Does God really look after people—like a shepherd used to look after sheep? David writes his song, what we know as Psalm 23, to say that this is so. He knows what shepherds do because he used to be one. And he writes because he wants to put on record just how amazing it is that God looks after people like him. David says, ‘I shall not want for anything.’
The whole song is full of calmness, assurance and hope—particularly about the future. This is probably why it is still so popular. But how does someone come to be completely at peace, and full of confidence?
It’s not as if David expects everything to go well. He tells us that his soul—that is, his inner life—needs to be ‘restored’. Something must have worn him down and he needs fixing. Then, he anticipates he will go through deep dark valleys—perhaps be threatened with death. And then he looks forward to a banquet—but enemies are looking on.
Life’s like that. All sorts of things happen that make us feel we are not being looked after by anyone. But David knows God. He knows his God is trustworthy. He is sure God’s goodness and steadfast love will be with him all the days of his life. And he’s happy to be led by this God. And the result is that he is completely at rest—whatever happens.
Being contented is not easy to come by. How will I get employment, funds, friends, health, opportunity or vindication? The list is endless. David is not saying he doesn’t want anything but that he is confident he will be looked after.
Everything here depends on the Lord being present and active. ‘He will make me lie down… he will lead me… he will restore my life’. And when life is dark, ‘You are with me’. He feels this very personally… ‘Your rod and staff will comfort me’. And then, ‘You will treat me to a banquet.’ This is his confession of faith, finishing with certainty that he will spend forever in the Lord’s house. There’s nothing else that is making him contented—just the Lord.
We tend to work from what we can see to guarantee a good future. If you are not a Christian, this is all you have—what you can see and what you or someone else may be able to make happen. But this is never enough to give us assurance.
You may be a Christian but have let the world become your prop, your security, your hope. Then things go wrong. This is not because you have been abandoned but so the Lord can bring it home to you more powerfully that he is your shepherd—and that only he is your Shepherd. This is why David doesn’t mention his accomplishments, or troops, or popularity, but attributes his restfulness to what the Lord is going to do.
David calls God ‘the Lord’, the God who has chosen Israel and vowed to be kind to them (Exodus 3:15-17; Deuteronomy 7:6-11). His confidence isn’t self-generated. It has been created by what this Lord has already done in their history and the promises he has made for their future. He is saying, ‘I belong to God. He has chosen me for a special purpose and is looking after me.’
In our case, Jesus has been sent by God to be ‘the good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep’ (John 10:7-18). God has revealed himself to the whole world through him. He so loves this world that he has given us his only Son—so we can have eternal life. As Jesus says, he came so we may have life and have it abundantly. You can’t have anything abundantly while you are fretting and anxious. We need Christ’s shepherding because this is how God is looking after us.
Jesus says the true Shepherd knows his sheep and they know his voice. It’s that personal. He says there are others who claim to be able to look after us but who are more interested in their own success. In fact, he says false shepherds seek to kill and destroy the sheep—or leave them to their fate when trouble comes. We all expect someone or some agency to look after us, so finding the true Shepherd is important.
Jesus goes to the root of our distrust. He knows that we’d rather not have to depend on the Lord. He knows how much this has twisted our affections and destroyed our confidence to live. This is why he says he will lay down his life. He needs to make himself an offering for our sin. Until he does this, nothing will persuade us that the Father is a caring God.
We need to let this truth seep into every thought. Perhaps you are going through troubled times and hunger for some peace and confidence. Reading this Psalm would be a good place to start. But then, you need to let the Lord be your shepherd.
Getting reassurance from this or that person won’t do. Accumulating more resources won’t do. Surrounding yourself with amusements won’t do. Being religious won’t do. It has to be the Lord. It has to be Christ doing what only he can do. And we need to understand that he is calling us to follow him.
If you have trusted Christ for forgiveness, Paul says, ‘If God did not spare his Son but freely gave him up for us all, how will he not also freely give us all things’ (Romans 8:31-39). We won’t lack anything needful. Everything will be working together for a good purpose—that we may be conformed to the image of his Son. Something good is happening—always! The Lord is our Shepherd!
I feel ‘sheepish’ saying these things because there’s nothing I can do to persuade you this is true. But then, I’m happy to be a ‘sheep’. And if you belong to God and he’s shepherding you, God will show you the truth of what Christ is and has done.
Putting all our hope in this won’t leave us disappointed. Again, it is Paul who tells us that the love of God will be poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:3-5). Finally, it’s love that makes us sure and steady.
Next time, I’d like to show what having God as your shepherd may look like, using the descriptions David uses in his song.