Old Testament Psalms Psalm 23 Green Pastures and Still Waters

Green Pastures and Still Waters

The saying is that a picture paints a thousand words. However, I believe a few words can paint a picture. Today we look at merely seven words in Hebrew and fourteen words in Hebrew that paint a glorious picture. I would say this poetic line in Psalm 23 is one of the most famous parts of the Psalm. We love vs 1, for the image of the shepherd, but we love the scene painted in verse 2. You can almost picture the scene of a shepherd sitting down surrounded by sheep on the lush green grass and a quiet pool of water close by. The blue sky above. But this paints more than colors or a scene it paints for us feelings and emotions. That there is not a care in the world. The shepherd is relaxed and therefore the sheep can find all that they need. If sheep could talk I am sure they would be saying, our shepherd knows where to find the best grass. However, if we merely see this as a nice picture or moment to make us feel good then we can miss the great comfort the Christian can find in this Psalm, especially when we don’t feel. So today I seek to be able to show that this passage needs to be more than a picture for our walls.

Difficultly of Psalms

Before we look particularly at this line, we need to have a word of caution. We have mentioned before the Psalms are God’s word to his people. So when we come to Psalms which uses poetic language, how can we interpret passages like this? Or to put it another way specific to this Psalm how can we understand green pastures and still waters? Does this mean that Christians should live near green fields or have a bird bath? This would be the literal reading of this passage. Now we need to understand the Bible we need to understand the genres of the Bible. This can be a great difficultly in the 20th and 21st century, but has been this way throughout all church history. Early in the 20th Century liberalism began to rise in mainline denominations. They said something to the effects of, “The authors did not have the same scientific understanding as we do, so when they wrote something supernatural, such as healings or the resurrection or the virgin birth, they didn’t understand as we do.” So they provided a different interpretation than historically has been given. They used scientific means to explain passages, correcting (you might say) the ignorance of the Biblical authors. So from this arose a group which was called the ‘fundamentalist,’ they explained there were five things you could not deny if you claimed to be a Christian. This gave a divide in two groups, however over time this word has been hijacked and today ‘fundamentalists’ pride themselves on literal interpretation. Now we have a lot in common, I often mention I am not a gymnast, I don’t try and make the Bible fit my views, but shape my views on the Bible.

I say all this because we need to read the bible literarily (reading the Bible as literature). So we come to Genesis and people seek to read Genesis one-three as poetic writings, explaining the structure of the days gives us a framework, and they would deny the 6 days of creation, because 6 days is only poetic. However, Genesis 1-3 is not poetic, there is one poem in Genesis 2, when Adam meets the woman for the first time (Gen 2:23). But it is historical narrative. I don’t have time to make my case here, but I would be happy to. But when it comes to Psalms, they are not historical narrative. And revelation is not like an epistle (besides the letters to the churches). The book of Hebrews is different from Pauls letters, and is more of a collection of sermons. All of these help us understand the Bible better. So when we read green pastures we need to understand it is poetic. But that does not mean it is only a poem.

You can than take it too far and over interpret the text. This turns into allegorical interpretations. Where you are looking and digging in all the wrong places. This was common in the early church Fathers; they would see connections that were not biblical. For example, Rahab let the two spies down on a scarlet rope. They then would unpack that the color of the rope connects to Christ’s blood. Or Noah’s ark made from wood, what else is made from wood, a cross, both are means of Salvation. Now you can see how difficult it would be to read the Bible, but also how this could quickly turn into the reasoning presented in a Monty Python skit.

So now we see the challenge in this verse today. We should be cautious to read it literally but then not take it to the other extreme when even the color of the pasture has a specific meaning. So let us look at this passage with great caution as we seek to remain within the bounds of Scripture. We need to let Scripture interpret Scripture.

The Good Shepherd gives us rest

The main point of this line in the twenty-third Psalm is rest. That when we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd, we find rest. I get this from two words, but also the image given to us with these words. The first word is ‘lie down.’ Although we might not know what it like to a sheep resting on green grass we all know that feeling of sliding in to our favorite chair in our living room or on the porch, or laying down in a freshly made bed. Although we might have different places that come to mind I am sure we have all made the exact same noise as we breathe out a sigh a great relief, “ahhhh!” To lie down is to have this feeling. Whether you sit down because you do not have anything on your list or you sit down before you complete your list there is a sense that I am where I need to be. You do not want to leave from this place. This is what the Psalmist is expressing when he speaks of lying down in green pastures. That with the shepherd by his side he finds rest.

Secondly, the a word that is not well displayed in the English but is in the original language. If we were to translate the Hebrew literally it would say “He leads me by waters of rest.” This carries the sense of the first word we just looked at. But in that image you need to get out of that chair. The alarm clock rings in the morning and you need to leave your bed. But this word is commonly translated “resting place.” Maybe a good word to describe this in our language is that of “home.” That home has this idea of peace, security, warmth and for me as an introvert a place I would love to stay. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 132:13-14, “For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.” The Lord has made his home and my home is where my God is. David in Psalm 23 says, “he leads me by waters of rest.”

We find rest in his provision

Ezekiel 34:14-15 says, “I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel is a glorious passage of scripture and one day I pray I would have the opportunity to unpack that passage, but we need to understand the context of Ezekiel 34. The book of Ezekiel is written during the time of the Babylonian exile. One of the major themes in the book is during this time of God’s exile of Israel was not a forsaking of his promises but a fulfilment of them. God would continue to show grace and mercy to his people, the remnant who would survive the exile and inherent his promises. They would see the restoration of the land. God would live in the midst of them once more. Ezekiel 34 speaks of the wicked shepherd leaders and their neglect of the sheep and their own selfish gain. Instead of providing for the sheep the sheep provided food their them. The Lord says through Ezekiel, “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:3–4). Then comes the later part of Ezekiel 34, where God promises to be the shepherd. That he would be the one that provides for his sheep.

Rest is found in the good shepherd’s provision. Once we know we have all that we need given to us from the hand of the good shepherd than we know that we shall not want. In a historical commentary the authors express the abundance of God’s provision, “The greenness of vegetation is an aesthetic delight as well as a functional prerequisite to life. The plural suggests the Shepherd never runs out of finding green pastures for his sheep.”[1] Jesus speaks of having life and having it in his abundance (John 10:10).

We find rest in his protection

Phillip Keller, who was a shepherd for several years has written a popular book entitled, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” It has gone through many editions. It is a helpful book to see the cultural practices of being a shepherd in places like Israel. He explains it is next to impossible to make a sheep lie down. Generally, they need four things for them to feel comfortable to lay down. They need to be free from fear, free from friction from other sheep, free from flies and parasites and finally free from hunger.[2] The beautiful image that is presented in these passages is not what is described but what is not present in the image. There is no mention of danger or predators. Not only the Shepherd found a place of provision but also a place of protection. Later we will see a feast laid before the Psalmist even while surrounded by enemies. That we can find rest even in unlikely times. This is a great time to be reminded that David has been a shepherd. We find out what great lengths he went to protect his sheep. In 2 Samuel 17 we find out he wrestled bears and lions to ensure his sheep were not harmed. Again, we will see this more in other portions of the Psalm. But consider those sheep who have a hired hand who watches over them, they might be able to find green grass but there is no rest for them.

We find rest in his presence

This leads us to the final point, the difference is not that the good shepherd never is confronted with a wolf, but as the hired hand runs away the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The comforting portion of this portion is that the good shepherd is present with his sheep. He makes his sheep lie down, he leads, and he restores. Without the good shepherd we would be wandering, worried, and wanting. Again, the glue in this Psalm is that the Lord is my shepherd. If we think this Psalm is about an image, we forget it is about a person, the good shepherd. The green grass and still waters will never give us rest, unless the good shepherd is with us. Even notice the progression of the Psalm. We would be happy to stay here, but the shepherd will tell us to move on, to walk through the valley of shadow of death. However, whether we find ourselves by waters of rest or in the dark valley of death we can still find peace. As Henry Lyte wrote in the hymn Abide with Me, “I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless: Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness…” If we think that if only we can find some place in this world then we will finally have rest we will be seeking everywhere and be horrifically disappointed. Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Rest comes from the good shepherd. Do you know of this rest? Do you have this rest? We need to learn to find this rest in his provision, which includes his giving and taking away. We find this rest in his protection, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” We find this rest only when we say the Lord is my shepherd, and my shepherd is forever at my side.

[1] 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), 438.

[2] Phillip Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), 35

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