When I Need Comfort

Explore the Bible Series

October 4, 2009


Background Passage: Psalm 23:1-6

Lesson Passage: Psalm 23:1-6




This week we study the best-known and most sublime of all the Psalms. Perhaps no portion of the Psalms has brought greater comfort to God’s people than this splendid hymn.  David, the skilled musician/king, reached the height of his lyric genius in these six profound verses.  He seems to encompass the entirety of Christian experience in these transcendent expressions.  The words have expressed, for generations of believers, the soaring delight of daily interaction with the divine, and brought consolation to the grave hardships that trouble, at times, God’s people.  As I wait before this magisterial Psalm, words fail to express the profound awe and inadequacy I feel.  Perhaps I might borrow the eloquence of Mr. Spurgeon to give vent to the things that well up in my soul.


David has left no sweeter Psalm than the short twenty-third… Blessed be the day on which this Psalm was born… It has charmed more greifs to rest than all the philosophy of the world.  It has remanded to their dungeon more felon thoughts, more black doubts, more thieving sorrows, than there are sands on the sea-shore.  It has comforted the noble host of the poor.  It has sung courage to the army of the disappointed. It has poured balm and consolation into the hearts of the sick, of captives in dungeons, of widows in their pinching greifs, of orphans in their lowliness.  Dying soldiers have died easier as it was read to them; ghastly hospitals have been illuminated; it has visited the prisoner, and broken his chains, and, like Peter’s angel, led him forth in imagination, and sung him back to his home again… Nor is its work done.  It will go singing to your children and my children, and to their children, through all the generations of time; nor will it fold its wings till the last pilgrim is safe, and time ended; and then it will fly back to the bosom of God, whence it issued, and sound on, mingled with all those sounds of celestial joy which make heaven musical forever (This last part of the quotation comes from Henry Ward Beecher, via Spurgeon).


This Psalm is one of more than seventy hymns attributed to King David.  I cannot imagine that anyone could raise any serious objection to Davidic authorship because it reflects the experience of the shepherd/king in splendid simplicity.  No one knows the occasion of the hymn, but it certainly manifests the settled meditations of a man mature in the things of God (Keil and Delitzsch date this hymn during the Rebellion of Absalom).  Perhaps the hymn is best served without specific reference to the occasion of its composition.  Its universal application seems enhanced by the mystery of its setting.  Like a cozy hearth, let us all warm our hearts near the blaze of Psalm Twenty-Three.


Lesson Outline:


I.                   The Shepherd and His Sheep (vv. 1-4): Note the profoundly personal nature of this Psalm.  David began with the assertion that the Lord was his shepherd. Not all men may rightly claim to be part of God’s flock.  No good thing shall God withhold from his people, “I shall not want.”

A.    The shepherd’s provision for his sheep (vv. 1-3)

1.      “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters” (v. 2): David tended Jesse’s flocks in the barren terrain of the wilderness of Judah.  A hot, arid, rugged landscape spread before the boy/shepherd and his pastoral charge; yet, the lad knew the location of refreshing oases which brought much needed rest and nourishment to the sheep.  Like David, the Lord knows the places of solace in the howling wilderness of life.  In these sublime oases, God’s people find rest, renewal, and refreshment.  The verdant pastures nourish and comfort, and the still waters provide restful venue the quench the thirst of those who gather at their banks. 

2.      “He restores my soul” (v. 3a): Wandering in the wilderness ravages the soul, but David observed the Lord’s gracious healing of the spirit.  This phrase has often lifted my spirits.  My soul, so prone to willful distraction and disobedience, may find renewal and restoration in the shepherd’s care.

3.      “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (v. 3b): The shepherd never leads but in the paths that promote the righteousness of his sheep.  The paths may lead through valleys deep and rugged crags, but hey always meet their destination in the place of righteousness.  Rocky paths are God’s routes to the green pastures and still waters.

B.     The Valley of the Shadow of Death (v. 4): Here, the Psalm takes a dark turn; yet, even in the shadowy valley, God’s rod and staff bring reassurance.  I appreciate David’s candor concerning the dim vale.  The believer does not spend all his days in the luxuriant meadow; rather, sometimes the Lord’s paths of righteousness lead through dark valleys, dimmed by the shadows of death.  The shadow grows dark and may obscure the sheep’s awareness of the shepherd’s presence.  We must recall, however, that the valley of the shadow of death is nothing more than the path between green pastures and the table set before our enemies.

1.      “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4a): Satan cannot threaten the Lord’s people with the true sting of death; so, he must resort to the temptation of shadows, dark and ominous (See I Corinthians 15:50-58).  David expressed no doubt that his path would take him through dark valleys, but he also expressed no doubt that he would pass through these valleys.  Thank God, we do not dwell in the valley of the shadow of death; rather, we move purposefully through the vale.  The Lord’s sheep do not stagger and stumble through the darkness; they walk through it, knowing that the light will eventually return.  The shadows do not quench the sun, they simply obscure the light for a time.

2.      “I will fear no evil for you are with me” (v. 4b): The lion of death, for the believer, has no teeth. He may roar and threaten, but he can do no real harm.  The protective hand of the shepherd foils the evil designs of the enemy of the soul.  We may not see clearly in the shadows of the valley, but no sinister scheme escapes the notice of the shepherd.  The Lord’s presence calms the deepest fears of the believer, even in life’s darkest experiences.

3.      “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4c): The rod was a club or cudgel carried by the shepherd, and he used it to drive away any dangerous threat to the sheep.  God is well equipped to protect and vindicate his people even in the face of grave peril.  The staff was a long stick, often crooked at one end.  The shepherd used the staff to guide his flock through dark paths.  When the shadows obscured the sight of the sheep, the staff assured the flock of the shepherd’s presence and provided guidance when the way seemed indiscernible.


II.                The Banquet Table of Vindication and Victory (vv. 5-6): At this point, David abruptly switched analogies, moving from the pastoral image of the shepherd to a banquet set before an honored guest.  This, however, is no ordinary meal.  It is a victory feast, spread in the presence of David’s enemies.

A.    “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (v. 5a): David compared his relationship with God to the fellowship enjoyed around the table.  This phrase implies a celebrative and congenial banquet where the Lord greeted his guest with warm, generous hospitality.  The occasion of the dinner centered on David’s victories over his enemies.  In the end, God vindicated and honored his servant.

B.     “you anoint my head with oil” (v 5b): In the ancient Middle East, hosts greeted their guests by anointing with oil.  They regarded this not only as act of honor, but in order to refresh their esteemed friends.

C.     “my cup overflows” (v. 5c): Wine often accompanied the celebration of festive events, and, in this case, David found the his host’s supply ample and generous.

D.    “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6): David anticipated the continued blessings of the Lord, throughout the remainder of his earthy pilgrimage.  The ground of this hope rested securely in the Lord’s mercy.

E.     “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (v. 6b): The Old Testament does not reflect a fully-developed theology of heaven, but surely David anticipated a place with God, after death. Throughout his adult life David longed to build God a house, but, in the end, he discovered that God had prepared a place for him (See John 14:1-4).