Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Another transition. The danger of death is past. David reverts to the thought of the tranquil, happy, joyous time which God has vouchsafed to grant him. He has "adversaries,'' indeed, but they are powerless to effect anything against hint They have to look on with ill-concealed annoyance at his prosperity, to see his table amply spread; his condition such as men generally envy; his wealth typified by abundant oil— thou anointest my head with oil —great, his whole life full to overflowing with blessedness. My cup runneth over , he declares—is not only full to the brim, but runs over the brim—an expressive metaphor, indicative of a state of bliss rarely experienced in this life.
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.
A table prepared.
First we may apply this saying to our daily bread. Every "table" needs preparation. There is the material food, which may have come from far; and there are the kind hands that have made it ready. But besides this, there is love of God. We recognize that God has to do with our "daily bread." It is a matter between him and us. "Thou" and "me." How greatly is every blessing enhanced, when it is taken as from the hand of God! Then circumstances may give a special significance to our commonest mercies; difficulties are overcome, and wants are supplied, in a way that surprises us, and that leads us to confess with grateful hearts the loving-kindness of the Lord. Again, we may apply this to our social pleasures. We are not made to live alone. We crave fellowship. How graciously does God provide for our needs! We have not only the joys of home, but the pleasures of society. There are some who forget God amidst the stir an& the seductions of life. They conduct their business and enjoy their pleasures "without God" ( Isaiah 5:8-12 ). But it is not so with the righteous. They desire to set the Lord always before them, and especially to acknowledge his goodness and mercy in the manifold social blessings which they enjoy. But chiefly should we apply the text to our religious privileges. The Word of God is as a "table" prepared for us. Think how much had to be done and suffered before we could have the Bible as a book free to every one of us! Think also how much there is in this blessed book to refresh and bless our souls!—a "feast of fat things." Public worship is another "table" spread for us. When the Lord's day comes round, what multitudes come together, and there is bread enough and to spare for them all! More particularly it may be said that the Lord's Supper is a "table" prepared by God for his people. Here we see his wise forethought. He saw what was needful, and designed this feast for the good of his people. Here we see his loving care. His hand is seen in everything from first to last. The table is the Lord's table. The "bread" is his "body;" the wine is "his blood;" the voice that says, "Come, eat," is his voice. There is not only preparation of the table, but of the guests. When we think of what we were and what we are; of what we deserved and of what we have received,—it is with wonder, love, and praise that we say, " Thou preparest a table before me." We have "enemies," but they have not prevailed. We can think of them with pity, and forgive them; we can even pray for them, that they may be converted into friends, and, should they continue alienated and hostile, we can face them without fear, because "greater is he that is with us, than all they that are against us." The future is for us bright with hope. The dark valley is behind, and the power of God before. The table below is the earnest of the table above.—W.F.
Fulness of joy.
The psalmist has hitherto spoken of the care of the good Shepherd in removing the miseries, pains, and sufferings which this life brings—of the rest, refreshing, and protection he had received. Now he rises higher into the rich fulness of joy he receives, and the good things of God's house. Four principal ideas here.
I. THAT THERE IS AN ABUNDANT PROVISION FOR EVERY WANT . ( Psalms 23:5 .) For all outward and inward want. A feast or banquet is spread for us by a royal Host. There is a feast provided for the senses and appetites in outward nature—if we do not turn it into a riot and a debauch. The enjoyment of it arises from and depends on labouring for it and the moderate use of it. There is also the greater feast provided for the mind and heart , in finding the truth and responding to the love which God has set forth, as the means of building up the true life. Christ is the Bread and Wine of life. David's honour as God's guest was the greater, that it was witnessed by those who had been his enemies.
II. HIS HEART WAS FULL OF SOLEMN THANKFULNESS AND JOY . ( Psalms 23:5 , "Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.") He had a most vivid perception that the feast, the anointing, the fulness, all came from the Divine hand This sense of God in our lives makes a whole world of difference to our experience. No gratitude possible Without it. No sense of the glory of life without it.
III. OUR ASSURANCE OF THE CONSTANCY OF THE DIVINE LOVE AND GOODNESS . ( Psalms 23:6 .) What God had been to him in the past, he would continue to be in the future. He had suffered, had been weary, been persecuted, had had battles to fight, had been bewildered in his path; but God had been his Guide and Deliverer, and would continue to be all through the remainder of his life.
IV. HE WOULD BE BLESSED WITH THE FELLOWSHIP AND FRIENDSHIP OF GOD FOR EVER . ( Psalms 23:6 .) This is the meaning of "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever," so as to be near him and have constant intercourse with him. It includes all kinds of intercourse with God—worship, communion, sonship, obedience, guidance, so as to fill the whole life of thought and feeling and action. "For ever" looking onwards, perhaps, dimly, to the life beyond, which was not so clear to him as it is to us.—S.