The Shepherd’s Psalm

Discovery for Teachers

The Shepherd’s Psalm

OVERVIEW
DAYBREAK

SOURCE FOR QUESTIONS
Psalm 23:1-6

KEY VERSE FOR MEMORIZATION
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)

BACKGROUND

Psalm 23, frequently referred to as “The Shepherd Psalm,” is one of the most well-known passages in all of Scripture. Bible scholars and believers through the ages have acclaimed its inspiration, literary beauty, and depth of spiritual insight, viewing it as unexcelled in religious literature. Authored by David, this psalm evidences both the psalmist’s early vocation as a shepherd and his close personal relationship with God.

There is no indicator of exactly when in David’s life the psalm was composed. Christian writer F. B. Meyer wrote, “There is no question as to who wrote it — David’s autograph is on every verse. But when and where did it first utter itself upon the ear of man? Was it sung first amid the hills of Bethlehem, as the sheep were grazing over the wolds, dotting them like chalk-stones? Or was it poured first upon the ear of the moody king, whose furrowed brow made so great a contrast to the fresh and lovely face of the shepherd lad, who was ‘of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to?’ It may have been. But there is a strength, a maturity, a depth which are not wholly compatible with tender youth, and seem rather to betoken the touch of the man who has learned good by knowing evil, and who, amid the many varied experiences of human life, has fully tested the shepherd graces of the Lord of whom he sings.”(1)

One outstanding feature of this psalm is the skillful use of contrasted imagery. David’s words describe both pastoral peace and passage through peril, the potential of evil and the prospect of good. Through these six verses, the concept of the complete supply of every need is developed. The psalmist concludes his beautiful meditation with the thought that after a lifetime filled with goodness and mercy, he will dwell forever in the presence of God.

Three thousand years have passed since the sweet singer of Israel first sang this psalm about the shepherd care of God. However, it is still traditionally sung by Jews in Hebrew at their Sabbath meal on Saturday afternoon.

SUGGESTED RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS

  1. The first words of this beautiful psalm are “The Lord is my shepherd.” The word translated “Lord” in this passage refers to the self-existent nature of God, the great I AM who is unchangeable and all-powerful. How do you think this understanding of God’s nature enabled the psalmist to state the remainder of that verse, “I shall not want” (suffer deprivation), with such profound assurance?

    David understood that the great, unchanging, all-powerful God was certainly well able to provide for his needs. Direct your group’s attention to the word “my” and ask them to explain the significance of that pronoun. Discussion should bring out that David was not speaking of the fact that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would provide for the needs of the nation of Israel, although that was true. He had a personal connection with God which allowed him to state with assurance, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

    Your students should grasp the concept that confidence in God is a personal matter. Knowing of God, or even possessing a vast knowledge of Scripture, will never provide that assurance. It is only when we have a direct and intimate relationship with God himself that we have the assurance that He will provide for our every need.

  2. In verse 2, David said that his Shepherd “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” Personalize this portion of the psalm, and write a brief description of how the Good Shepherd accomplishes this in your life.

    Your students’ responses will provide a paraphrase of these verses; they should center on the fact that as our Good Shepherd, God provides for our every need. The term green literally means “fresh shoots” and pastures means “habitation.” Since areas of fertile vegetation and still waters in semi-arid Palestine were few and far between, sheep had to be led from place to place to find enough grass and water to sustain them. It took ongoing effort on the part of the shepherd to make sure the needs of the flock were met.

    Follow up by encouraging your students to share accounts from their own knowledge or experience of times when God provided for the physical needs of His children.

  3. The psalmist went on to assert, “He restoreth my soul” (verse 3). One meaning of the word translated restore is “to refresh.” We are well acquainted with the need for regular restoration and refreshment of our physical bodies. In this verse, however, David said that his soul was restored — a statement that points to spiritual restoration and refreshment. How does God provide for that need in our lives?

    There may be more than one answer to this question. We know that one way God has provided for this need is by establishing one day in seven as a time for worship, spiritual renewal, and refreshment. We live in a very high-pressured, goal-oriented society, and pausing on the Lord’s Day to be renewed and restored in our spirits is a vital necessity.

    Restoration and refreshment also come through our times of personal communion with God. Though our physical bodies may be depleted by toil and the cares of life, spiritual strength and energy can be renewed through time spent with the Lord. The prophet Isaiah voiced this truth in Isaiah 40:28-31; a New Testament affirmation of this concept can be found in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16. If time allows for further discussion of this question, you could ask your students to share some of the times that the Lord restored their souls.

  4. In the second part of verse 3, the psalmist stated, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Two individuals are mentioned in this verse: “He” and “me.” The role of the Shepherd is stated — He leads. What action is required of us, as sheep of the Good Shepherd? What steps can we take to make sure we do our part successfully?

    The answer to the first question is simple: we must follow. The tenderest and best of shepherds (which our Shepherd certainly is) cannot bring his flock to a pasture or a place of safety unless the sheep follow him.

    In response to the second question, several answers may be offered, but specific steps suggested will all likely point to the concept that we must follow closely. We should avoid any tendency to go our own ways, only looking to the Shepherd when we find ourselves in difficulty or danger. We should be careful not to linger behind by neglecting to quickly obey the commands of our Master. We should keep focused on the One we are following, making sure we are not distracted by the world around us. In the physical realm, predators attack the stragglers who have drifted away from the flock, and that provides a warning to us in the spiritual realm.

    Ask your class to define what they think is meant by the “paths of righteousness.” Your group should conclude that these paths are established by the Word of God. These are straight paths — holy paths. One of the functions of Scripture is “instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), so we can be sure that the Shepherd will always lead us in accordance with His written Word.

  5. Verse 4 is probably one of the most familiar in all of Scripture. Why was the psalmist able to face the prospect of walking through the valley of the shadow of death with such assurance?

    The psalmist had assurance because he knew God was with him. As humans, we have a tendency to contemplate death from an earthly perspective. Many people shrink from the thought of death: they view it with apprehension or even fear. However, the death of a child of God is not an occasion for fear.

    Expand your discussion of this verse by looking together at some of the encouraging facts about death that can be found in this passage. For example:

    • Death is not an enduring condition, but a passage or transition — the psalmist pictures it as a valley we walk through.

    • Though the valley is unknown, David was comforted by the knowledge that God was with him, and that can be our comfort as well.

    • The psalmist, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, called it the “shadow of death.” Though a shadow may be dark (or unknown), it cannot hurt us, just as the shadow of a sword cannot kill.

    If your class is primarily made up of adults, you could conclude discussion of this verse by sharing accounts of Christians who rejoiced at the time of their departure from this life. One favorite account in Apostolic Faith history (retold in an upcoming Daybreak devotional for Psalms 115-116) revolves around John Clasper, a beloved minister known to many as “Brother Scotty.” When he was about to pass into eternity, the nurse in attendance asked if she could do anything for him. He said, “Just roll back the roof, and let me go!” Like the psalmist, there was no fear in Brother Scotty’s heart as he approached the end of life on earth
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  6. In David’s day, the shepherd’s rod and staff referred to in verse 4 served multiple functions. It could be used to defend the sheep from predators, guide the flock by gentle nudges, extricate wandering animals from peril, or correct a wayward sheep. Given those uses, why do you think the psalmist referred to the rod as a source of “comfort”?

    Class discussion should bring out that David could regard the shepherd’s rod as a comfort because it symbolized the shepherd’s devoted care of his flock. The shepherd was not a disinterested bystander; he was actively involved in watching over the sheep.

    Consider the watchful care of our Good Shepherd. He is ever mindful that our spiritual foe seeks an opportunity to attack. He guides us to safety by the gentle nudges of His Spirit. He will apply correction when we need it, but that correction will always be done with mercy and lovingkindness. There is great comfort in understanding that our Shepherd’s desire is for us to thrive spiritually, He knows the best paths for us to travel in, and every action He takes is done with our highest good in mind. It is wonderful to grasp the fact of how absolutely our God assumes the care of all who trust in Him!

  7. In verse 5, the setting of this psalm transitions from the pasture to the home, and from the Shepherd to the Divine Host who presides at a feast where David is an honored guest. (Anointing a guest with oil was done at banquets in David’s day as a mark of hospitality and honor.) This verse contains the psalm’s only reference to the enemies who arrayed themselves against David at various times in his life. The psalmist seems to be saying, “I am not only Jehovah’s sheep, but also His beloved companion and guest, and that fact is apparent even to my opponents.” Based on this word picture, what conclusion can we draw about what our attitude should be toward those who oppose us?

    Your students should conclude that when we are in the care of God, there is no reason to fear those who oppose us. While David’s enemies were real, no sense of apprehension, confusion, or fear is indicated by this verse. As we “sit at the table” of God’s divine providence and enjoy His blessings on our lives, we can depend upon His protection. When facing very real opposition, our very lack of stress or anxiety may testify to those watching that we are sustained by God himself.

    If time allows, reference could be made to godly individuals through history who fearlessly faced great opposition for their faith, and yet maintained a settled peace in their spirits. Some examples are Paul the Apostle, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and Richard Wurmbrand, but there are countless others who could be included on such a list.

  8. David closed his beautiful psalm by stating that his cup was running over — an expressive metaphor describing God’s fullness and blessing — and then declaring that the goodness and mercy of God would follow him “all the days of my life.” The word all in that phrase is fully encompassing. Consider what you know of events in David’s life. What were some of the types of “days” he experienced? What does this teach us about God’s presence in our daily lives?

    Class discussion of the first question will bring out that David experienced days of triumph, joy, and victory, but he also experienced days that brought defeat, grief, remorse, and pain. Once this has been established, point your class back to the word “all.” In every situation, David was confident that the goodness and mercy of God would follow (or pursue) him. The word mercy (hesed in Hebrew) in this verse is translated in other Scriptures as “lovingkindness;” it refers to the covenant love of God. David clearly had complete confidence in God’s abiding faithfulness.

    In response to the second question, your class should conclude that we can have this same assurance regarding God’s presence in the ups and downs of our daily lives. Of course He shares in our days of joy and victory. However, God does not move away from us in times of difficulty. If the “days” in our lives include grief, He will provide comfort. If they include remorse or failure, He will correct us, but He will do so with mercy; His goal is always to restore and renew.

    Wrap up your session by reviewing together the closing words of this psalm: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” What a glorious hope for those who closely follow the Good Shepherd!

CONCLUSION

When considering how simply Psalm 23 shows God’s care, protection, and love for us, it is no mystery that it is one of the most frequently recited, referenced, and memorized groups of verses in all of Scripture.

1. F.B. Meyer, The Shepherd Psalm, Kindle Edition pgs.77-78