Psalm 23 may just be the most popular psalm for the setting of hymns, for a variety of reasons–it is short, it has transcendently beautiful meaning, and because the idea of the Eternal as a shepherd connects directly with a well-known understanding of Jesus Christ as the good shepherd and believers as His beloved flock. I have personally sung about half a dozen different settings of this hymn (including at least a couple different arrangements of Isaac Watt’s “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” including one arranged by a friend of mine ). Clearly, it can be said that the pastoral nature of Psalm 23 brought out the best in classical composers of hymns.
But as familiar as Psalm 23 is, there are some aspects of Psalm 23 that are not so familiar, and that are worthy of mention. For example, as a teacher of theology, I used Psalm 23 to explain the biblical feature of the chiasm, where a book or passage begins and ends with the same concerns after having through a well organized path. Psalm 23, of course, is a very simple chiasm of only six verses, which goes a-b-c-c’-b’-a’. The elegance of this form and its simplicity in Psalm 23, and the ease of which this chiasm can be seen made it quite an easy example to teach  a fairly challenging concept for many who are not familiar with the Bible’s structure and organization. So even in such a basic aspect as biblical structure and organization, Psalm 23 can offer surprising and quirky insight.
One of the most familiar aspects of Psalm 23, paradoxically enough, contains a great deal of depth that is often passed over in ignorance. The image of Jesus Christ as a good shepherd, written here in Psalm 23 by David (who was also a good shepherd, one of the ways in which he served as a type of our Lord and Savior), is a familiar one to us. The familiarity of the image of Jesus Christ (and David, as an exemplary monarch) as a shepherd is a bit deceiving for at least two reasons. The first reason is that most people in our present day and age (especially in the West, but increasingly more so in the developing world) lack a close understanding of dealing with animals. The symbolic importance of a shepherd, who had to take care of his flock rather personally, guiding them gently and protecting them from harm, with regards to leadership, where a shepherd is a servant leader whose gentleness and avoidance of tyranny and oppression is a sign of self-discipline rather than a sign of weakness as is often assumed to be the case. The close connection between shepherding a flock, which required a great deal of care, and governing people is an aspect that is not well understood, not least because many contemporary people think of sheep as fairly stupid animals and dislike any comparison of themselves with flock animals, and because far too many people who think themselves to be shepherds lack the gentleness and self-sacrificial love that a genuine good shepherd possesses, which brings the whole concept into unmerited disrepute.
There is another aspect that is often overlooked as well. Shepherds were generally held in contempt by the ancient world, especially around the time of Jesus Christ, and in places like Egypt . Sheep (and the shepherds who took care of them) were blamed for environmental destruction, and there was a great disconnect between the wealthy people who owned massive flocks of sheep and the rather humble working class folk who actually took care of them, and shepherds were considered to be dishonest and unethical as a matter of profession. In American culture there was similarly a great deal of hostility between cowboys and shepherds, where our mythos praises the rugged individualist cowboy in the frontier and tends to neglect or ignore the pastoral shepherd. We are not so far off from the “dark side” of the view of shepherds as was believed by the heathen Egyptians and the corrupt Jews of the time of Jesus Christ, given that the Bible consistently views its heroes and heroines as shepherds in a literal or figurative sense (see, for example, Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekkah, Rachel, the twelve sons of Jacob, Moses, David, or Zechariah, besides Jesus Christ himself). Whose side are we on? These matters deserve mention because the Bible presents a worldview that is at once too familiar and not sufficiently well understood for us to get the point that shepherding is an honorable position in the eyes of God, teaching us valuable lessons about the need to protect the people we lead from evil and harm, even if it means sacrificing ourselves, and that consequently this humility of the profession has tended to cause it to be despised by those who thought themselves above such humble and often unrecognized service.
Psalm 23 is very straightforward, and it reads as follows: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in 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 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 runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This chapter is so familiar to us that we often do not pick up on its subtle nuances of meaning and structure that teach us a lot about Jesus Christ as a shepherd and we as His flock. So, let us attempt to do so today.
As was mentioned earlier, Psalm 23 is divided into six verses, each of which deals with three concerns. Psalm 23 begins and ends with the concern that Jesus Christ is our shepherd, and that because we are His flock, He will give protect us from want by providing for our needs–not only material needs (though these also), but also goodness and mercy, and belonging as part of the family of God dwelling in the house of the Eternal forever. Our good shepherd looks out for our physical and spiritual needs (and our other needs too–if we have faith that He will provide). The second and second-to-last verses of Psalm 23 deal with the care that God provides for us–as sheep He provides for our needs of good food and clean water (needs that remain important in our own world), and as His children He provides us with a feast in the presence of our enemies and an overflowing cup (showing His good favor to us), as well as oil that anoints us as kings and priests in His government, giving us rule as good shepherds over our enemies who rebel against God’s ways and oppress others. The middle of Psalm 23 deals with the fact that though we walk through dark places with the threat of death and destruction, as a good shepherd, Jesus Christ comforts us, restores us, and leads us in paths of righteousness, so that we need not be afraid. These are all lessons we can be reminded of.
Perhaps Psalm 23 is a bit too familiar to us that we do not sufficiently recognize the importance of these matters. As a praise psalm, Psalm 23 has comforted many millions of people throughout history, from its original composition when a shepherd king of Israel reflected on the shepherding of Yahweh in His own life to today, as beings created in the image and likeness of God, we all long for our needs and desires to be met (especially when those longings are godly and proper). We long to belong with others, we long to be taken care of (having often known what oppressive rulers are like in our own lives). We long for protection and sustenance, and we long for vindication and honor in the sight of our enemies and those who hate us. Despite the fact that most of us are not familiar with the ways of sheep, we are sufficiently familiar with the ways of human beings who are fleeced and exploited by their supposed “betters” to feel the same sense of faith in God and desire for Him to bring justice to His enemies (and ours). The same rod and staff that gently comfort the sheep when used by a gentle and loving shepherd are used to club those who would exploit and attack the sheep. Let us therefore read Psalm 23, and reflect upon its beauty as well as its deeper significance. For, as is often the case, the still waters of Psalm 23 run very deeply, and expose our own character as to whether we are on the side of the good shepherd or not.