The Christian life is a journey, not an instantaneous arrival—we are pilgrims, traveling on the way to Zion, looking for the heavenly city that is to come. The book of Hebrews compares the Christian life to those Israelites who wandered through the wilderness, often wondering how much longer it would be before they arrived at the Promised Land. Peter describes the Christian life in the opening of his first Epistle when he calls the elect "exiles." We are no longer in the glory days of Solomon's temple, we are not yet in the new heavens and new earth, but we are living in a time of exile, a period of waiting.
It is on this long journey to a land still far away that Psalm 23 comforts us and uplifts us. The Lord is our Shepherd, and we hear his voice speaking to us, as the psalm reveals our Lord Jesus as both the Good Shepherd of his sheep and the only sheep to never stray from the Shepherd.
The Lord Is My Provider
In times of prosperity and ease, we can easily fall into a kind of spiritual complacency where we forget our need for God. It's easier to think we have everything together when we aren't struggling, suffering, or in need of something. But we're not to be satisfied with wealth or possessions. We're to delight in the Lord and to evaluate all things in light of his good character. If God is my shepherd and he is the one leading me, then "I shall not want" (v. 1).
The Good Shepherd provides for his sheep by giving them food and drink. The psalmist uses imagery of luscious green pastures for sheep to graze on and still waters for sheep to drink from. The thought recalls God's provision to Israel when she was wandering in the wilderness. After God had delivered her from the mighty hand of Pharaoh, the people of Israel began to grumble and moan, crying, "Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger" (Exod. 16:3). Their complaint showed them to be a stiff-necked people, giving no thought to God's delivering them from slavery, and overcome by their current difficulty. The Shepherd who had rescued them from oppression would also save them from hunger by providing them with manna. He would spread out a table in the wilderness for them to eat and be nourished until the end.
The psalmist, David, continues by saying that this Shepherd "makes me lie down in green pastures" (v. 2). God is a shepherd who gives his sheep exactly what they need for body and soul. The same God who dropped food from the sky for his wandering people also gives us bread to eat and wine to drink when we gather in holy assembly to celebrate the Lord's Supper. He cares for our souls by the gift of eternal rest through the Lord Jesus Christ—we no longer have to try to earn our salvation, for Christ has done that for us. Through his righteous life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection, he has earned salvation for us—giving us an eternal Sabbath rest from our works and all forms of self-justification.
"He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake" (v. 3). The Lord works in us through the Holy Spirit each day to give us rest from our evil works and to begin that eternal Sabbath rest that Jesus has started but not yet finished (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A. 103). Every Sunday, we press the pause button on the weekly buzz and lie down in God's green pastures of word and sacrament, confident that "the Lord is [our] shepherd, [we] shall not want."
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This article originally appeared in the The Story of God's People" Jan./Feb. 2016 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.