The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1)
There are 150 poem-songs in the book of Psalms. The Hebrew title of the book is literally “Praises.” Somehow the Hebrew morphs to Latin and finally to the English “Psalms.”
That these songs are called “praises” is interesting since many of the Psalms hardly sound praise-like. The Psalmists argue with God, question God and sometimes come quite close to accusing God. But somehow even these anguished utterances are praise when the one who speaks is determined to move toward God in all things. God is praised in shouts of hallelujah as well as in cries of lament.
Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, 73 of them are designated with a prescript that connects the Psalm with the life of David. The prescripts were added as the Psalms found their place in the worship of Israel. Liturgical notes are characteristic of the Psalms, indicative of the fact that we’re reading a hymn book.
The prescripts that connect 73 Psalms with David sometimes provide a very detailed context for the words of the Psalm: “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech” (Ps. 34). At other times we get a very simple line: “A Psalm of David.” Such is the case with Psalm 23. The meaning of this isn’t entirely clear. It might mean a Psalm by David. It might mean the Psalm is about David or was composed for or to David.
Of the 73 Psalms connected with David we can most easily believe that the much loved 23rd Psalm came from David’s own hand. In the mid 1850s the London preacher Charles Spurgeon said that the opening line had a sense of melody in it because it came from David’s heart. “David spake of what he had verified all his life long.” Spurgeon was probably right – but one has to wonder exactly how David came to know this.
And more to the point, how do we come to know the same thing? How do we come to affirm with conviction that “The Lord is my shepherd?”
The most commonly proposed answer to that question is that David himself was a shepherd. He knew what it meant to tend a flock and lead them to water and guide them with rod and staff. No doubt, the days of tending flocks shaped David as both a leader and a poet. But perhaps there’s something more, something deeper that speaks to our own lives and allows us to say exactly what David said with the same deep assurance.
Many years after his days in the fields, not long after he had been anointed as Israel’s king by Samuel, David secured the throne and consolidated power over the unruly twelve tribes. Saul, his benefactor turned nemesis, was dead. David was settled in his palace and at peace from all his enemies. Savoring the sweetness of success and power, David planned to construct a dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant. The prophet Nathan blessed the plan. “Do whatever seems right to you. The Lord is with you.”
But no sooner had the plan been announced than God spoke to the prophet and told him that David needed to scrub those plans. God wanted to make it clear that he had never needed or asked for a house. Rather than David undertaking to provide for God, God wanted David to understand that God was the one who provided for David. David’s entire life was a story of God’s provision, a story of sovereign grace. From days in the fields to the position of power in the palace – all of it was God’s doing (2 Samuel 7:1-12).
And thus we all know that “the Lord is my shepherd.” The life of each and every one of us has never been a story of our own accomplishment. We are not self-made. We take no credit for the successes and we do not shoulder the failures alone. God is actively guiding, providing, comforting in all of it. The Lord is indeed our shepherd.
After the prophet spoke this message to David, David prayed. “Who am I, O sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (2 Sam. 7:18). Good question. How far has God’s sovereign grace brought you? And do you truly know that the Lord is your shepherd?
Gracious God, we would say with confidence that you are our shepherd. We don’t want to simply repeat familiar words. Give us eyes to see your sovereign grace in our lives, your providential care that has guided our steps when we least sensed your presence. You have brought us this far, and we give you thanks in Jesus’ name. Amen.