This post is part of a series about the names of God in the Bible. This series is based off of the study that took place in our Ladies’ Bible Class. You can watch those sessions online at WestsideLife.org/media. Just look for the “Name Above All Names” media series.
“How wonderful it is being a sheep in the flock of God. Our shepherd is the one that created the grass that we need for pasture, He is the one that created the rivers and the waters, He is the one who holds everything in His hand and He is my Shepherd.” -Edmond Sanganyado
“The Lord is My Shepherd”
Out of the 150 Psalms in the book of Psalms, Psalm 23 is the most famous. It consistently ranks as one of the most popular chapters in the entire Bible (not just the book of Psalms). So what is it about Psalm 23 that makes it so popular?
Psalm 23 is Honest.
One of my favorite things about the book of Psalms is its gut-level honesty. No one feels the need to walk on eggshells around God or sugarcoat their emotions. The impassioned language of the Psalms—including Psalm 23—invites us to pour our hearts out to God in prayer, regardless if we’re feeling anguish, celebration, worship, thanksgiving, fear, doubt or distress—or anything in between.
Psalm 23 is no exception. Whether it’s due to the death of a loved one, the messy end to a marriage, an unexpected financial challenge, or any number of overwhelming circumstances, we all know what it feels like to walk through a valley of the shadow of death.
Unfortunately for us, God never promises to give us a “get out of pain free” card just because we follow Jesus. In fact Jesus was very forthcoming with his disciples that they should expect to face trials, persecutions, and difficulties in this life: “In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33).
Good leaders set the proper expectations for their followers, because the worst thing you can do is give someone false hope about how easy something is going to be. When reality sets in and the followers come face-to-face with adversity, the gap between their expectations and the reality of the situation will likely lead to severe distress.
On the other hand, when people know that something is going to be challenging ahead of time, they can properly prepare for the difficult road ahead. Whether it’s Jesus in John 16, or David in Psalm 23, God’s Word tells us that tough days are ahead and we might need to walk through some dark valleys on our spiritual journey with Jesus.
Psalm 23 is Hopeful.
While it’s true that our path might be difficult, it’s never hopeless. The fact is, I only quoted from the first part of John 16:33. The full verse says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus tells us that trouble is coming, but we can still take courage and face into that adversity with hope and determination because Jesus has already conquered the world. We can find victory throughout all our trials because of the victory that Christ won on the cross.
In the same way, Psalm 23 is both realistic about seasons of adversity (traversing the valley of the shadow of death) and hopeful about our future—a hope that is built on the love, protection, and provision of the Lord our Shepherd.
The Lord is Our Shepherd (Psalm 23)
Psalm 23 describes God as a shepherd caring for his sheep. Because God is our shepherd…
- We lack nothing (v. 1)
- We are led to open pastures and quiet waters where we find rest (v. 2)
- Our souls are refreshed (v. 3)
- We are guided along the right path (v. 3)
- We can be courageous despite the dark valleys (v. 4)
- We are comforted by God’s presence (v. 4)
- We are invited to a generous meal (v. 5)
- We are anointed with oil (v. 5)
- God’s goodness goes without us all the days of our lives (v. 6)
- We can dwell in God’s house forever (v. 6)
God Is Our Shepherd
The Bible frequently uses the language of a shepherd and his sheep to describe the relationship between God and his people—for both Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament. This image would have been quite familiar to the people of the day, and would have reminded them of God’s desire to care for his sheep, to protect them, to guide them, and to provide them with everything they needed to live life to the full.
Here are several examples where God is referred to as a shepherd for his people in the Old Testament:
- Genesis 48:15-16 (Jacob Blesses Joseph, Manasseh, Ephraim), “Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, 16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm —may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly on the earth.” (NIV)
- Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
- Ezekiel 34:11-12, “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.”
When God sent prophets to tell Israel about the Messiah who would come to be their Savior, several of these messianic prophecies invoked the language of a shepherd:
- Micah 5:2-4: “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…”
- Zechariah 9:16: “The Lord their God will save his people on that day as a shepherd saves his flock.”
Bad Shepherds vs. the Good Shepherd
When Jesus the Messiah came into the world, he lamented that the crowds were like “sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36) a reference back to Ezekiel 34:2-6, where God chastised the leaders of Israel for failing to be the kind and loving shepherds that they should have been:
2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
In places like Numbers 17:15-17, we learn that God expected the human leaders of Israel to be like shepherds for the people, going out and coming in before them “so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” The situation in Ezekiel 34 reveals that Israel’s leaders had utterly failed to live up to this calling.
Because the leaders of Israel failed to shepherd the flock, it was necessary for God himself to come into our world in the person of Jesus to be that shepherd himself (see Ezekiel 34:11, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them”).
It’s in that vein that Jesus declares “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10:11. Jesus would be the kind, protective, compassionate shepherd that Israel’s kings and religious should have been, but failed to be.
Closing Thought: A Shepherd To Guide, Protect, and Provide
The Lord is Our Shepherd (Psalm 23), and Jesus is our Good Shepherd (John 10). That means we have a God who guides us, protects us, and provides for us.
- Where do I need to go? —God guides us.
- Who will protect me from harm? — God protects us.
- Who will meet my basic needs? — God provides for us.