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April 05, 2024

Psalm 23 Explained Line By Line

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This article is based on teaching by Pastor Colin Smith, Senior Pastor of The Orchard from his series The Lord Is My Shepherd. Follow his teaching on YouTube, the Open the Bible app or by searching “Open the Bible” in your favorite podcast app.

Psalm 23 deals with the realities of life. When you face difficult decisions, this psalm is for you. When you are losing heart, this psalm is for you. When you face enemies, this psalm is for you. When you have seen the face of evil, this psalm is for you. And since you will one day walk through the valley of death, this psalm is for you. You need a Shepherd.

Below is a line-by-line summary for this beloved Psalm, explaining the meaning of some of the most comforting words ever written, and pointing you to our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 10:11,14).

God has used Psalm 23 to encourage His people for more than 3,000 years. May He use these familiar words to bring strength, hope, comfort, and courage to you today.

The Meaning of Psalm 23, Explained Line by Line

Verse 1

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Psalm 23 is about the Lord. Every line is about who He is and what He does. It is also about us. Every line is about us and about what is ours when we belong to the Lord. 

The relationship between a shepherd and his sheep is one of ownership. The shepherd owns the flock. When we say, “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are saying, “The Lord owns me.” This is true of you if you are a Christian. You are not your own. You have been bought with a price. The Lord Jesus purchased you at the cost of laying down His life.

When we are in the flock of God, the Shepherd owns us. What will the Shepherd do for the flock that He owns? Psalm 23 gives us five marvelous answers to this question: He leads us, He restores us, He protects us, He provides for us, and He loves us. When the Lord is your Shepherd, you have all that you need.

Go deeper on Psalm 23:1 in the sermon He Owns Me or the article Wholly Owned by the Good Shepherd.

Verse 2

He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.

David states this as a fact. He leads you. There is not something you have to do in order to make this happen. If you are in the flock of God, this is true of you. This is what He does for you.

Where does He lead us? First, He leads us into rest. Green pastures provide grazing for the sheep. He makes me lie down in green pastures. And He leads me beside still waters. The main point here is not feeding or drinking, but resting. 

Maybe you find it hard to rest. There is a problem you need to solve, an overwhelming challenge you face, or some fear you are battling. You feel like you can’t rest until you have the answer. But you can lie down and rest when you know the Shepherd is near. 

Go deeper on Psalm 23:2 in the sermon He Leads Me or in the article The Good Shepherd Leads Us Into Rest.

Verse 3

He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake

The first place God leads us is into rest. The second place He leads us is into righteousness. There is an order here–as we find rest, we have the strength we need to walk on the right path.

There will be times when the path seems impossible, or when you find it hard to see God, or when His direction comes through other people that He has placed in your life, but the Shepherd will always lead you on the right path. 

The Shepherd restores us when we wander away. He restores us when we falter. Are you experiencing injustice, conflict, disappointment, suffering, or great demands? God will restore you in a unique and individual way, through a fresh encounter with Himself.

Go deeper on Psalm 23:3 in the sermon He Restores Me or the article The Good Shepherd Leads Us On Right Paths.

Verse 4

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.

Death is not the only valley that casts its shadow over us. Dying is the last valley. But there are other valleys we walk through along the way. Maybe you are walking through the dark valley of failure, illness, or loneliness. If you are a Christian today, God is with you in the darkness as much as in the light. 

Not only is He with you, but He will guard you from evil. The rod was a club carried by the shepherd to fend off wild animals. The staff is the shepherd’s crook that he uses to lift the lambs into his arms. So, the rod and staff speak of the strength and love of the Good Shepherd.

However dark the valley may be, you do not need to fear because the Lord is with you. No power can snatch you from His hand. Nothing can separate you from His love. 

Go deeper on Psalm 23:4 in the sermon He Guards Me.

Verse 5

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

God often uses material things to speak to us about spiritual things, and here God uses three things–a table, oil, and a cup to communicate how He sustains us.

Someone prepares a meal for you, and when it is done you come to the table. You sit down, and as you eat, your strength is renewed. The table reminds us that God sustains by giving us new strength.

Oil was used in the Old Testament to commission prophets, priests, and kings. They were anointed with oil because God had given them a particular assignment. Oil reminds us that God sustains by giving us new purpose.

There is a version of Christianity that says, “Life stinks, but heaven is coming.” You have to endure, and if you do, you’ll be blessed in the end. But that is not what David is saying here. He says, “My cup overflows!” Jesus said the same thing: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). But He also said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). The cup reminds us that God sustains by giving us new joy.

Go deeper on Psalm 23:5 in the sermon He Sustains Me and the article Three Ways Our Good Shepherd Sustains Us.

Verse 6 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

Think of a shepherd walking in front of his sheep. The sheep follow him, and behind them are two sheep dogs named Goodness and Mercy, chasing the stragglers and keeping them close to the shepherd. The Good Shepherd keeps you close to Himself through His goodness and mercy always chasing after you.

Everything good in your life comes from the hand of God, so thank Him for it. Goodness is God giving us what we don’t deserve. Mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve. This is good news, because if God chased after us in justice, we would all be in trouble.

If God was chasing after you with judgment and condemnation, of course you would run. But why would you run when you are being chased by goodness and mercy?

When David looks beyond the days of his life in this world he sees what comes after: the joy of eternity in the immediate presence of the Lord. Dwelling with the Lord will be incomparably better than the greatest joys any of us have known in this life.

Go deeper on Psalm 23:6 in the sermon He Loves Me.

Recommended Article: Why You Should Memorize Psalm 23 by Kevin Halloran

Jesus Christ, Our Good Shepherd

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who fulfills Psalm 23. When He came into the world, He said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Yes, but why should you trust Him? Why should you follow Him? Jesus went on to explain, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). 

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Because of our rebellion, the wrath of God was hanging over us. Hell was coming to us. But Jesus endured all that hell is on the cross, so that we would never know what it is like. He willingly saved us from hell at the cost of His own life.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd because He died to rescue the sheep, and because He lives to care for the sheep. Jesus’ care involves knowledge and commitment. 

Jesus knows you completely! You may be a mystery to yourself, but you are not a mystery to Him. And Jesus is committed to you. The Good Shepherd will never leave His sheep. If Jesus is your shepherd now, He will be your shepherd forever. The greatest blessing you can know in life is to be wholly owned by Jesus, the Son of God.

Go Deeper

Psalm 23 Devotional Book
Get your copy of Green Pastures, Still Waters: 31 Days through Psalm 23 by Pastor Colin Smith.