Psalm 23 is understandably one of the psalms most beloved by Christians. When I’m visiting people near death, I often read Psalm 23 to them. The words of this highly relatable poem comfort us:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for His name’s sake.
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 prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
But I don’t think anyone can relate to it more than the Israelites. God literally made them to lie down in green pastures and led them to still waters, and He literally led them through valleys of death. Consider Exodus 15:22-27. After escaping death at the hands of the Egyptians by crossing the Red Sea on dry ground (essentially a valley-like crossing), Moses leads them into the wilderness of Shur. The term “wilderness” might be misleading to us. I remember that when I was a kid, whenever I read “wilderness” in Scripture, I immediately thought of forests and mountains because that’s what most North American wildernesses are like, but this is not what wildernesses in Israel are like. The wilderness is literally a desert. In fact, that’s how I prefer to translate this Hebrew word.
Thus, Moses and Israel “went three days in the desert and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah” (15:22-23). (Marah in Hebrew means “bitter.”) Israel was traveling through the desert of Shur for three days and the only water they found was bitter. Naturally, the people complained to Moses, who then cried to the Lord on their behalf, “and the LORD showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet… Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they encamped there by the water” (vv. 25, 27). Like a shepherd, God literally brought His sheep beside still waters—first miraculously by Moses throwing a log into the bitter water of Marah, then again by bringing them to an oasis called Elim.
A similar occasion occurs in 17:1-7 when they journey from the desert of Sin (pronounced seen) and camped at a place called Rephidim. Whereas in Shur the water was too bitter to drink, here they don’t have any water. Once again, the people complain to Moses and the Lord tells him to strike a rock at Horeb with his staff that he used to strike the Nile, and water would come from it. Moses does this, and sure enough, God brings forth water from a rock.
And so, many centuries later, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people of Israel thought back to these specific moments in the desert when they heard this psalm read aloud in the Temple or their synagogues because it is literally their ethnic heritage. In these two occasions, the Lord literally brought His people beside still waters and they escaped the valley of the shadow of death.
What about Christians? Unless one is a Jewish convert to Christianity, we can’t quite relate to this psalm on the level of ethnic heritage. Certainly, we apply it to ourselves when we are literally facing death, whether we’re a soldier in battle or an elderly woman lying on her deathbed, and there’s nothing wrong with this.
Ultimately, this psalm is about Jesus since they are all about Him (Luke 24:44). The Lord Christ is our shepherd in this psalm. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18). He makes us lie down in green pastures in that He provides our daily bread (Matthew 6:11, 25-33). The waters He lays us beside is Himself, the water of eternal life (John 4:14). He leads us in His righteousness, that is, He justifies us by faith, for to justify literally means “to put in the right” (Romans 5:1).
Even though we walk through this valley of the shadow of death called life on earth amidst many evils, Christ the Lord is with us to lead us into everlasting life (John 3:16; Matthew 28:20). The table He prepares before us is the Supper He instituted (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). This is done in the presence of our enemies, that is, the rest of the world who want nothing to do with Christ and despise His people. In Baptism, our heads are anointed with oil (1 John 2:27). (This is why some churches practice anointing the baptismal candidate’s forehead with oil, which has been a long historical practice of the church for many centuries.)
In Christ, goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, or as St. Paul says, “we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). And Christ has gone to prepare a place for us, where we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (John 14:1-7).