No other pastoral poem is so well known and so highly prized as Psalm 23, the Shepherd Psalm. This poem has been on the lips and in the hearts of men for three thousand years. First heard on the hills of Judah, it spread with the advance of the Christian faith to the ends of the earth. Composition and style alone cannot account for its influence. Behind this imperishable record of a deep and unshakable faith lies the proven experience of divine providence.
The simplicity of the poem conceals the purity of its art. Hebrew poetry is not under the law of mechanical meter; its cadences and rhythm belong to the dimension of the free spirit, where movement is not in measured steps. To reduce Hebrew poetry to numbers is the idle fantasy of unpoetic minds.
The Shepherd is the focal point of the psalm. Although the psalmist himself is the subject of four verbs, he depicts himself as inactive (“I shall not want,” “I do not fear”), as engaged in unavoidable activity (“I walk”), or as appropriating a prepared benefit (“I shall return”—not to his own home but as a guest to the household of Jehovah).
The other eight verbs have for their subject either Jehovah or his benefits. They are all transitive, and in each case the object is beneficially affected. In the first, for example, the shepherd causes the sheep to rest: “he makes me to lie down.” In the divine order, rest precedes activity; receiving precedes giving. What tragedies have followed the neglect of this simple principle. The efficient servants of God are not the underfed, the over-wrought, the work-weary, or the stale. Rest and spiritual restoration are the prerequisites of fruitful service. The second verb (“he leads”) follows naturally on the first: the sheep that God leads abroad ...1
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