The 23rd Psalm is not only the most famous psalm in the entire book of Psalms, it is probably the most famous writing in the entire Bible, except for the Lord’s Prayer. It is difficult to say anything about this psalm that has not already been said. I could spend most of the time I have just on the introduction to this psalm. It is most probable that David wrote this psalm after he became king, for his early life was hectic and danger-fraught, being chased by King Saul like a hunted animal. When he wrote this psalm, he is experiencing prosperity, abundance and peace of mind. He is happy, lacks nothing and has no fear. He has but one desire for the future, and that is to dwell in the presence of God forever.
Before I present a brief exposition, let me mention a few things that men have said about this little piece of writing. Much praise has been heaped on this poem by preachers, commentators and writers. It has been said that no passage of the Bible has been read more often and by more people, with the possible exception of the Lord’s Prayer. Probably more people have heard this psalm read in their hearing than any other part of the Bible. It is said to be read more often at funerals than any other passage in the Bible. This psalm has been sung in the assembly of Christians just as it was written and is sung to the tune of at least three different melodies. It will continue to be sung to your children and my children and to their children through all generations of time. It may well be the most famous poem ever written. So much for its popularity. It is loved by Christians and non-Christians alike.
More important than its popularity is the fact there is something about the psalm that comforts people. I don’t fully understand the power of its charm, but it has filled the air of the whole world with joy greater than the heart can conceive. It has been like a special messenger from God to drive away fear, trouble, sorrow and sadness. It has put more grief to rest than all of the philosophy and psychology of the world. It has poured balm and consolation into the hearts of the sick, captives in prison, and orphans in their loneliness. There is something about this psalm that appeals to everybody. It specially appeals to people when they bury their loved ones.
In addition to all these things, it is said to be a piece of writing that has great beauty about it. Our English ancestors compared it to the sweet song of the Nightingale. This little bird of the thrush family lives in western and central Europe. Its beautiful song is so famous that the finest praise that could be given to Jenny Lind, the great singer of the 1800’s, was to call her the, “Swedish Nightingale.” What the Nightingale is among the birds, the 23rd psalm is among the psalms. Everything I have said is introduction, but these things just had to be said.
Let us now read this psalm, and as we read I will present a brief exposition. It begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd . . .” God is compared to a kind and loving shepherd. This idea is carried over into the New Testament where Christ is called the Chief Shepherd of our souls (1 Pet. 5:4), and Christians are the sheep of His flock. Speaking of the Gentiles, Jesus said, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16). All Christians, both of Jews and Gentiles, make up one body of people as found in the Lord’s church. Our great need in 2011 is to honor Christ as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11) of our lives!
Next, David said, “I shall not want . . .” David felt like a sheep well fed, protected and guided by a loving shepherd. I am told sheep will not lie down until they are full and satisfied.. The same thought is expressed in the words, “My cup runs over,” which means fully satisfied and completely happy. As we face another year, we Christians are drinking from a full cup, being blessed with “all spiritual blessings” (Eph. 1:3) in Christ! Since we are certainly lying down in the green pastures of His tender care, we should have a heart that is full of thanksgiving.
Then he said, “He restores my soul . . .” To restore the soul involves the idea of relief and restoration. He who first rescued us as straying sheep also reclaims us from other wanderings later on. The early Christians had to have their souls restored. Gal. 6:l says, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual restore such a one . . .” James said, “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:19) Please notice that those who err from the truth are compared to sheep who wander away from the shepherd. Christians are restored and their sins covered when they receive the forgiveness of God.
Verse four contains the thought that has brought so much comfort in the time of death. “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.” These words have been spoken over a many dying bed. What is the valley of the shadow of death? .A valley is a low place with a mountain on either side. In David’s time these places were dangerous passage ways for travelers. Robbers and ruffians posted themselves in these hills to harass travelers. Death is said to be lurking in such a valley and casting its shadow–a figurative way of saying death may be near. But travelers had to pass through those dangerous hills to get to where they wanted to go. Really the figure is not primarily, as is commonly supposed, our dying moments, though it is an appropriate application. It really refers to the dangers that confront us in life that may take our lives. There may be times in 2011 when we will feel like we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death because accidents, violence and disease are a part of life. However, it brings us comfort to know that the Lord will be with us through it all!
This psalm impressed an artist of yesteryears to illustrate the passage with a marvelous picture. It is entitled, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” In the foreground is a dark and dismal valley, through which a destructive wind has blown. Lying dead is the warrior and the king. The helmet of one and the crown of the other lie useless on the ground. In the center of the picture is Jesus with an aura of glory over His head, a crown of thorns around His brow, and in his hand a shepherd’s staff. On the left is a young maiden, whose face shows some terror in coming through the valley, and yet of great hope as she now sees the Good Shepherd there. She holds His hand, as Jesus stands on a grave stone, and the tombstone is luminous with the words, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” The point of the painting is that Christ has completely abolished the fear of death for those who believe in Him. Christ declared to Martha in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
Psalms 23 ends by saying, “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Will the decisions we make in 2011 help to make David’s desire a reality for us in eternity? The Bible affirms that the type of faith by which we are saved (Rom. 5:1) is an obedient faith . . . “But they have not all obeyed the gospel” (Rom. 10:16) We must believe in Christ (Mark 16:16), repent of our sins (Acts 17:30), confess Jesus as the Son of God (Rom. 10:9-10) and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Do it now, before another day passes by, while you have the time and opportunity!