This passage is one of the most famous scriptural passages, and rightly so. The only real problem with it is that people are so familiar with it that it is easy to assume too readily that you have grasped the full import of what is being said. But this psalm has wonderful depths.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever (Psalm 22:1-31).
The objective nature of the covenant does not obscure or diminish the importance of individual faith. The Lord is my shepherd (v. 1). As a result of this, there shall be no want. The shepherd leads the psalmist into green pastures, to there lie down (v.2). He leads the sheep to still waters, waters that are not frightening or dangerous. The force of the metaphor becomes explicit next; the shepherd restores David’s soul (v. 3). The green pastures and still waters stand for the paths of righteousness (v. 3), which is all done for the Lord’s name’s sake. Even though there may be surrounding terrors, there is no basis for fear so long as God is with us (v. 4). His presence is practically felt (v. 4). The image of the flock and shepherd then recede to the background, and the Lord prepares a table in the presence of enemies—and it is an abundant table (v. 5). Throughout life, goodness and mercy follow, and the end result is that of dwelling with God forever (v. 6).
THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD
In some ways we have to come to grips with the fact that the image of the congregation as a flock is not entirely complimentary. Sheep are not renowned for their SAT scores. At the same time, the relation of shepherd and sheep is highly descriptive of devotion, love, and, on the part of the shepherd, sacrificial tenderness. We follow the Lord like sheep—”And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice” (John 10:4). The idea of tenderness and sacrifice is also very much involved. “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Is. 40:11).
Individual faith and devotion is necessary here, and as the Lord teaches, the reality is seen in how the sheep follow. And differences of interpretation don’t matter at the end of the day. The sheep are not goats, and the sheep are not wolves. The wandering sheep, however, are sheep.
The psalm makes clear that paths of righteousness are where we are led. The shepherd, for His name’s sake, leads us in those righteous paths. But what is righteousness like? The answer is green pastures, and still waters. But what good is a green pasture to a brown soul? What good are still waters for a turbulent heart?
THE ROD AND STAFF
When we are left without discipline, we are unloved. The author of Hebrews encourages us this way—we are to receive correction as an act of love (Heb. 12: 6; Prov. 13:24). The shepherd’s rod is used in three significant ways. The first is that by it, the shepherd counts. You are reckoned in the flock, individually counted. You are not part of a large, indiscriminate wooly white cluster (Heb. 13: 17; Lev. 27:32). The shepherd also uses the rod to spur the flock along, when they are making slow progress. And last, the shepherd uses the rod to bring wandering sheep back to the fold.
IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES
For the righteous, those who follow the Savior devotedly, nothing is more certain than that they will have enemies. And given the nature of the case, nothing is more certain than that the enemies will not tell the truth about them, their motives, their pastures, their waters, their paths of righteousness, or anything else that concerns them. But what matters in this is always the vindication of God. God prepares a table that cannot be gainsaid, and He does this in the presence of our enemies. This table is an abundant table. The glasses of wine are full. We are anointed with the oil of gladness. We are dressed in a garment of praise. You are seated at the Lord’s table. Do not let your adversaries provoke you into fear, and do not let them provoke you into conformity with their caricatures.
In the darkest valley, in the shadow of death, with enemies ranging themselves on the ridges on either side of the valley, as you walk there with the Lord, together with your companions, one of you might hear footsteps behind you. And if you whisper to a friend that you have heard these footsteps, be prepared to receive the encouragement. “Don’t worry. That’s only goodness and mercy.” What is that that follows you in the dark? Do not fear not. Goodness and mercy. And you will come safely at the end to the house of the Lord, where you will dwell forever and ever.