The original historical context of Psalm 23 is the ancient Kingdom of Israel, in which sheep were a major part of the economy. We’re talking about huge flocks of sheep running into the thousands in some cases. King David, probably the most famous king of Israel, worked as a shepherd when he was a boy, just as many other boys did at the time. This Psalm, which is associated with his name, likely reflects his own experience as a shepherd as he reflects on God as the shepherd of his own life.
The sheep-grazing areas in Israel are mostly dry, rocky, semi-desert areas, where the sheep are often taken far away from the agricultural land near town, especially in the spring and summer. This is an area of steep and dangerous cliffs and canyons. Even a sure-footed sheep or goat is in real danger of falling to its death. In fact, I’ve seen a couple of them nearly fall myself out in this area.
The sheep also need to be watered at least once a day. This is difficult since there are so few water sources in most parts of this region. This means that the shepherd needs to walk the sheep to and from the water source each day. But he must choose a different route each time, so the grass will not be overgrazed and the pasture destroyed.
“In pastures of fresh grass, he makes me lie down, beside the waters of places of rest he leads me” (Psalm 23:2).
The idea of finding a pasture filled with lots of fresh, green grass and a bubbling stream beside it is almost a vision of heaven out in this area (Psa. 23:2). This is also the implication of the shepherd making or causing the sheep to lie down. It implies that there is so much to eat, the sheep are full and can stop eating, something that rarely happens in the desert.
“My soul he restores; he leads me in the paths of righteousness for the sake of his name” (Psalm 23:3).
The paths (or literally “trails”) taken by the sheep can be seen all over these parts of Israel still today (Psa. 23:3). There are thousands of them everywhere, and of no help in directing the sheep, unless they have the guidance of a shepherd. In the same way, the Psalmist says, God leads us in the right way, the way of “righteousness.”
“Even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psa. 23:4).
The “valley of the shadow of death” is an allusion to the dangerous and steep cliffs and canyons in the desert (Psa. 23:4). But even here, the sheep can relax, because the shepherd is always carefully watching. In the same way, God is always with us through the difficult times in our lives.
The rod and staff of the shepherd are used to direct the sheep in the way they should go (Psa. 23:4). The rod is used to thwack the sheep hard enough to get its attention, which is not always an easy thing to do. The staff, which functions as a shepherd’s crook, pushes or pulls the sheep in the right direction. Why are these irritating forms of correction a comfort? Because the sheep know that ultimately the shepherd is helping them. It’s the same when God helps us: ultimately, it’s for our good.
“You prepare before me a table in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil, my cup overflows” (Psa. 23:5).
A “table in front of my enemies” means that God provides the needs of his people even when they are facing enemies (Psa. 23:5). This is an allusion to the wolves and other predators that threaten the sheep. Even though they are lurking nearby, the sheep can keep on eating peacefully. Why? Because the shepherd is there to protect them.
That God has “anointed my head with oil” refers to the anointing of sheep with oil mixed with things like sulfur and tar to repel biting insects (Psa. 23:5). People also applied oil to their skin to protect it from the ravages of the dry, desert air (Psa. 104:15). But the more direct allusion here is to the anointing of kings and prophets with oil as a sign of their selection by God, just as was done with King David himself, when he was anointed king of Israel (1 Sam. 16:13). Christians see here an allusion to Messiah Jesus, and to our anointing by the Holy Spirit in him (Acts 10:38, 2 Cor. 1:21). (“Messiah” means “anointed one.”)
“Surely goodness and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psa. 23:6).
The blessing of this kind of life with God is reflected in the phrases, “my cup overflows,” in other words, I have more than enough, and “goodness and kindness will pursue me all the days of my life” (Psa. 23:6). This is the opposite of pursuing the good life, rather a good life will pursue me.
The focus of religious worship in David’s day was the Tabernacle that had been built in the time of Moses. This was soon replaced in the time of Solomon, his son, with the Temple in Jerusalem. But in either case, this structure was regarded as the “house” of the Lord, where the presence of the Lord was believed to dwell. By saying that he wants to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever,” the psalmist is saying that he wants to live in God’s direct presence forever (Psa. 23:6).