Psalm 23 is arguably the most familiar text in the entire Bible. It’s so familiar in fact that even those who would not call themselves Christians can usually quote along, at least in the first few verses. Part of the reason it’s so familiar is because the imagery of sheep and shepherds is so intwined throughout all Scripture:
- The patriarchs of the Old Testament – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were at least in some part shepherds.
- When Moses fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian he took up work as a shepherd among the Midianites.
- David, of course, was a shepherd before he became the king of Israel.
- The word “shepherd” is used as a verb in the Old Testament to describe how the leaders of Israel should relate to their people.
- In the prophets, as the people chased after other gods, they were described as sheep without a shepherd.
- When we turn to the New Testament, we see that the birth of Christ was announced to shepherds.
- And Jesus Himself took up this title in John 10 to describe Himself as the Good Shepherd.
If you’ve read much of the Bible, then, you’ve read all about sheep and shepherds, and Psalm 23 is kind of the pinnacle of that language. That’s part of the reason it’s so familiar. But another reason why it’s so familiar is the comforting nature of this psalm. It has been a source of comfort and strength for generations. It’s been quoted and read during times of difficulty by individuals, families, churches, and even entire nations. And once again, even people outside the Christian faith will look to a passage like this for comfort and strength during seasons of difficulty.
But with popularity comes the danger of misunderstanding. Specifically, the misunderstanding is that Psalm 23 is good news for everyone. But it’s not. In fact, the good news of Psalm 23 really hangs on a single word.
Now it’s true that God is a caring Creator. It’s true that the rain falls, crops grow, and the earth spins on its axis. Seasons change, babies are born, food tastes good, and everyone – whether Christian or not – can have a measure of happiness in their lives. These acts of benevolence are what theologians refer to as “common grace” – that is, the grace of God that is applicable to everyone regardless of where and in whom they have put their faith. But Psalm 23 is not a common grace psalm. We know it’s not a common grace psalm because of that one, simple word that appears in verse 1:
David, a shepherd in his own right, did not say that God is “a” shepherd; nor did He say that God is “the” shepherd. He said the Lord is “my” shepherd. And this is a statement that only the Christian can truly make.
A person can want God to be his shepherd; she might even think the Lord is her shepherd; he might be around all kinds of people who know that God is their shepherd; but until his or her faith is in Jesus Christ, then God is not ultimately his or her shepherd.
Jesus emphasized a similar dynamic in Matthew 16. Here’s what happened:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Notice the “narrowing” quality of what Jesus is doing here. He starts with a purely informational question – Who do people say that I am? And there are many answers. Similarly, if Jesus posed that question to us, we might also have a variety of answers:
Some say you’re a prophet; some say you’re a revolutionary; some say you are a miracle-worker.”
But Jesus is not content for this question to remain informational; He moves it to be personal.
“So that’s who they say that I am; but what about you? Who do you say that I am?” This is not just “a” question; it’s “the” question. It’s not who your friends, or who culture, or your church, or your family says He is; Jesus is still asking this same question to each and every one of us. Who do YOU say that I am? And the answer that I give determines whether or not God is truly MY shepherd.
This is what makes Psalm 23 good news. It’s not the general care of the Lord, but instead a personal relationship with Him that only comes when we enter HIs family through Jesus. It’s only then that we can say, along with David, that the Lord is indeed MY shepherd.