Much of the Bible will not make sense until we feel the brevity, fragility, and gravity of life. Even after it’s been translated into our language, the warnings and promises will feel nice, but foreign and peripheral to the proud and comfortable — more suited for coffee mugs and calligraphy than for life and death.
King David lived in danger almost every day, facing enemies all around him and even within his own armies. He feared for his life, and so he depended on the words of God like we depend on water or oxygen. In the psalm immediately before Psalm 23 (just a few verses earlier), he writes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?” (Psalm 22:1). Everywhere I look people are trying to kill me (Psalm 22:12–13).
And then he paints this beautiful, even serene picture: a shepherd walking sheep beside a calm stream or river, and then leading them to green grass where they eat and sleep. Sheep are soft, unintelligent, defenseless animals. It’s probably not the inspiring metaphor we would reach for with ISIS banging down our door. We want a God with a sword, not a staff.
But David saw everything he needed, even when he was most vulnerable and most afraid, in a good shepherd of defenseless sheep. When today may be my last day and everything I have gives way, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). Not only will I survive this threat or sickness or loss, but I will have all I need and more. The world looks and thinks I am weak, poor, and helpless, but with God I have a real, but secret strength and wealth of a kind the world cannot now understand and of an amount they cannot ever count.
The hope of all who look to heaven for help sings, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Beyond everything I can see right now, and lasting forever, is a gift that can satisfy and protect me long after all my enemies are dead and gone. That gift is God himself. He is the goodness better than any good we’ve seen or heard or tasted here (Psalm 16:11), and he is the shelter safer than any government or laws or armies in any nation on earth. The promises of our Shepherd flood every valley in this life with light, and reveal the path to never-ending, never-waning, never-in-danger-again peace and happiness.
Hope in the face of terror and peace in the face of danger say a great deal about the faith we have in God and about the God in whom we believe. God loves to work in ways that reveal his strength and beauty, and so David says, “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3). God has written opposition and danger into the world, and into our stories, at least in part to tell the world about himself — his holiness, his justice, his love, his power to save.
Who is this Shepherd?
“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9–11)
Jesus, born in Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem, is the good shepherd of Psalm 23. He leads us into safe pastures (Psalm 23:2). He walks us besides living waters (Psalm 23: 2, John 4:10). He restores the frightened, the broken, and the wounded (Psalm 23:3). He comforts and guides us through the valley (Psalm 23:4). He gives us the victory over our enemies (Psalm 23:5).
"Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54–55, 57)
But why does David find hope, comfort, and strength in God the shepherd, and not in God the righteous judge or the warrior king? Because the caring, gentle companion of weak and defenseless sheep is also the all-powerful, undefeated veteran of history’s greatest war. The shepherd of Psalm 23 is the hero and conqueror of Revelation.
"He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Revelation 7:15–17)
In that day, God will finally defeat and destroy every threat and every fear. He will be a terrifying and overwhelming adversary for all who oppose him and all who abuse his children. The peace and comfort we’ve tasted in him only in brief moments in this life will bloom into full and uninterrupted realities for all the redeemed.
Therefore, we the weak and defenseless sheep do not want, we shall not want, and we shall be delivered from every dark valley we meet.