Learning What We Already Know

Devotional thoughts on Psalm 23

Al Hartman


Most of us have heard the adage, "Familiarity breeds contempt."  Sometimes we may know a thing so well that we neglect to allow our knowledge of it to mature with the passage of time.  Or we may have known it for so long that we have forgotten that we know it at all.  We may even find that we never really knew it as we had thought we did.  Thus we have meditation:  unhurried reflection with the goal of discovery.

With these thoughts in mind, let us look anew at the Twenty Third Psalm, perhaps the most memorized passage in all the scriptures:

A Psalm of David - This is the part that usually is not included in memorization, but it is no less important than the rest of the Psalm, because David was a man after God's own heart and is remembered as such (Acts 13:22), in spite of the severity of his failures.  Although as God's anointed one he committed horrendous sin, the Lord reminds us of his "sure mercies" toward David (Acts 13:34).  It is from this perspective that the psalmist reflects...

The Lord is my shepherd - Sometimes we may tend to use God's titles interchangeably, but each is significant in its own right.  By identifying The Lord, David is representing God as the one and only ruling monarch over all creation, chief judge and magistrate whose word cannot be violated, commander-in-chief of all the host of heaven.  Is states that the content of the psalm is in effect now, in the present tense.  My makes it personal:  He is not just "a," nor "the," nor even "our" shepherd, but my very own.  Shepherd is the role in which this magnificent, majestic, omnipotent personage has chosen to relate to me.  Not as my king, my judge, my commander, but as my shepherd he makes himself known.  The shepherd is not a hired ranch hand, watching the sheep for pay.  The flock is his own, and he has a personal concern for each and every member of it.  He cares for me.  He loves me.

I shall not want - Name a single thing that is necessary for a sheep.  Name them all.  I shall not lack for any of them.  Because he is lord of all, everything is available to him, and he shall provide for my needs according to his endless riches.  "Want" in this context refers not to desire, but to requirement.  My good shepherd will not fail to supply me with everything that is necessary for my well being.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures -  I have to admit it:  If I need a shepherd I must resemble a sheep, and sheep aren't known to have the keenest minds in the animal kingdom.  A sheep is as likely to wander away from good feed as toward it.  And when a sheep has a meal before it, it may just keep eating until it bloats.  My shepherd will resolve these potential dilemmas.  He will see to it that I have good pasture, and make me lie down to rest when I have partaken of enough.

He leadeth me beside the still waters -  A sheep would as soon try to drink from a swiftly moving river as from a pond, only to be swept away and drowned.  The Lord will see to it that my thirst is slaked only from calm and safe sources.

He restoreth my soul - At this point, we move beyond the allegory.  I  may be sheep-like, but I am human.  I have a soul.  But my soul is lacking something-- it needs restoration, and he does that for me even though he did not cause the lack.  The uniqueness of this restoration is that it has already been achieved once and for all at the cross:  The good Shepherd lay down his life for the sheep (Jn.10:14-15).  It is finished.  And yet, he reinstitutes his work's efficacy day by day.  His mercies are new every morning (Lam.3:22-23).

He leadeth me  - Oh, blessed thought!  To lead is to go before.  I am afoot in a sinful world, surrounded by enemies, but he goes before me.  I will face nothing that he has not faced and conquered before I got there.  He has walked this sinful world, and suffered the death appointed to sinful men, although he himself was without sin.  Oh words with heavenly comfort fraught!  I do not have to look at the horrors that surround me, for he leadeth me:  I need only look at him in order to keep walking.

In the paths of righteousness - Righteousness, most simply put, is what is right.  The law of God defines what is right, and mankind is incapable of satisfying its demands, except for the Lord Jesus Christ in whom all the law and the prophets are fulfilled.  That is why he leads me, and why I must follow.  He leads us all, and we do not progress in single file.  There is not just one path of righteousness, but paths.  I am on my path and you are on yours, and he leads me and he leads you.  He didn't hand us each a roadmap and say, "Meet me in Heaven..."  He leads us because the many paths of righteousness diverge again and again, and mine is not for you, nor yours for me (although we may travel side by side for a time), so he did not command us to follow a route, but says, "Follow me."

For his name's sake -  This is the ego-shaker.  All this that he is doing for me is not about me.  It is about him.  It is for his name's sake.  In enjoying all his loving shepherding care and soul restoration, have I forgotten that I was made in his image and likeness?  He desires to display in me a testimony to heaven and earth of his glorious nature.  Every member of the executive cabinet in Washington, D.C. serves "at the pleasure of the President."  I exist for the pleasure of the Lord.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death -  Yea means yes.  This isn't a maybe.  Not I may walk.  Yes... I walk.  But notice this: I walk through...  Not just into the valley of the shadow of death, but through it.  That means coming out the other end.  And it isn't really the valley of death;  it only looks that way.  It's an illusion:  the shadow of death.  Why?  Because Jesus already died the death for me that I may have eternal life in him (2Cor. 5:21).

I will fear no evil -  This is an act of will, not an episode of feeling fearful.  Feelings are fickle and not to be trusted.  I will not fear the evil...  It is a decision I make...

For thou art with me -  He not only is leading me, but he is with me.  The one who goes before me to conquer death and the grave is also with me, embracing me;  reassuring me that in the face of evil I need not fear.  Because he enables me to believe his promises, I can decide to not be afraid.  Death has no sting;  the grave presents me no threat.

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me -  Why, look:  We haven't left the shepherd allegory behind after all.  (Don't I feel sheepish).  The nature of the shepherd is one of love.  He is delighted that his creatures need him-- delighted to fulfill all their needs with himself.  The man in me elects to follow his leading, but the sheep will not.  Sheep cannot be merely led.  They must be herded.  Although my every necessity is provided for in Christ, yet I will always need him to be that provision.  So in addition to leading me, he uses his rod to prod me forward when I balk, and his staff to pull me back from danger, should I be tempted or just plain stupid.  I will not resent his use of rod and staff, because I am what I am and he does what he must:  His rod and his staff are comforts to me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies -  We are accustomed to the idea of inviting the Lord to come in and sup with us (Rev. 3:20).  We hang plaques in our homes proclaiming him to be "the unseen Guest at every meal."  But the concept here far exceeds such thought:  Here the Lord is preparing to serve me in HIS house, at HIS table.  Even as I tread through this wicked world, surrounded by the host of foes who desire to destroy my body and soul, Jesus Christ is setting the table, inviting me in...

Thou anointest my head with oil -  In twenty first century America we don't hold to this image as a sign of respect.  The phrase may bring to mind the picture of a can of 30 weight engine lubricant being dumped upon me.  In King David's day oil was not a petroleum product, but a food derivative and, in its purest form, the evidence of great wealth.  To anoint someone's head with such was to bestow tremendous honor.  Imagine!  My Lord so honors me!

My cup runneth over -  The Bible refers to the cup and to wine in a variety of ways, so let us retain the context of this phrase:  My Lord has brought me to a feast, in my honor, in his own house.  My cup's running over signifies abundance.  This feast is well represented in Psalm 104:15.  The wine in my cup makes my heart glad, the oil with which my head is anointed makes my face shine, and the food strengthens my heart.  This is not a prediction of some future sweet bye and bye.  It is all stated in the present tense;  a reality of which I partake today;  now.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life - The topic here is the goodness and mercy of God, and these are not subject to speculation.  Surely means definitely, absolutely, undoubtedly, without question.  It is a guarantee.  Will I experience days, or longer periods, when there is no evidence of God's goodness and mercy to be found?  Of course.  Why?  Because the promise is that goodness and mercy shall follow me, not that they will be seen or felt.  Thanks be to God that his promises are inviolable, because there may be many times that I am long gone from the scene before his goodness and mercy appear, as they surely shall.  But when I think about it, I'm in a wondrous place:  The Lord is in front of me, leading;  he is with me, comforting;  and his goodness and mercy follow me, as a rear guard.  Could I possibly be more secure, be safer?  And the guarantee is good for the life of the product (me):  all the days of my life.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever - There are so many people, and I was one of them, who believe that after the acceptance of Christ, the Christian life consists of going to church, making a living, raising a family, retiring, dying and finally going to heaven.  Certainly there are much worse ways to live, but the Lord has so much more at hand for those who will partake of him:

Most wonderful of all, none of all this has to be waited for.  I can freely access all he has done for me right now and throughout my life on earth (Eph.1:3, 2:6).  Yes, I can anticipate spending eternity in a glorious new replacement for my tired old sin-tainted body, but in spite of my present limited body, I can partake of his divine nature every moment of every day (2Peter 1:2-4).  ...no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11). 

I have "known" the twenty third psalm since I was a small boy.  Now I am learning it.

Be well, safe, and rejoicing in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Your brother, al


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