Shepherd and Host
(H) A psalm of David. (1) Yahweh (is) my shepherd. I shall not be in want. (2) He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me to quiet waters. (3) He restores my soul. He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (4) Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (5) You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. (6) Surely goodness and steadfast love shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.
In this, the best known of all the psalms, only one word is repeated. The name, “Yahweh,” is found both at the beginning and at the end of the psalm (vss. 1 & 6). These two occurrences suggest the psalm’s outline. In the first case, Yahweh is portrayed as “my shepherd,” one who lovingly cares for his sheep (vss. 1-4). In the second, Yahweh is viewed as a gracious host who lavishes us with hospitality both now as we face our enemies here on earth (vs. 5) and throughout eternity in our heavenly home (vs. 6). One other detail to note is how the psalmist effortlessly moves from the third person to the second person, speaking first about Yahweh (vss. 1-3) and then speaking directly to Yahweh in prayer: “...you are with me...comfort me...prepare a table before me...anoint my head with oil” (vss. 4 & 5). As he closes the psalm, David returns to the third person, speaking about the hospitality he will enjoy eternally in Yahweh’s dwelling place (vs. 6).
Probably the most difficult phrase to interpret is “the valley of the shadow of death” (vs. 4). Does David have a specific location in mind or is he speaking figuratively of experiencing a life-threatening crisis, perhaps a brush with death? For help with this, we can turn to the Book of Job where the author figuratively described Job’s life of suffering as a journey ending in the underworld, the land of the shadow of death: “Turn away from me so I can have a moment’s joy before I go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and deep shadow, to the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness” (Job 10:20-22). Whether literal or figurative, “the valley of the shadow of death” is certainly a terrifying place to be.
I. As a shepherd, Yahweh cares for my every need. (1-4)
II. As a host, Yahweh welcomes me both now and forever. (5 & 6)
As a devoted shepherd and a gracious host, Yahweh cares for me with steadfast love both now and forever.
Describing our relationship with God as that of a devoted shepherd caring for his sheep is a metaphor we find repeatedly in both the Old and New Testament. As an example, Psalm 95 provides a one sentence summary of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh: “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Ps. 95:7). In the New Testament, John spends an entire chapter of his Gospel expanding on this theme. First, Jesus speaks of himself as the “door” of the sheepfold, referring to the practice in the ancient world of shepherds actually sleeping across the one opening to their sheep pen to protect the flock from predators and to keep the herd from wandering away (Jn. 10:1-10). In the following verse, Jesus describes himself and his ministry in this way: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). Through the rest of the chapter and, especially in verses 27-30, Jesus makes clear that he provides for his sheep in every possible way to protect them from potential danger. Believers in all generations have found this metaphor of shepherding to be one of the most comforting and encouraging figures of speech in all of Scripture.
By adding to this a second metaphor, that of a gracious host welcoming guests into his home, David enhances our understanding of Yahweh’s love and compassion. Not only does God care for us here and now as a shepherd feeds and nurtures his flock, he also provides for us both now and throughout eternity by welcoming us into his presence as his honored guests. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus lovingly assures the disciples of his hospitality: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:2 & 3).