In this excerpt from Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1–72, Old Testament scholar John Goldingay brings to light the strength and wisdom of the shepherd in beloved Psalm 23.
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. (Ps 23:4)
In the foothills of the mountains near where we live is a retreat center where we have a faculty gathering each fall. . . . From a location like that of the retreat center many canyons lead up into the mountains, and I can imagine shepherds once leading sheep up the canyons.
Shepherds would know about bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes and would know the best way to deal with them. In relation to some creatures, a club would be an important part of their security.
The canyons are deep and often have streams running through them, at least in winter and spring, and they are thus densely wooded—they have the water supply lacking in the countryside outside the canyons. They are thus dark and a bit sinister, and their deep darkness contrasts sharply with the bright sunshine above them.
Maybe the swiftly running water would be a bit scary for the sheep, but the shepherd would know where it flows into quieter pools. He would also know where the presence of moisture makes some grass grow and where the presence of shade stops it withering in the blistering heat. He would know where there are some trees or other bushes whose fruit he can knock down with his cane.
So the flock is secure and also provided for. Their shepherd is faithful in his care for it. So it is for a human being who has Yahweh as shepherd.
To be Yahweh means to be the God who is faithful, active in seeing that his people are provided for and protected. So Yahweh acts in this way “for the sake of his name” in order to be the person his name proclaims him to be.
In the second half of the psalm, literal reality pokes through. The psalm is encouraging us to declare our trust that we can face being threatened by the human equivalent of bears, rattlesnakes, and cougars (compare the bulls, steers, lions, and dogs of Psalm 22), because God protects us with his club like a shepherd protecting his sheep.
Like a shepherd providing his sheep with pasture, Yahweh provides us with what we need—indeed, provides us abundantly.
This post is adapted from Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1–72 by John Goldingay.
The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.