He restoreth my soul ; i.e. revives it and reinvigorates it when it is exhausted and weary (see the comment on Isaiah 19:7 , where the same verb occurs). He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness . Which are also "paths of pleasantness and peace" ( Proverbs 3:17 ). For his Name's sake . To magnify his Name as a gracious and merciful God.
The Shepherd of Israel.
To a countryman of David, an ancient Israelite, the shepherd with his flock was no poetical figure, but a most familiar object. From Carmel to Gilead, from Hermon to the pastures of the wilderness of Paran, the green hills of Canaan were covered with flocks. On these same hills and plains the forefathers of the nation—Abraham, Isaac, Israel—had pitched their camps and fed their flocks, when as yet they could not call a rood of land their own. With us the shepherd's trade is a very humble calling. The shepherd, though he may tend the sheep as faithfully as if they were his own, is a hired servant, "whose own the sheep are not." We must dismiss all such associations if we would understand either the poetry or the parables of Scripture. Abraham and his descendants were not the only wealthy chiefs who fed their own flocks and herds. In Homer's poetry, princes and princesses are seen tending their flocks, and kings and rulers are called, as in Scripture, "shepherds of the people." Rightly understood, it is an image of as great dignity as tenderness by which the Lord is spoken of as "the Shepherd of Israel; ' and each believer is encouraged to say, with David, "The Lord is my Shepherd."
I. DIVINE OWNERSHIP . ( Psalms 100:3 , Revised Version.) This is a sublime contemplation, full of comfort, but also of awe. "I belong to God." God is the only absolute Owner. "The earth; etc. ( Psalms 24:1 ; Psalms 95:5 ; Psalms 115:16 ). We talk largely about our possessions —" My money, business, home; my time, labour, life." All well enough—for he "giveth us all," etc. ( 1 Timothy 6:17 )—if only we never forget that all is his, that we belong to him. "Despotism "— q.d. absolute, unlimited, lordship—is a word of terror and degradation among men, because of the cruel, selfish, tyrannical use men have made of it. Doubtful if there lives a man who could safely be trusted with it. But in Divine lordship is no shadow of terror, except for the wilfully, wickedly disobedient, no taint of degradation, no suggestion of tyranny or arbitrary caprice. It would be absurd to suppose there can be a right to do wrong with God any more than with man. God's wisdom, love, righteousness, are a law to himself. That he is Lord of all is our safety, glory, joy. God must cease to be himself before he can inflict the lightest wrong on the weakest or unworthiest of his creatures.
II. DIVINE GOODNESS , COMPASSION , TENDER AND WATCHFUL CARE . Religion, worthy of the name, cannot subsist on the bare relation of Creator and creature, any more than flowers and fruit on granite; it must be "rooted and grounded in love." The assurance that God cannot possibly inflict wrong might free us from the slavery of fear, which otherwise the thought of his absolute ownership might bring with it, but would not suffice to fill our life with Brightness and joy, our heart with trust and courage. To feel in any measure the force and beauty of the similitude, and get into sympathy, with the soul of the psalmist, we must get rid of all that is mean, hard, mercenary in our modern English notions, and dress our thoughts in the bright colours of Eastern life; we must see the shepherd opening the well-guarded fold and walking at the head of his own flock, calling now one, now another, by its name, while the sheep willingly follow, for they know and love their shepherd's voice; see him in dewy morning choosing their pasture, at hot noon leading them to some tranquil pool or hidden well, ever on the watch; ready, like David, to do battle with lion, bear, or wolf, in their defence; rather laying down his life than leaving them to perish ( John 10:11 ). "The Lord is my Shepherd," etc. ( Psalms 23:1 , Psalms 23:2 ). In Psalms 23:3 , Psalms 23:4 the spiritual meaning shines through the figure, as in Psalms 23:5 , Psalms 23:6 it is laid aside altogether; yet still the psalmist speaks of the "rod and staff." "Rod," the shepherd's crook, the received emblem of authority, guidance, and discipline. "Staff," that on which one leans, emblem of Divine strength and support. (Only one word would be used of a real shepherd; the two are employed for the full spiritual meaning.) All is not ease and brightness in the lives which God has in his wisest, tenderest care. Divine shepherding means more than green pastures and still waters; it sometimes means "the valley of the shadow of death." "Paths of righteousness' may be taken to include both the way of duty and the leading of God's providence. In both, the right path must be, in the highest sense, the safe path, but it may be the path of deadly peril and anguish ( Psalms 34:19 ). Oar blessed Lord's own path led through Gethsemane to Calvary. "The valley of the shadow of death" must not be limited to mean only the actual approach and experience of death; it may stand for any crisis of danger, suffering, or weakness, bodily or spiritual Travellers tell of a desolate gorge near Ispahan, "the valley of the angel of death." Through such a ravine, trackless, waterless, gloomy with overhanging precipices, where in every cleft wild beasts or robbers may lurk, the psalmist imagines himself led. But the Divine Shepherd is with him: this forbids fear. In Bunyan's glorious dream the valley is placed midway in Christian's pilgrimage—the image of fierce spiritual conflict ( Psalms 18:5 ). The hardest trial that can befall the believer is, when tempted to doubt God's goodness, to deem himself forsaken. The answer to all doubt is, "Thou art with me" ( Isaiah 50:10 ). The same trials are not appointed for all God's children. Faithful, whom martyrdom awaited in Vanity Fair, had sunshine all through the valley. But there is a point to which all paths converge. If we must not limit the figure, still less must we exclude that one application common to all, that experience in which we must he absolutely alone , unless we can say, "Thou art with me." Death. Here, again, experience wonderfully varies. To some the approach of death is a valley of sunshine, not shadow, or only such as falls from a summer cloud; to some, a momentary passage—through before they know it; to some, dark and rough with long suffering; to a few (even real Christians), gloomy with spiritual conflict. Here, then, above all, we need (both for ourselves and others) that highest application of this comforting image taught by our Lord himself ( John 10:1-18 , John 10:26-29 ).
III. THE SAVIOUR 'S CONSTANT PRESENCE AND REDEEMING GRACE . (comp. Psalms 23:1 , Psalms 23:2 with John 10:9 ; John 7:37 .) It is his to restore the soul, to reclaim the lost sheep ( Luke 15:3-7 ), raise the fallen, refresh the weak, to lead in the path of duty ( John 8:12 ). But especially in times of urgent need is his presence to Be claimed and felt. With Paul and his companions it was a veritable valley of the shadow of death, when "all hope … was taken away" (see Acts 27:20 , Acts 27:23 ; again 2 Timothy 4:16 , 2 Timothy 4:17 ). Above all, in the hour and moment of death he has passed through it; he has "the keys;" he alone can be with us. Gentle and tranquil often is the actual approach of death; weakness and unconsciousness prevent fear; but take away the gospel , take away Christ , and who in health and strength can calmly face death, and say, "I will fear no evil"? You may be an unbeliever. Suppose the gospel not true, it does not follow there is nothing beyond death. But the believer has a right to say this—knows what is beyond ( John 14:2-4 ; Revelation 7:15-17 ).
The good Shepherd and his flock.
This is one of the sweetest of all the psalms. That it was written by him who was raised from having care of a flock to be the king on Israel's throne, there is no reason for doubting, spite of all that destructive critics may say. No amount of Hebrew scholarship can possibly let any one into the deep meaning of this psalm. No attainments in English literature will ever initiate any student into the mysteries of a mother's love, and no attainments in Oriental learning will help any one to learn the secret of the Lord which is here disclosed. There is nothing to equal it in the sacred books of the East; for none but the Hebrews have ever had such a disclosure of God as that in which the writer of this psalm rejoices. Every clause in this psalm is suggestive enough to be the basis of a separate discourse; but in accordance with our plan in this section of the 'Pulpit Commentary,' we deal with it as a unity, indicating the wealth of material for perpetual use therein contained. We have presented to us— Four aspects of the Shepherd-care of God.
I. GOD 'S SHEPHERD - CARE DISCLOSED IN REVELATION . For the Scripture doctrine of God's relation to his people as their Shepherd, the student may with advantage study and compare the following: Psalms 74:1 ; Psalms 77:20 ; Psalms 79:13 ; Psalms 80:1 ; Psalms 95:7 ; Psalms 100:3 ; Psalms 119:176 ; Isaiah 40:11 ; Isaiah 53:6 ; Jeremiah 31:10 ; Jeremiah 23:1-3 ; Ezekiel 34:1-31 .; Micah 7:14 ; Zechariah 11:16 ; Zechariah 13:7 ; Matthew 10:6 ; Matthew 15:24 ; Matthew 18:12 ; Luke 15:4-6 ; John 10:1-16 , John 10:26-29 ; John 21:16 ; Acts 20:28 ; Hebrews 13:20 ; 1 Peter 2:25 ; 1 Peter 5:4 . These passages summarize Bible teaching on this theme for us. We may set it forth under the following heads:
1 . God is related to men as their Shepherd . A purely absolute Being out of relation does not exist. To whatever God has made he stands in the relation of Maker. And when he has made man in his own image, after his likeness, he stands to such a one in a relation corresponding thereto; and of the many names he bears to express that relation, few more tenderly illustrate his watchful care than this word "shepherd."
2 . This relation is manifested in Jesus Christ . ( John 10:1-16 .) He claims to be emphatically "the good Shepherd." The apostle speaks of him as "the Shepherd and Bishop of … souls."
3 . As the Shepherd , Jesus came to seek and save the lost. His mission on earth was emphatically for this. He regards men as his wealth, in which he rejoices; and if they ace not under his loving care he misses them—he is conscious of something lacking ( Luke 15:4-6 ).
4 . He has risen and ascendent up on high as the great Shepherd of the sheep ( Hebrews 13:20 ).
5 . He now appoints under-shepherds to care for the flock. ( Acts 20:28 .)
6 . As the chief Shepherd , he will again appear. Then he will gather in and gather home all the flock ( 1 Peter 5:4 ).
7 . Only as he gathers men to himself as their Shepherd , do they find safety and rest. ( 1 Peter 2:25 .) Till then they are homeless wanderers, perpetually in danger of stumbling "over the dark mountains."
8 . When men return to him they find all they need in his Shepherd-care. ( Psalms 23:1-6 .)
9 . This Shepherd-care is for each as well as for all. Each one may say, " He loved me, and gave himself up for me;" "The Lord is my Shepherd." Let us not forget to note the Shepherd's individualizing care.
II. GOD 'S SHEPHERD - CARE EXERCISED IN ACT . The points of detail are set forth in this psalm with exquisite tenderness and beauty, £
1 . Repose . "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." In such a restless age as this, there is no thought which a believer has greater need to appropriate than this. As physically we must find time for sleep, however severe the pressure of work, so spiritually we must find time for repose. And God's gracious arrangements are planned with a view to this. "He maketh me," etc. The good Shepherd says, "I will give you rest." When he gets back the wandering sheep he lays it on his own shoulders (Greek, see Luke 15:5 ). The Master never expects his servants to be always on the stretch. He tells them to "rest awhile;" and if they are heedless of this kind monition, he will himself call them out of the rush into the hush of life. It would be well if some Christians thought more of rest in Christ; their work would be richer in quality even if less in quantity.
2 . Refreshment. "Still waters;" literally, "waters of rest," or refreshment. The believer has no craving thirst: he can ever drink of the living stream, and therewith be refreshed (see John 4:10 ; Revelation 7:17 ). Dropping the figure, the truth here conveyed is that there shall be a constant supply of the grace of Christ, and of the Spirit of Christ (cf. John 7:37-39 ).
3 . R estoration. ( 1 Peter 5:3 .) This may either mean renewing the strength when worn down, or bringing back after wandering. We need not omit either thought, though the latter seems principally intended.
4 . Leadership. ( 1 Peter 5:3 .) "Paths of righteousness," i.e. straight paths. This follows on the restoration. Having recalled him from "by-paths," the good Shepherd will lead him in the right way. The sheep can wander wide easily enough, but if they are to be kept in the right way that can be only through the Shepherd s care. God guides by
Sometimes, indeed, the way may be dark, even as death itself; still it is the right way ( Psalms 107:7 ; Ezra 8:21-23 ).
5 . A living presence. "Thou art with me' ( 1 Peter 5:4 ). This means, "Thou art continually with me," not merely with me in the darkness, but with me always. The sunshine of the living presence of a Guide, Help, Friend, Saviour, is always on the believer's path; and if the mingling of unbelief with faith did not dim the eyesight, he would always rejoice in it.
6. Discipline. ( 1 Peter 5:4 .) The rod and staff are special emblems of the Shepherd's care in tending and ruling the flock. The Shepherd chides us when we rove, and uses sometimes sharp measures ere he recalls us. And this comforts us ! Even so. The disciplinary dealings of our God are among our greatest mercies.
7 . Ample provision. ( 1 Peter 5:5 .) The riches of God's love and life are the provisions on which we feed, and on which souls can grow and thrive; and these supplies are ministered to the soul through the invisible channels of God's grace, even while enemies prowl around. Yea, we are entertained as guests st the Father's board. The anointing oil is the token of the right royal welcome which the Host delights to give! So rich, so abundant, are the mercies and joys which are vouchsafed, that our "cup runneth over"!
III. THIS SHEPHERD - CARE OF GOD IS ACCEPTED , AND IN IT THE NEEDY ONE GLORIES . We can but hint.
1 . Here is appropriation. "My Shepherd" (see John 10:11 , John 10:27 , John 10:28 ).
2 . Here is satisfaction. "I shall not want."
3 . Here is loyalty. The psalmist not only consents to but delights in this Divine care, and has no wish but to follow where the Shepherd leads.
4 . Here is joy. This thought is (perhaps Intently, but really) in the expression, " Thou art with me." The presence of God is life's exceeding joy.
5 . Here is fearlessness. "I will fear no evil." Not even the darkest shade can make him fear, for God is with him there.
6 . Here is recognition of the infinite grace of the Shepherd. ( 1 Peter 5:3 .) "For his Name's sake." Not for our sakes, but for his own; having undertaken to be the Shepherd, he will for his own glory's sake do all that a shepherd's care demands.
IV. THE SHEPHERD - CARE OF GOD IS CELEBRATED IN SONG . The song has a threefold significance.
1 . It is a song of gratitude. "Goodness and mercy" mark every feature of the Divine treatment, and they will, to life's end.
2 . It is a song of hope. The psalmist looks forward, without a moment's fear of the Shepherd ever leaving him ( 1 Peter 5:6 ).
3 . It is a song and vow of consecration. "I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." To what extent David thought of a future state when he wrote these words, we cannot say. Yet his meaning is to some extent clear. The house of God was the place where God made his home and manifested himself to his people (see Psalms 132:13-16 ). And the writer says, "Where God makes his home, there shall be mine. He and I will never part company" (see Psalms 61:4 ; Psalms 48:14 ; Psalms 73:24-26 ). It was not the house of God, but the God of the house, that was to be David's home—and the home of all the saints— for ever and for ever !
There is a picture by Sir Noel Paten, which is a marvellous illustration of this psalm. It is entitled, 'The Valley of the Shadow of Death.' It is worthy of prolonged study. In the foreground is a dismal and dark valley, through which a blasting wind has swept, laying low alike the warrior and the king; the helmet of the one and the crown of the other lie useless on the ground. In the centre of the picture is the Lord Jesus, with a halo of glory over his head, a crown of thorns around his brow, and in one hand a shepherd's staff. On the left is a young maiden, whose face bears traces of the terror she has felt in coming through the valley, and yet of radiant hope as she now sees the good Shepherd there. She grasps his hand; he holds hers; his feet stand on a gravestone, beneath which lie the remains of the fallen; but where the Shepherd sets his feet, the tombstone is luminous with the words, "Death is swallowed up in victory!" The very sight of that glorious picture weaned one from the vanities of the world, and drew her to Jesus; and in the case of "an old disciple" it completely abolished the fear of death! May we all, by faith, catch a glimpse of our Shepherd, and every fear will vanish quite away!—C.
The good Shepherd.
Dr. Arnold said that "amongst Christians, all looking upon the Scriptures as their rule of faith and life, there are particular passages which will most suit the wants of particular minds, and appear to them therefore full of an extraordinary measure of comfort and of wisdom." This is true. Most people have their favourite passages of Scripture. But it may be said of this psalm that it holds a peculiar position. It has for more than three thousand years been one of the most precious possessions of the Church. Jews and Christians alike hold it dear, and there are few, if they were asked, but would thankfully confess that of all the psalms, it was to them the sweetest and most precious. It is among the psalms what Daniel was, compared with other men, "greatly beloved." Why is this? Much, no doubt, depends upon association; but apart from this there are reasons, in the psalm itself, to account for the high place which it holds in all hearts. Three may be mentioned.
I. BECAUSE IT BRINGS GOD BEFORE US IN SO ENDEARING A CHARACTER . He is here represented as a Shepherd and a Host. The better we understand what this meaneth, the more will our hearts go forth to him in love and trust. He is all, and in all. Yea, each of us may say, "He is mine."
II. BECAUSE IT GIVES US SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PICTURE OF THE BLESSEDNESS OF GOD 'S PEOPLE . They are the sheep of his pasture, and the guests of his table. Here in this world they are ever under his good and gentle keeping, and when they depart hence, it shall be to dwell in his house for ever. "The psalmist describes himself as one of Jehovah's flock, safe under his care, absolved from all anxieties by the sense of his protection, and gaining from this confidence of safety the leisure to enjoy, without satiety, all the simple pleasures which make up life—the freshness of the meadow, the coolness of the stream. It is the most complete picture of happiness that ever was or can be drawn. It represents that state of mind for which all alike sigh, and the want of which makes life a failure to most; it represents that heaven, which is everywhere, if we could but enter it, and yet almost nowhere, because so few of us can" ('Ecce Homo').
III. BECAUSE IT IS ASSOCIATED SO CLOSELY WITH OUR RELIGIOUS LIFE . Though much of Scripture may be neglected, and almost unknown, this psalm is known and loved by all. We learnt it at our mother's knee, and we have cherished it fondly ever since. To young and old, to the rich and poor, to the people of various lands and tongues, it is equally dear. At home and in the sanctuary it is in constant use. In the time of our joy it has been the vehicle of our gladness, and in days of darkness it has brought us comfort. When weary it gives us rest; when lonely it gives us company; when oppressed with sin and care it leads us to him who can restore our souls, and guide us safely through all difficulties and dangers, onward to the bright future. In itself it is exceedingly precious, but in the light of the gospel, and as interpreted by our dear Lord and Saviour, its value is infinitely enhanced. Jesus "the Good Shepherd" is here, and his sheep hear his voice, and follow him—to glory, honour, and immortality.—W.F.
The power of reflection.
The psalmist looks back over his life, and sings with grateful heart of God's love and care. We may use the psalm as bringing before us some of the changes and contrasts of life.
I. YOUTH AND AGE . This psalm breathes the air of youth. It is the echo of the shepherd-life among the hills of Judah. But the psalmist was now old. Still, he cleaves to God. Happy are they who have sought God early, and whose days from youth to age are linked together by natural piety!
II. HELPLESSNESS AND SECURITY . What creatures are, when left to themselves, more weak and silly than sheep? But under the shepherd's care they are safe. So it is of the soul. Christ is the good Shepherd, and cares for his sheep. From first to last, and through all changes and dangers, they are safe under his loving guardianship.
III. SORROW AND JOY . How sweet the picture of the flock feeding in "the green pastures," and by the "still waters"! But there is another scene brought before us—the dark and terrible "valley of the shadow of death." So there are alternations in the Christian life. If there are lights, there are also shadows. If there are times of sweet rest and comfort, there are also times of struggling and of fear. Mark the order—God does not at once call us to face the dark valley. It comes not at the beginning, but near the end of the Christian's course. Christ's disciples who have been with him in "the green pastures," and whose souls have been "restored," when they have fallen into sin, by his gracious discipline, are the better fitted for meeting with trial, and for treading with fearless step even the dark valley itself.
IV. WANT AND SATISFACTION . Always there is want on our part, and always there is supply with God. He who has God, the Possessor of all things, has everything. God is not only our Shepherd, but our Host, and the supplies of his table never fail.
V. TRANSITORINESS AND IMMORTALITY . All things here are fading. Sheep and shepherds pass away. Joys and sorrows come to an end. Our life is hut as a vapour. But we look to the things that are unseen and eternal. God's two angels, "goodness and mercy," not only abide with us here, but will bring us to the everlasting habitation. We shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.—W.F.
God's providential care.
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want" etc. God's care and providence over man are denoted by the following things.
I. HE GIVES REST TO THE WEARY . "Maketh me to lie down in green pastures." Man is a combatant; he has a fight to maintain, a work to do; and he shall have seasons to rest from his exhaustion. He is a pilgrim-traveller. He has rest from bodily toil. So also rest from spiritual work. But the rest is spiritual in its kind. Not mental inactivity. But a clearer perception of those grand truths which afford the truest relief from the distraction of the conflict. Composure amidst distractions. The blessed end we aim at, and the certain issue of it.
II. HE RENEWS THE EXHAUSTED STRENGTH OF MAN . ( Psalms 23:2 , Psalms 23:3 .) Religious strength consists in the power to do and the power to suffer—or courage and fortitude. This power to do—to conquer sin in ourselves and in the world—is strengthened by unshaken faith in God ' s truth , and by the power of self-denial. These are God's gifts, not by any direct act of his, but as the consequence of striving to do his will.
III. GOD WILL AFFORD PROTECTION IN THE DARKEST AND MOST DIFFICULT TIMES . ( Psalms 23:4 .) Death is not always dark or difficult to good men. But the general tendency is to view death as dark and evil, and to fear it on those accounts. Darkness creates a feeling of uncertainty and a desire for guidance. God has removed the uncertainty and affords us guidance. The evil of death is the sense of guilt. Christ gives us the victory over that evil by proclaiming the forgiveness of the Father, and the removal of our sin. All who submit to God's guidance may claim him for their Shepherd. Jesus Christ fulfils the character of man's true Shepherd.—S.