Why does Psalm 23 stand out as one of the most beloved psalms of all time? I mean, enter any Christian bookstore, any Hobby Lobby, any Wal-Mart and you will find artwork of sheep and a shepherd. Surf through Amazon’s marketplace and you will find these words etched on bookmarks, collectible plates, and Bible covers. Enter any Hallmark store and you are sure to find these words in a greeting card. What is it about Psalm 23 that makes it so endearing, so captivating? Is it the picture of a man whose face is worn rugged, who is beaten by the weather, living in the dry, desolate wilderness for the sole purpose of caring for sheep? Is it the deep-seated delight as you watch him retrace a wandering path just to find one lost sheep? Do you marvel at his determined, fearless resolve to fight a savage wolf with nothing but a shepherd’s staff? What is it about the twenty-third psalm that strikes the heartstrings?
The instant reaction might be to focus on how it makes you feel. You feel at peace because Someone great protects you. You feel satisfied because Someone great fills your soul. You feel confident because Someone great leads you. We can emphasize results (and that’s good)— but might I offer a different cause? The real underlying reason why these words resonate with us? Psalm 23 delights— not because of how it makes us feel, but because of what the Shepherd does. When you study his work and his ability, you realize this is the Shepherd we need.
That realization comes into focus with just the opening words. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Can you imagine the scene? The shimmering sun peeks over the horizon, its brilliant beams chase away shadows, its radiance illuminates the sprawling landscape. High overhead birds soar. Mist hovers over still water. Dewdrops sparkle on crisp, lush grass. Look around and what do you see? Peace! In fact, that ‘peace’ is amplified by what is not present. No enemy barreling towards you. No crushing heartbreak. No disappointment. No burden. No pressing responsibility. They do not exist here! Stop— and you hear silence. No sirens, no alarms. No calls for your attention. No shouting. No drama. No conflict. Stress is completely wiped out, forever removed!
You find a pasture of paradise— something not seen in this life. No, what we often see is frustration as plans fall apart. The dream does not strengthen marriage, it just creates more arguments, more conflict. It seems like everyone on your social media feed has a better life than you, they have reached significant goals. Fear always lingers. No matter how long you stare at the bank account, it does not make money appear. The news media tends to create problems and never solves them. The worst-case scenario constantly plays out in your mind. You just want to know for sure that the future will be okay. Then, there remains those relationships that paralyze us. You want the grudge over, but the brain creates another excuse why the phone call can wait another day. The sister always cries for help, but she never actually takes your advice to heart. She’ll burden you with the same problem again next week. Bundle up the challenges you (and I) carry and we feel so exhausted, so worn, so overwhelmed, so hurt, so broken. Psalm 23 captivates our attention because you find peace, security, safety.
Still, what makes us yearn for rest from every mental, physical, emotional struggle? (Of course, apart from the benefits of a peace-filled life.) What draws us into this serene pasture? Realizing that you (and I) fail to bring peace into life.
Do you remember how the psalm begins? ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ Who does the leading? The Lord. The Lord speaks, we follow. The Lord speaks, we respond accordingly. Yet, how often our foolish hearts ignore his Word! Proud hearts can grow so confident in your (and my) ability, thinking that our decisions, our choices can bring meaningful security and unlock peace among relationships. So, with chest puffed out, we lay the Bible aside and chase whatever fantasies seem pleasant at the moment, thinking this kind of living will bring us real happiness.
In reality, the opposite is true! I mean, God did not say, ‘Go hold a grudge.’ He does say, ‘Forgive, as I have forgiven you’ (Colossians 3:13). No wonder we get tied up inside! Pride does not want to listen to those words. As a result, it invites heart-decaying consequences. God says, ‘Trust in me with all your heart, mind, and soul,’ (Proverbs 3:56). Still, pride wrestles for control. No wonder we worry! We try to do God’s job! Worry happens because we confront our own limitations; we lack the power make everything work out just the way we want. God promises: ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because…Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). A little part of us shoves those words aside, considering them unnecessary. That God is too overbearing. Yet, what does greed do? Greed never has enough. Greed is a chronic wasting disease. No wonder we feel no satisfaction when greed saturates the heart!
The point is this: Self-reliance feels no need for God. No need for God watching over you. No need to follow God’s Word. A proud heart relies on you! How foolish! What guarantee can you make for real rest? Even worse, the further we wander from the Word of our God the further we wander from our God! The further we wander from him, we do not find peace. We find misery. We walk a road that will only bring everlasting heartbreak.
So, no wonder Psalm 23 draws us in! Yes, we gain many blessings from Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Yet, do not overlook the obvious. Who is a better shepherd? You— who cannot enter paradise? Or, Jesus, the Shepherd who has the ability to create this rest and then lead you into that rest?
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. The Good Shepherd gladly carried every commandment of God on his heart. He found complete joy in doing his Father’s will (Hebrews 10:7-9). Never once did he brush the Word of God off to the side. Instead, that Word filled his heart— and he used the Word to remove want. Disciples who set the burden on themselves to feed five-thousand mouths, Jesus teaches to bring requests to him. A woman who no doctor could heal finds healing in the Son of God. A prostitute who carries her own shame, a prostitute so many consider too far gone to be forgiven, hears forgiveness from the mouth of Jesus. The Good Shepherd spent his earthly life gathering hearts with his Word. He led those hearts to see his payment on the cross as the payment that brings real peace to a starved soul.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want— and you lack nothing. The living Lord still comes to you with his Word. A Word that penetrates your heart. A Word that does not express a wish, but a reality. What God actually does. So, when Jesus says, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (John 20:21-23), there is no doubt, but the ongoing, solid reality that God no longer holds our faults against us. He does not lock us out of heaven. He does not hold a grudge. He restores weary hearts and souls.
Jesus is the Shepherd we need. Only he holds the power to remove stress and anxiety, fear and nerves. With his Word in our ears and hearts, he proves to be the Shepherd we have.
That truth draws us in to this psalm. Jesus remains the Shepherd we have— even now! Sometimes you encounter this wrong notion. The idea that once you become a Christian, life becomes perfect. You have health. You have wealth. Your children become perfectly obedient. You never get stressed out at work. Never experience accidents or tragedy. All your friends leave a positive impact. That life just becomes completely easy. That’s not true. The Bible never makes such a claim. Even this psalm admits that you (and I) will have trouble. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You (and I) can walk through challenges— financial stress, disappointments brought on by children, even the thought of a covid-19-caused death. We can stand in the overwhelming presence of death— and all its overpowering torments. Still you (and I) need not fear. Why? [Y]ou are with me. Jesus, the Good Shepherd stands bigger than our challenges. His ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ are not two different objects, but really one. The Word of God gives strength in difficulty. You (and I) can press on even in the face of death because God’s Word does not make wishes, but guarantees.
God has kept those promises, hasn’t he? He sent his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). He has provided you another day with food, clothing, and shelter— and even more, the delight of knowing that it all comes from him (Psalm 37:25). Even in the face of death, you do not stare down the dark abyss, but rather see heaven opened! The heart clings to these promises and keep moving ahead by those promises.
With the Shepherd leading, you triumph over all your foes. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Imagine walking into a five-star restaurant. The Lord receives you as his honored guest. He seats you at the finest candlelit table. You turn to look out the window and you see your enemies outside. Death’s icy grip. Satan’s life-wrecking temptations. The world’s empty promises. Their hands press against the window, aching to rush in— but they cannot. The Risen Christ has cast them outside forever. They are conquered; they can never afflict you ever again!
You turn to the feast spread before you. The finest cuts of meat. The fresh-picked vegetables. The still-warm breads. The most expensive of wines— things you may not be able to afford in this life. Imagine the emotional, mental, and physical delights of feasting! Every need is so fully, so perfectly met. The Good Shepherd grants such satisfaction with his Word—a Word that proclaims his Easter victory and a word that guarantees your share in victory! Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So, why does Psalm 23 stand out as one of the most beloved psalms of all time? What is it about Psalm 23 that makes it so endearing, so captivating? What is it about the twenty-third psalm that strikes the heartstrings? Is it the picture of a man whose face is worn rugged, who is beaten by the weather, living in the dry, desolate wilderness for the sole purpose of caring for sheep? Is it the deep-seated delight as you watch him retrace a wandering path just to find one lost sheep? Do you marvel at his determined, fearless resolve to fight a savage wolf with nothing but a shepherd’s staff? Yes, we can ponder what the Good Shepherd does.
Yet, stop and study yourself, your ability, your efforts—and no wonder we fear! What limits we have! When we stop to study the work and ability of the Good Shepherd, you realize this is the Shepherd we need. He is the Shepherd we have. The Lord is My Shepherd.