A psalm by David (see pp. 87–90). The comparison of I AM to a shepherd fits the early years of Israel’s shepherd-king, who was called from leading a flock of sheep to leading the flock of Israel (Ps. 78:70–72), but this does not prove Davidic authorship. Sheep were a central part of the Israelite economy and other famous leaders were also at one time shepherds: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and also Moses.
As ancient Israelites parsed their life experiences in terms of their shepherd-king par excellence, Jihadist Muslims use the prophet Muhammad as their model for world conquest, and Christians look to Jesus as their pattern for their lives. Nevertheless, as Calvin saw, David’s psalms serve for all God’s covenant children as a paradigm to evaluate and interpret their lives
The bold confession, “I AM is my shepherd” (Yhwh rōʽî), establishes an intimate I-Thou relationship between I AM and the individual Israelite; asserts the individual’s total dependence upon God’s goodness and kindness to care for him; and entails that his relationship is based on loving trust. “So close is the connection between shepherd and sheep that to this day Middle Eastern shepherds can divide flocks that have mingled at a well or during the night simply by calling their sheep, whereupon they follow their shepherd’s voice. Shepherds are inseparable from their flocks, and their work is demanding, solitary and sometimes dangerous (Gen. 31:38–40; 1 Sam. 17:34–35).”76 If a sheep becomes lost, the faithful shepherd leaves the others in the open country to find it, and when he finds it he calls his friends to celebrate with him because he has found his one lost sheep (Luke 15:3–7).
Conditions of shepherding in ancient Israel, however, differed from most modern practices: “Sheep were not fenced in and left to fend for themselves. Instead they were totally dependent on shepherds for protection, grazing, watering, shelter and tending to injuries. In fact, sheep would not survive long without a shepherd.”77
The relationship of I AM to the individual believer is elaborated by a “catalogue of provisions [that] is both marvelously inclusive and fashioned with loving attention to the literal details of a shepherd’s life”78 in order to explicate that the faithful Israelite does not want (lōʼ ʼeḥsār).79 The lexeme ḥāsar is often inchoative for the transition to this condition (i.e., “comes to lack”). The faithful does not lack ample food and renewing water (v. 2), or guidance (v. 3) with assured protection (v. 4). The psalmist validates his trust by his experience. When a person lacks essentials for living, such as rest, food, guidance, and protection, his or her life becomes marginalized and unless remedied dies. The Mosaic catechism teaches that complete harmony reigns between the Giver of every good gift and his covenant partner as long as the human is faithful to his covenant obligations (Lev. 25:19; 26:3–5). A lack of provisions signifies a failed relationship (Deut. 28:48, 57; Jer. 44:18; Ezek. 4:17). However, this absolute judgment applies to a comprehensive view of a believer’s eternal life. Before the end of clinical life people live in an upside-down world, where the wicked are full and the righteous are hungry; Israel, David, and the Lord Jesus all hungered in their wildernesses (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:2; 12:1, 3; Mark 2:25; Luke 6:3, 25). A song of trust, like the literary genre of the Book of Proverbs, by faith sees and enjoys the present in light of God’s promised blessed end, beyond the time when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer (1 Sam. 2:5; Ps. 107:5, 9, 36; 146:7; Luke 6:25; 1 Cor. 4:11; Phil. 4:12).80 “But at that time,” says Bridges, “how intolerable will be this conscious want through all eternity, when a drop of water to cool the tormented tongue shall be denied! (Luke 16:24).
~ Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore, The Psalms as Christian Worship: A Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 437-38. ~
In studying the first verse of Psalm 23, several important notes can be observed from this passage.
1. As the commentary shows in the first bold section, sheep were completely dependent upon their shepherd to provide for every single need from food to protection to dangerous animals and even from nature. The establishment of Yahweh (the Lord) as our Shepherd shows His sheep are to be completely reliant upon God for every single need. Just as a good shepherd would tend for and provide for the sheep he is watching, even so far as give his own life to protect the sheep, even more Jesus calls Himself the “good shepherd”, laying down His life to save men from sin. Our Shepherd has provided the greatest need we have as wicked, sinful men in that He gave His life to save His sheep. Even further, Jesus goes on to claim in verse 14 of John 10 how the sheep know the voice of their shepherd and follow it! How wonderful it is to know Christians are able to follow the Good Shepherd, the One who was not only willing to give His life but indeed did give His very life to save His sheep. The first verse in psalm 23 is rich with the provision of God not only in their area of physical needs but even greater to be saved by God’s rich love, mercy, and grace through the finished work of the cross.
2. As the first paragraph establishes, there is an intimate relationship and covenant established between God and the Israelite. However this covenant also applies to any believer today who has a relationship with God. While it seems like the ungodly prosper and receive blessings while at times the godly suffer persecution, hardships, and various trials, the time spent here on earth is “a vapor” as James 4 says. The ungodly will have nothing to stand on in the day when they are judged by the Lord, everything they spent their life living for will all be gone and they will suffer an eternity of God’s wrath. On the other hand, the believer may not receive as many physical blessings (although God certainly does bless some believers richly, as Job, Abraham, David, and others were) but will instead be living for the glory and service to the Messiah, the great “I AM” of the Bible. Through the first verse in psalm 23, every believer can hold fast to the covenant between him and God. No longer are we slaves to sin (Romans 6) but now we are freed from the bondage of sin and the law, separated unto Christ our Lord! For the believer, verse 1 offers encouragement in knowing God is our Provider, Sustainer, and Shepherd. Additionally, we have a relationship with the very One who came as a man, humbled Himself, and died bearing our sins so that we might have life. Psalm 23:1 features Christ as the pinnacle, both as a caring, loving Shepherd and as our only hope; our Redeemer. As Christians may we be challenged to find comfort in what Christ has accomplished on the cross.