the shadow of death is not a dead end; it’s a highway. And it’s a busy one too. Some 55 million people will die in the next twelve months on Planet Earth. The valley of the shadow of death is more like an interstate highway, and it always looks like rush hour.
Beloved, we are not in the land of the living, heading for the land of the dying; we are in the land of the dying, heading for the land of the living. That makes it even more important that you are following the right Shepherd, the one who can take you safely all the way to heaven.
David refers here in verse 4 to two instruments used by every good shepherd—the rod and the staff. The rod was typically made from a young sapling about two feet tall. The natural bulb on the root end would be shaped into a smooth, rounded head of hard wood. Shepherds would often put stones or bits of metal into that knob to make it a fearful weapon.Phillip Keller writes that while in Africa, he enjoyed watching the young shepherd boys practicing with their rods, learning how to throw them with amazing speed and accuracy.
The rod came to represent power and authority. Ancient kings are shown in excavated drawings with a shepherd’s rod in their hand. Over the centuries, the shepherd’s rod eventually would morph into the royal scepter. In Psalm 2, David prophesies that the Messiah will one day rule the nations with a rod of iron, meaning He will be invincible.
The staff also was formed from a young sapling with one end soaked in water, heated, rubbed with oil, and bent over so that it hardened into the shape of a crook. It was useful for pulling branches down for food, rescuing animals trapped just out of reach, and pulling out sheep caught in bushes and crevices and mud.
The staff also was used to guide the sheep and keep them on the path. One author said he has watched a shepherd walking alongside a special or favorite sheep with his staff against the sheep’s side so they are “in touch,” almost as if they were holding hands.
David says of the Lord’s rod and staff here in verse 4, “They comfort me.” The Shepherd gives reassurance. He assists, He cares for, He guides, and He protects His sheep.
Now in verse 5 we are given another picture of the Lord’s protection. David writes, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
This table doesn’t have plates and napkins. In Spanish Bibles this word for table is translated “mesa”; it pictures a flat area with a grassy top. A good shepherd would take the time to prepare this tableland for his flocks. He would walk through it looking for any poisonous weeds.
So, what about the presence of these enemies David writes about? From their hiding places in the shadows and canyon walls, predators are watching and waiting. But in the presence of the Shepherd, there is safety. It’s as if the Lord says to David, “Here, sit down. I have prepared a table for what you need in life. There is no need to rush.”
Next, David writes “You anoint my head with oil.” What does he mean? I have heard preachers say this is the Holy Spirit’s anointing or this is David’s royal consecration as king. But those ideas miss entirely the context of shepherding.
Sheep are especially troubled by nasal flies that buzz around their head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp nose and in the ear passages of the sheep. If they are successful, and they often are, larvae hatch and work their way into the nasal passages and ears of the sheep. For relief from the agony, sheep will beat their heads against trees, posts, or even rocks. In extreme cases, the sheep may fatally hurt themselves in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of the aggravation.
David knew what it meant to pull that sheep close to him and take out his flask of oil—a homemade concoction of olive oil, sulphur, and some spices. The shepherd would rub it around the nose and ears of the sheep, bringing relief and cleansing. David is illustrating a personal encounter with his Shepherd, the Lord, who deals with the sin and contamination that has burrowed into his life and offers forgiveness.
And what a relief that is to his mind and heart! David puts it this way: “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” That is another way of saying, “I am overjoyed to be rid of that sin that so disturbed and irritated and distracted me.”
Then David writes in verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew verb actually means David is being pursued—he is being pursued—by goodness and mercy.
You have the Shepherd in front of you and His two faithful sheepdogs following behind you. And what are their names? Goodness and Mercy. This refers to the Lord’s care and His unbreakable promises.
Notice especially how David settles forever an important issue here—one that might be on your mind today. Is God’s care for me—His goodness and mercy—given to me only when I deserve it? On good days only? What about when I fail Him? What about on those bad days? David writes, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days”—every day—“of my life.”
So, look behind you, beloved—you are being chased, as it were, all the way home by His mercy and goodness. And then what?
David says here at the end of Psalm 23 that he is going to change locations. When he comes to the end of his days, David writes, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Notice that change. He is going to move out of the pasture and into the Father’s house.
That’s quite a change of address. But mark this: one thing is not changing through life and here at the end of life, and that’s the one who led him all the way—his Shepherd.
So, David writes with confidence here—and this is for all believers as well—when our days are done, we will trade in that pasture for a palace and dwell in the house of the Lord, our Shepherd, our King; and we will dwell with Him forever.
 Charles R. Swindoll, Living Beyond the Daily Grind, Book 1 (Word Publishing, 1988), 76.
 Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Zondervan, 1970), 93.
 Keller, 100.
 Ibid., 104.
 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 19 (Word Books, 1983), 208.
 Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Zondervan, 1991), 218.