Psalm 23 Bible Study - Jesus our Great Shepherd!

The Messianic Psalms Bible Study

Psalm 23 Bible Study - 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. What 1 Corinthians 13 is to weddings, Psalm 23 is to funerals. This is a great shame because it is not a psalm of death! It is a Psalm of life, rest and peace. It is a Psalm of but 6 verses but countless sermons and entire books have been written on it.  [1]  It is a Psalm that encompasses our live here and even extends into eternity future. So though 3000 years old it is extremely relevant for our lives today!

Is it Messianic? That was a question that was once sent to me. On the one hand it is not quoted in the New Testament directly concerning Jesus. But it is alluded to such as in  Revelation 7:17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water."  And we know the Jesus Himself took upon this title of 'the good Shepherd'. What is also interesting, even before we get into the actual verses, is that this Psalm is part two of what we could call a Messianic trilogy. Psalm's 22, 23 and 24 give different glimpses of this wonderful Shepherd. This is seen in the following table:  [2] 






Psalm 22

Good Shepherd

John 10:11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.


His past death for His people
The Saviours Cross

Psalm 23

Great Shepherd

Hebrews 13:20-21 May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him...


His present care and provision for His people
The Shepherds Crook

Psalm 24

Chief Shepherd

1 Peter 5:4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.


His future return for His people as the King of Glory!
The Kings crown

The great Shepherd

Psalm 23:1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want

King David, who wrote this Psalm, obviously knew all about being a shepherd. That was his role growing up. He would tend, protect and care for his sheep. But he also knew, through many highs and lows, throughout his life, that he too was but a sheep with a far greater Shepherd. David had had the highs of defeating Goliath to the lows of running for his life and hiding in caves from Saul. He had the honour of being King over all Israel, yet seen the lows of having his own son, Absalom, rise up against him and take the throne. He had known feast. He had known famine. And yet through it all he could look back and write 'the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want'. What great confidence! There is something about people who truly know their God. They know that it will be ok. They know that through all things, Jesus is a good shepherd. That is what God desires to work into your life. It is what the Apostle Paul knew when he wrote:

 Philippians 4:11-13 I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. (12) I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. (13) I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. 

Amazon, in the last couple of weeks (Nov 2014) released the most highlighted passages in their most popular books downloaded onto Kindle, their electronic book reader. It included the most highlighted passage in the Bible which turned out to be this passage:

 Philippians 4:6-7 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (7) And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

It is great advice but more than likely it is the most highlighted passage because people are in desperate need to remember it! They probably are anxious about different things. It is getting harder to live on this planet - from a health point of view, from a financial point of view, from a spiritual and moral point of view, from a fear and anxiety point of view - there is much that a person could be concerned about. But Jesus is the good Shepherd. He is.

Let's break it up, word for word...

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.  [3] 

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. Jesus took this name for Himself when He said 'Before Abraham was born, I AM!' So many people place their trust and hope is all sorts of things. I have a lady at my work who, after saying something that she felt may tempt fate, said 'touch wood'. David had it right in placing his trust in 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.  [4] 

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 - present tense. 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, you' 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 cares for me as well. 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. It's not for the goats. The promises are for those who have been born again... not those who simply like the sound of it for a funeral!

Shepherd -  This imagery of the shepherd and sheep spans the entire Bible but is most prominent in the New Testament where Jesus speaks about His relationship with His people, His sheep. How would you describe sheep? What is characteristic of them? They are dumb, dirty, defenceless and dependant. Someone said they are the most stupid animal on the face of the earth. If there was such a thing as animal school, they would be dropouts. If there is a ditch, they will fall in and need to be rescued. If there is a wire fence, they'll get caught in it. And then the same thing will happen tomorrow. They can't run all that fast, don't have the greatest eye sight apparently and, being basically defenceless, are timid and fearful. And let's not forget they are prone to wander. There you have it. That's the animal God choose which best represents you! They are in need of a good shepherd who will provide, protect, and guide his sheep.  [5] 

We need to remind ourselves of this all the time. God is the one who looks after our lives.  [6] 

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

Now David wasn't saying here that 'the Lord is my Shepherd, whom I do not want'! Nor is he saying that 'the LORD is my Shepherd, I get everything I want'. No, we are not talking here about genuine needs, not greed'! Obviously it means that with the Lord protecting and providing for us then we shall not lack that which He knows we need.  [7]  Do you have this same confidence that David had? Everyone loves this Psalm. But do we believe it? I think if we could just grasp this first verse alone our hearts could then rest. This verse doesn't mean that there will not be times of drought, valleys, difficulties and need--- far from it... God loves you too much to just make things always easy! That seldom accomplishes His purposes and 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. Everything will be ok. He is in control.

Look where He leads...

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 (where I live) all of our farms and fields seem to be 'green pastures' and the sheep tend to munch all day! So life here for our sheep is one of continual green pastures. But that is not how it is in the dry arid lands of the Middle East and we need to read this Psalm with that mindset. 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 is in the business of leading and bringing you to a place of rest. We often try to work things out in our little minds and end up working ourselves into a place of nervous exhaustion! We have to learn to sit back and thank Him once again. He makes me... He leads me. Now this place of rest is, first and foremost spiritually speaking, right in the midst of the problem. It doesn't mean that anything outwardly has to change. What He is leading, guiding and teaching us is firstly about the inward change to the circumstance even if outwardly things remain the same. But we need to learn to lie down. We are smart enough to do this in the physical. When we get tired we take a rest. It makes sense. It works. But mentally and spiritually we can get really tired trying to work out all our problems and we don't rest. We lie on our beds yet carry on the same thoughts inside. It leads to burn out, break downs and depression.

Lie down in green pastures... quiet waters - But thank Jesus our great Shepherd that He does bring us to green pastures and quiet waters. 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 and you can feed and are restored. Thank God for such times! This feeding is symbolic of being fed spiritually with the word of God. (Heb 5:12-14)  [8] 

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 it goes through the dark valley as the next verse indicates. But it is still the path that leads to righteousness. As you survey your life, what path has God led and guided you through? Was it where you thought you would go? 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 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.  [9]  These are the paths we should desire and actively seek. David wrote about this in Psalm 25

 Psalms 25:4-5 Make me know Your ways, O LORD; Teach me Your paths. (5) Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; For You I wait all the day. 

When things get dark...

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. Sometimes those paths lead straight through the valley of the shadow of death. As the shepherd led 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 close my eyes and 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. You may be in a dark place but you must keep walking. It's not somewhere that you set up camp thinking that is all you will ever know. No, press on knowing that if there are shadows, there must be light around the corner causing them!

And it is in these times that it starts getting a lot more personal! 

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

There is a switch here from 'He' to 'You'. Instead of speaking about his Shepherd, David speaks to Him. It becomes more personal in this valley! 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.  [10] 

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  [11]  . 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. This table represents all the blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus. Enemies may surround David but he 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!

You are being chased (but don't fret - it's a good thing!) 

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?  [12]  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!  [13]  And His goodness and kindness will always follow you. This word follow in the Hebrew does not just mean tag along at some distance behind. It means to actively pursue, to chase, and normally in a negative sense as when Pharaoh chased Israel at the exodus. David knew all about this. He had been chased and pursued as he ran from his enemies who sought to take his life. But he also knew something else. In all of those things he was also being pursued the goodness and loving kindness of his great Shepherd. And David knew that this would carry on all the days of his life. 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, for

 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.' 


Arno C Gaebelin said (with some small modifications): A good way to read this Psalm is by asking the question, 'What shall I not want?' I'll close with this for is gives a great summary of the wonderful provision of God as outlined in this Psalm.

I shall not want for:

Rest -- for He makes me to lie down in green pastures.
Peace -- for He leads me beside the still waters.
Forgiveness -- for He restores my soul.
Guidance -- for He leads me in the paths of righteousness.
Companionship -- for you are with me.
Comfort -- for your rod and Thy staff comfort me.
Provision -- for Thou prepare a table before me.
Joy -- You anoint my head with oil and my cup runs over.
Everything in time -- for goodness and mercy shall follow me.
Everything in eternity -- for I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

[1] ↩  As I mentioned, this is one famous Psalm. In terms of how it is loved, look at how one old theologian from the 1800's spoke of it.

 'Blessed be the day on which that Psalm was born! What would you say of a pilgrim commissioned of God to travel up and down the earth singing a strange melody, which, when one heard, caused him to forget whatever sorrow he had? ... Behold just such a one! It has charmed more griefs to rest than all the philosophy of the world. It has remanded to their dungeon more felon thoughts, more black doubts, more thieving sorrows, than there are sands on the sea-shore. It has comforted the noble host of the poor. It has sung courage to the army of the disappointed. It has poured balm and consolation into the heart of the sick, of captives in dungeons, of widows in their pinching grief's, of orphans in their loneliness. Dying soldiers have died easier as it was read to them; ghastly hospitals have been illuminated; it has visited the prisoner, and broken his chains, and, like Peter's angel, led him forth in imagination, and sung him back to his home again. It has not made the dying Christian slave freer than his master...Nor is its work done. It will go singing to your children and my children, and to their children, through all the generations of time; nor will it fold its wings till the last pilgrim is safe, and time ended; and then it shall fly back to the bosom of God, whence it issued, and sound on, mingled with all those sounds of celestial joy which make heaven musical for ever. - Henry Ward Beecher 

So, argh, no pressure then!

[2] ↩  J Vernon McGee writes  'to put it succinctly, in Psalm 22 we see the cross, in Psalm 23 the crook (the Shepherd's crook), and in Psalm 24 the crown (the King's crown). In Psalm 22 Christ is the Saviour; in Psalm 23 He is the Satisfier; in Psalm 24 He is the Sovereign. In Psalm 22 He is the foundation; in Psalm 23 He is the manifestation; in Psalm 24 He is the expectation. In Psalm 22 He dies; in Psalm 23 He is living; in Psalm 24 He is coming. Psalm 22 speaks of the past; Psalm 23 speaks of the present; and Psalm 24 speaks of the future. In Psalm 22 He gives His life for the sheep; in Psalm 23 He gives His love to the sheep; in Psalm 24 He gives us light when He shall appear. What a wonderful picture we have of Christ in these three psalms! ' 

[3] ↩ 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.

[4] ↩  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!

[5] ↩  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 on another journey the sheep followed wherever he went! Make sure your view of the 'Good Shepherd' Jesus is the right one!

[6] ↩  As a silly example, a few weeks back I got an email from a past work colleague that I hadn't heard from for some time. She is a lady that is unfortunately into the New Age and has spirit guides etc... She doesn't agree with what I believe nor do I agree with her beliefs. But despite this I got on with her pretty well. So out of the blue she emailed a few weeks back asking:  'All ok with you? Had a very strange dream last night and you were in it. I need to know you are well.'  That was all it said. So I started checking myself - heart was still pumping, ears were attached, nose still worked, yes, everything seemed to be in order. So I wrote back and said I had done a thorough check and all was well. In which she replied  'Very pleased to hear you are good... It wasn't a nice dream at all ...' 

Now, if you let it and you tended to be a little superstitious, your mind could ponder, and wander, on that a bit. 'What happened exactly to me in the dream?' 'Was it just a silly dream or something more spiritual?' 'Is something bad going to happen to me?' 'Do I need to be extra careful?' Thankfully I didn't go far down that track but it can plant this little seed of fear in your mind if you let it. In the end, in whatever it is that places you in fear or unease, you have to come back to this very thought we are speaking of here - 'The Lord is my shepherd' - He is in control of all things. Nothing is outside of His control. Now mine was a recent silly example. You will have much more pressing concerns. But whether our fears are irrational or based on very real circumstances, our need to remember the Lord is the same.

[7] ↩  This was brought home to me this week in an email from a Kenyan Pastor. He wrote:

 Unlike in the west where people get multiple jobs, here the jobs are very rare. With family of say, a mother, a father, 3 or four children, and only one in the family working and bringing in 3 dollars (a day), it would takes ages before one can afford to buy anything extra, even clothes or even a blanket. You can find a family who have brought up children to being young adults and have never owned a bed. They just drop a mat on the floor, which is not cemented and the roof is grass and go to sleep... But the love for our Saviour is great, with us waiting patiently for a time all these woes will come to an end. With no one to turn to, we develop true and steadfast love and trust in the Lord. And one day He will come in the clouds and troubles of this world will be over. 

So here is a man who has had to depend upon His Shepherd and is finding Him faithful even in trying times. And he awaits the day when the great shepherd will become the chief Shepherd and shall come in the skies.

[8] ↩  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 ) 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.

[9] ↩  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!

[10] ↩  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.

[11]  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.

[12] ↩  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!

[13] ↩  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 standard of 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!