Psalm 23 Devotion – A song for dark days
By Kat Cowell
Main Bible passage: Psalm 23
Extra passages to read: Ezekiel 34:1-24; John 10:7-29
Generally speaking, I am not one of those people who can dazzle those around me with memorised song lyrics, movie lines or quotes from famous people. For whatever reason, words do not seem to stick in my head very well, which is why a couple of years ago I was surprised to find myself with the words of Psalm 23 running constantly through my mind. I had never intentionally set out to memorise them, but somehow through years of reading they had made their way into my memory, only to resurface at the perfect time.
It was during a difficult season in my life. I was completing my third year of theological studies, while learning how to accept and manage my newly diagnosed anxiety and depression. It was a time where my mind often felt foggy, my emotions seemed to rule themselves and nothing I thought or felt seemed trustworthy. The nights were often the worst, as my mind would spiral into all sorts of dark places, and I would often call out to God, just asking for His help. But even that was difficult at times. How do you pray when you have no words?
The Psalms became my prayer book. I had always loved the Psalms, but during that time they became even more precious to me for they were words that I could take up on my own lips to speak to God when I didn’t have the emotional strength or clarity of mind to find my own. While I read lots of psalms during that season, Psalm 23 was the only one that I knew from memory, and in God’s kindness, it would somehow penetrate the fogginess, and remind me of things I knew to be true about Him, even when I couldn’t feel them. It gave my feet somewhere firm to stand, when everything felt like it was shifting.
I am sure I am not the only one who has a special fondness for Psalm 23. Despite being one of the shortest psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 23 has long captured the imagination of people the world over through its vivid imagery and stunning poetic verse. But this psalm is more than just a literary gem. It is a powerful picture of the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness to His people; a reminder of His sustaining hand and loving care. And it is a declaration of confidence in the God who comforts his people by His provision and presence, who promises to bring us safely through the darkest valley to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
While I never cease to be struck by those opening verses – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” (vv. 1-3a) – it is helpful to remember that they were David’s words first, and David certainly knew a thing or two about sheep and shepherds! He knew the commitment involved in being a keeper of sheep: the constant vigilance required, the necessity of courage and skill to defend against enemies, the need to provide daily sustenance and careful guidance.
Yet here, David knows that he is the sheep and the Lord is the shepherd. The Lord is the one who provides for David, who leads him, guides him and restores his soul. And the Lord is no fickle shepherd, only there for the good times and nowhere to be seen in the bad. No, David declares “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” (v. 4). He can look fear and trouble in the face and stand firm, for even when the storm rages on, the Lord will never leave him.
This picture of the Lord’s faithfulness, goodness and providential care stands in stark contrast to the way other shepherds of God’s people are described in the Bible. At various points in biblical history, God refers to his people as sheep and the political and religious leaders of Israel as their shepherds. Yet they rarely lived up to their role. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet brings a strong word of judgment from God against these leaders: “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (Ezekiel 34:2-4).
The rest of the chapter goes on to describe what the Lord will do in response – He will be the people’s shepherd: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them…I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land…I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down…I will search for the lost and bring back the strays” (Ezekiel 34:11-13, 15-16).
Yet curiously, towards the end of this prophetic speech, God makes this announcement: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them…I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them.” (Ezekiel 34:23-24). Though God’s people had experienced flawed leader after flawed leader, the Lord promises to send one who will be like no other. And it is not until we reach the New Testament that we know who this one is: the Lord Jesus Christ, the “good shepherd”, who lays His life down for the sheep (Jn 10:11).
The blessings that David wrote about in Psalm 23 are extended to all of us who know the Lord Jesus as our Good Shepherd. By laying down His life for us, He has provided for our greatest need, made fellowship with God possible, and gives us the hope of eternal life. As Jesus Himself said: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
So how are we to respond? Well if the mark of a good shepherd is loving faithfulness and protection, the mark of a good sheep is willing obedience! Just as David allowed himself to be guided “along the right paths for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3) so Jesus calls us to listen to His voice and follow Him. Our Shepherd has demonstrated his love for us in His death, His power in His resurrection, and His presence through the gift of His Spirit. And so he can be trusted on the mountain heights and in the darkest valley.
Whatever we walk through, wherever we find ourselves, we cannot escape the goodness and love of the Lord, who has promised to never leave or forsake us, who has declared “And surely I am with you always, until the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Let us continue to listen to our Good Shepherd Jesus, and be led in His ways.
A prayer for today:
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your Word, which reminds me of the truth of who You are and what You have done for me, even when I walk through dark valleys. Thank you that you have promised and made possible through Christ, perfect peace, abundant life, and restoration. Thank you for providing for my physical and spiritual needs each day. Please help me to trust You. And I thank you for the comfort of knowing that because my Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, laid down His life for me, I can be confident of your loving presence with me always, May I cling to this promise in dark times, and look forward to the day when I will dwell with You and Your people forever.
In Jesus’ name I pray,