Psalm 23 is one of the most famous passages of Scripture. You can find these poetic lines everywhere, from sermons to pop songs, tattoos to funerals. The psalm is relatable because everyone experiences pain, suffering, loss, and death.
At one point or another, we inevitably ask, “How do I navigate the valley of the shadow of death?”
In Psalm 23, David answers this question.
The metaphor is easy to understand—God is the shepherd, and we are the sheep. Psalm 23 takes us on a journey through five different locations. We find ourselves in each of these places throughout various seasons of life.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. - Psalm 23:1-3
The green pasture is a place of contentment, peace, and refreshment. The sheep are free from fear, conflict, pests, and hunger. The shepherd has created the ideal conditions so that they can lie down and rest.
Life is good in the pasture. But we must not get too comfortable. God may gift us with seasons of plenty, but rarely does he leave us in the field for a prolonged amount of time.
Jesus invites us into his mission. The idolatry of comfort and consumerism keeps far too many Christians from participating in the dangerous calling of Christ.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. - Psalm 23:3
The path of righteousness is a place of movement, direction, and following. The sheep know the right way to go because the shepherd shows them. God’s way is always the right way. Jesus leads; we follow.
Just because Jesus is leading us doesn’t mean life will be easy. In fact, Jesus told us that his way wouldn’t be popular or easy.
“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” - Matthew 7:14
When we follow God, we can expect resistance from worldly culture, peer pressure, and the general difficulty of living a righteous life. Take heart; Jesus knows where he is going.
Even 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. - Psalm 23:4
The valley of the shadow of death is a place of scarcity, danger, pain, and the unknown. This is uncharted charity for the sheep, but not for the shepherd. We can be encouraged knowing that God uses the valley to strengthen our faith and draw us closer to Him.
We have nothing to fear in the valley because God is with us. God gives us his presence, not pain relievers. We can be confident that God is well-equipped (rod & staff) to protect and provide for us even in the most formidable situations.
While Jesus doesn’t spare us from the valley, he doesn’t leave us there either.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. - Psalm 23:5
The table is a place of provision, relationship, gladness, and blessing. God has something beautiful in store on the other side of the valley. He will provide for our every need as we seek first His kingdom.
The oil represents not only God’s joy but also his healing. Any wounds or scars we endure for following Jesus will one day be healed. He will wipe away every tear.
The best part of this banquet is the relationship. Our leader has brought us into deep everlasting fellowship with him and one another. The people we have walked with to hell and back have become our most authentic companions.
Jesus is saving you a seat at the table.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. - Psalm 23:6
The house of the Lord is a place of safety, rest, worship, and hope. This term is a common way to describe a place of worship. A few pages later, in Psalm 27, David reveals his heart for God’s house.
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. - Psalm 27:4
When life gets hard, some people run from the church. They don’t realize that worshipping God in his house is a way we can experience the hope of heaven here and now. Let us not forsake a place of power and peace when we need it the most.
Jesus spoke of another house waiting for us at the end of our lives.
“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” - John 14:2-3
Death comes for us all. But even though we die, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, we live. Jesus will return and bring us home to the place he has prepared for us.
Is the Lord your shepherd?
Jesus taught us that his sheep “hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). As comforting as the words of Psalm 23 are, the most incredible comfort comes from knowing that Jesus offers us eternal life through the gospel. That is a shepherd worth following.
When we follow God, His goodness follows us.
Where are you at in this season of life? What encourages you when life is difficult? Let me know in the comments below!
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p.s. - here's a full sermon on Psalm 23 I preached at Hill City Church: