The Messianic Psalms

Psalm 23 – Jesus Our Great Shepherd


By I Gordon




I recently did a study on this psalm for a home group church meeting. I started off by saying that I wanted to have a look at what is probably the most popular chapter in the entire Old Testament. Sure enough, someone guessed pretty quickly that it would be Psalm 23. Everyone knows this psalm… even non-Christians have heard it because it seems to be a favourite at their funerals. But it’s not a psalm of death, but of life, rest and peace. And for something 3000 years old it is extremely relevant for our lives! This study is far from exhaustive and will simply be a few thoughts concerning this wonderful psalm.


Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd…


Now I want to break this first verse up into each little section so that we can get a better grasp as to what David was saying.[1]


The LORD – The first thing to note is the source of David’s comfort. It is ‘The LORD’ who is his shepherd! This name is “Yahweh’, the sovereign, almighty, delivering God. So many people place their trust and hope is all sorts of so-called ‘lords’. But David had it right in ‘The LORD’ – the one true God who controls all things. This also shows us our need of giving Him His rightful place as Lord over our life.[2]

Is – Can you say that? Do you have the confidence to say that the almighty God IS your Shepherd right now? Not was, like He helped you in the past. Not will be, like you look forward to something He will do… but IS. David had extreme confidence in who God is right now! Do you?

My – This is probably the best thing about this psalm… it is so personal! Grab your Bible and read this Psalm noting down the times ‘I, my, me, he, his’ etc are used. There are only 6 verses but these terms are used about 30 times! The wonderful discovery is that the Lord is not just a shepherd who looks after the entire flock, but He is MY shepherd as well because He is that interested in each of His sheep! The other thing to note on this point is that the entire psalm is only valid for those who truly have Jesus as their shepherd. The promises are for those who have been born again… not those who simply like the sound of it for a funeral!

Shepherd - Do you know much about shepherds? What does a shepherd do? Think! Well, this is what the rest of the psalm will explain but in short, a shepherd provides, protects, and guides his sheep.[3] In the New Testament Jesus often used this analogy of the sheep and the shepherd to describe His relationship with those who came to believe in Him. In John 10;11, Jesus called Himself the ‘Good Shepherd’. Although, to be fair, this is a bit of an understatement and I prefer the Hebrews 13:20 description of Him as the ‘Great Shepherd’!


Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.


Other versions say ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ for this verse. I’ve heard younger people saying ‘why didn’t he want the Lord as his shepherd?’ Yeah right - nice interpretation! Obviously it means that with the Lord protecting and providing for us then we shall not be in lack of what we need. We are greedy little creatures really and we always seem to have different ‘wants’, but thank the Lord that He gives you what you need. Do you have this same confidence that David had? We should not think however that this verse means that there will not be times of drought, valleys and need. The rest of the Psalm show that these things do occur. But the confidence David had is that the great shepherd will always know what we need and when to provide it.


Psalm 23:2-3 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters; he restores my soul.


In New Zealand all of our farms and fields seem to be ‘green pastures’ and the sheep tend to munch all day! But that is not how it is in the dry arid lands of the Middle East. The green pastures and waters spoken of in this verse were often some distance apart and the shepherd would have to lead his flock to these places. They would travel from oasis to oasis. Notice the following –

He makes me… He leads me – Jesus our Shepherd knows exactly what we need and He is the one that brings spiritual nourishment and rest for our souls. Often we get into a trying situation and we rack our brains wondering how we can ever get out of it. Well, if this is you then believe this verse is true for you. Jesus is the shepherd, not you[4], and He knows when to give you rest and refreshment, and where it will come from.

Lie down in green pastures… quiet waters – First he makes you lie down. That is, Jesus arranges times of rest for you! I like the thought of that and it’s not just because I’m lazy! He also arranges times when you can feed off the greenest of green pastures. This feeding is symbolic of being fed with the word of God. (Heb 5:12-14)[5] Jesus also arranges the quiet waters which speak of refreshment and revitalising. They are times, as the Psalm says, when He restores your soul spiritually. They are quiet waters… times when there are no waves and no troubles. Thank God for such times!



Psalm 23:3 He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.


The paths that the Shepherd takes us on are the righteous or ‘right’ paths. They will lead us to places of rest and provision. Obviously this doesn’t mean that the track that the shepherd takes is always an easy one. Sometimes in goes through the dark valley’s as the next verse indicates. But it is still the paths that lead to righteousness. God’s eternal desire is that He would have many sons and daughters who display His glory and light within them. It is expressed in this verse – Rom 8:29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. So God will always lead us into that which is right and that which is true. It is for ‘His name’s sake’ that He does this. Our lives should be a testimony to God Himself.[6]  As Jesus said ‘let your light shine before men so 


Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death


As I said, it wasn’t all easy and plain sailing being a sheep in Israel however. As the shepherd lead the sheep from oasis to oasis, this sometimes meant passing through narrow valleys that had steep cliff faces on each side. These valleys were often dark because of the shadow caused by the cliffs, and they were a favourite place for predators to hide in. Sounds like a nice place to be for a defenceless sheep now doesn’t it? Maybe this verse should have read ‘though I sprint through the valley of the shadow of death…’ This verse speaks to us of the trying times in our lives where there is darkness, confusion and fear. Notice however that the Psalmist says he ‘walks through’ this valley. He doesn’t stop, and he doesn’t give up hope. It’s not somewhere that you set up camp! He presses on knowing that if there are shadows, there must be light around the corner causing them!   


Psalm 23:4 I will fear no evil, for you are with me


The wonder of wonders is that through the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives we can actually go through these times without fear! Well, having said that I should say that you will be free from fear to the degree that you know He is with you – rain, hail and shine. The first time through the dark valley is always scary. But it is there that you learn that though you may not be able to see the shepherd as well as normal, He can see you and is still protecting you! The subsequent trips through the valley become progressively easier as trust increases. How marvellous it is that weak, fearful people can be given such confidence through a simple trust in the ability of their shepherd! ‘You are with me’ the Psalmist says and that is all that He needs to know.[7] 



Psalm 23:4 Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.


Two things gave comfort –

The Shepherd’s rod: The rod which the Shepherd carried was for protecting the sheep from predators. It was never used on the sheep. (Whew!) Do we not gain comfort from the fact that it is Almighty God who is our Shepherd! No robber, predator or enemy ever takes Him by surprise!

The Shepherd’s staff: The staff was used by the Shepherd to direct the sheep in the way in which they should go, and, in the case of a wandering nosey sheep, to pull it back into line[8]. Again, there is comfort in the fact that God directs us and even discipline from the Lord (pulling us back into line!) can be seen as comforting for it is a sign that He loves us scripture says (Heb 12:6)


Psalm 23:5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.


Here David pictures God as a gracious host who provides all that he needs… even in times of apparent difficulty. David is saying that the provision and grace of God gives him such confidence that in a time when he should be fearful and anxious (like while in the very presence of his enemies), he is still able to sit, relax and eat! God was the one providing for him, God was the one anointing his head with oil (which was what gracious hosts did for their guests in Israel) so he knew that he would have more than enough! 


Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life

Wow! That is some revelation! Can you say that about your life?[9] You will only be able to say that if you have truly come to know the Lord Jesus as your Shepherd. If you are truly one of His sheep (evidenced by hearing his voice and following His ways) then this verse is your verse as well! He will never, ever, leave you![10] And His goodness and kindness will always follow you. I love the testimony of an old David.

Psalm 37:23-25 The steps of a man are established by the Lord; And He delights in his way. When he falls, he shall not be hurled headlong; Because the Lord is the One who holds his hand. I have been young, and now I am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken.


What confidence for this life this should give us as we believe it in faith!


Psalm 23:6 And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.


And finally we have the small matter of that which occurs after ‘the days of my life’. So our great Shepherd protects and provides for His sheep during their life on this earth. But there is a greater provision and far greater blessing still to come. One where… ‘the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ Rev 21:3-4


‘Forever’ is a long time, but this infinitely creative God will never fail to amaze us. So for now, let us follow our Lord where He would lead. Let us stick close to Him and thank Him for His wonderful grace. He is not just a ‘good shepherd’. He is a great shepherd. He is utterly trustworthy. And when the days of this life are over, then we shall enter into that which we can only partly imagine. Yet we wait eagerly for Jesus, knowing that…


“No eye has seen,

no ear has heard,

no mind has conceived

what God has prepared for those who love him.”



[1] I learnt this when I went to a John Macarthur seminar one time. He had a sidekick with him who spoke on ‘I will build my church’. He got us to say the sentence emphasizing each word. For instance, we would emphasize ‘I WILL build my church’ or ‘I will BUILD my church’ etc. He rammed it home so much that come lunch time we were saying ‘I WILL eat my lunch’, ‘I will EAT my lunch.’ Anyway, we might have been being a tad naughty but the principle can be quite helpful and this is what I will do with this first verse.


[2] I read in a John Hunter book that as well as being able to say ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ we should be able to say ‘The shepherd is my Lord.’ Is it a terrible thing that even though God is sovereign and controls the entire universe, we don’t want to let go of the reigns! You are not your own but were bought with a price!


[3]  We need to make sure that we have a Middle Eastern understanding of the Shepherd. I live in New Zealand, and yes, I know, we have more sheep than people! But the shepherds here use dogs and fences to drive and control the sheep. Basically fear tactics. The Middle Eastern shepherds in Israel didn’t drive their sheep… their sheep followed them. There was no fear involved. The sheep knew that the shepherd was the one who protected them and cared for them. Therefore, when the shepherd started heading off in another journey the sheep followed wherever he went! Make sure your view of the ‘Good Shepherd’ Jesus is the right one!


[4] Your job is to take your place as one of His sheep. Ever thought about sheep? Of all the animals that God could have chosen to represent His people, He chose sheep! I would have preferred a lion maybe but what do I know? Now sheep are dumb, defenceless, prone to wander and in desperate need of someone to care for them! So, like I said, take your place before God as a stupid sheep and let Him guide you.


[5]  If you are someone that God has placed in a position of leadership or teaching then you should also remember that you are called shepherds and are called to feed the flock of God. (1 Pet 5:1-4, Acts 20:28) If this is you, then please don’t starve God’s flock and please don’t feed them rubbish. There are stacks of deceptive shepherds around just as there always were. (Jer 23:1-4, Ezek 34:1-10) Work to be a faithful shepherd realising that it is God’s own sheep that He has placed in your care.

[6]  As Jesus Himself said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ God shines His light into our lives. He guides us and leads us along the right and true paths. We in turn should allow that light to shine forth towards others so that people may see our lives and praise God. It is for His name’s sake and His glory that this is done!


[7]  We have another source of confidence in our shepherd Jesus that even David didn’t have when he wrote this psalm 3000 years ago. This psalm is taken completely from the sheep’s (David) point of view, as he talks about his shepherd. But we have the testimony from the Shepherd also… how he loved the sheep and would never let them go! Please read and believe! ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.’ He will not, and cannot forsake you if you are one of His sheep! This gives us amazing confidence when we need it most. 

[8] I have heard of more extreme cases of discipline amongst Middle Eastern Shepherds. In extreme cases where a lamb continually wandered off and wouldn’t stick with the pack (causing the Shepherd to repeatedly have to go and bring the lamb back) the Shepherd would sometimes break the lamb’s leg! Ouch. And obviously, he would then leave the lamb to die in the wilderness, eaten by its predators! Ok, I’m being naughty. It is true that in extreme cases the shepherd would break the leg of the lamb. But he would then carry that lamb while its leg mended and apparently, once healed, that lamb would never wander off from the shepherd again. It would stick right by the Shepherd’s side! I’m sure you are smart enough to see the analogy between Jesus and His sheep today.


[9] Must admit that I have been dealing with a few trials lately and when I read this verse it kind of caught me by surprise! Guess I had put my eyes on the problem too much! If things are tough, remember this verse. Believe with the same confidence David had. It was spoken by someone who had been through more than we probably ever will so he knew what he was talking about!


[10]  Boy it used to annoy me how church leaders and other Christians would create such confusion concerning this! When things were hard for Joe Christian you would hear the pastor encourage him saying ‘Jesus will never leave or forsake you – take heart!’ A great promise indeed! Then from the pulpit you would hear the same person say that if you didn’t do this, this, and this you could lose your salvation or the Holy Spirit would leave you etc. And I used to always think ‘Well! Why the double confusing messages? Which is it? Will He never leave me or will something I do cause Him to leave?’ Be assured! If you are truly saved He will never leave you all the days of your life!