As a former shepherd keeping watch over flocks in the wilderness, the composer of Psalm 23 understood the nature of sheep, including their bad habit of wandering. When one is attracted to a clump of grass away from the flock, off it goes, and sometimes it's followed by several other woolly wanderers. Soon, night falls. Lurking in the darkness are hungry wolves, four-legged savages, looking for a supper of mutton! The shepherd counts his sheep, calling them by name.
The song includes this line: "He restores my soul." It's about restoration. The term is loosely based on the idea of repentance—a "turning back"—only it's not accomplished by the sheep, but the Shepherd. Realizing he has a wanderer missing, the shepherd sets out to "restore" or "return" that wandering member of his flock, calling its name and awaiting an answering bleat out in the wilderness. The wanderer is restored to fellowship despite itself.
Occasionally, one particular young sheep will get into a habit of wandering. Again and again the shepherd will have to go and find the wandering lamb. When such occurs too often, the shepherd will lift the lamb from the thistles and cactus, hold it close, and abruptly break its leg. He will make a splint for the shattered leg and then carry that once-wayward lamb over his shoulders. Hopefully, during this period of restoration, the sheep learns not to wander off and to depend completely upon its shepherd.
Finally, verse 3 promises guidance. Look at the last part of this verse. Literally, it means: "He guides me in the right tracks for His name's sake."
The Palestinian shepherd was a master at reading tracks. Many marks and paths sprawled across the rugged terrain. Some were made by wilderness beasts; others by robbers lying in wait. The wind also etched its subtle "track" in the sand. To the untrained, dull eyes of the sheep, they all looked alike—like real paths. But they led nowhere. The sheep were wise to follow only their shepherd, who always led them along the "right track." After all, it was the shepherd's reputation that was at stake: "for His name's sake."
The tone changes in the latter half of Psalm 23, but not the Shepherd! From the verdant, fertile slopes and bubbling brooks of verses 2 and 3, we are plunged immediately down into the "valley of the shadow of death"—literally translated the "valley of deep darkness." How does this tie in with verse 3? You'll observe that verse 3 promises that our Shepherd-Saviour guides us along "right tracks." Verse 4 is simply saying that one of these tracks or paths winds along the steep, downward valley below. There is a reason for this.
Early in the year, the flocks graze leisurely in the lowlands, but as summer's sun begins to melt the high mountain snow, the shepherd leads his flock to better grazing land above. This trip inevitably includes some dangerous paths filled with uncertainties and fearful sights. The way is dark, unfamiliar, difficult. The trees periodically blot out the sunlight, and there are serpents coiled to strike as well as hungry wolves lurking in the shadows. But the sheep walking beside its shepherd is secure because the shepherd is near, leading the way, fully aware of the valley's path. Such a scene was as familiar to David as a sheet of music is to an orchestra conductor. The ancient shepherd-made-king mentally sifts through those earlier days as a lad in the wilderness with his father's flock and pictures himself as a sheep: "Even though I walk through the valley of deep darkness...."
As God's sheep, we are sometimes led by Him into the valley of darkness, where there is fear, danger, uncertainty, and the unexpected...even death. He knows that the only way we can reach the higher places of Christian experience and maturity is not on the playground of prosperity but in the schoolroom of suffering. Along those dark, narrow, pinching, uncomfortable valleys of difficulty, we learn volumes! We keep our courage simply because our Shepherd is leading the way. Perhaps that is what the writer had in mind when he exhorted us to keep "...fixing our eyes on Jesus...For consider Him...so that you may not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12:2–3).
Notice the psalmist says that because "You are with me," he is kept from being afraid. Mark it down, my friend. There is no experience, no valley (no matter how severe or uncertain) that we must journey alone.
Take note of what gives David comfort. He recalled the tools of his former trade: the rod and staff. The shepherd's rod was a symbol of his power. Actually, it was an oak club about two feet in length. It was used to defend the flock against wild beasts. The head of this rod was round, usually whittled from the knot of a tree—in which the shepherd had pounded sharp bits of metal. This heavy club could easily kill a lion or bear or stealthy thief threatening the safety of the sheep.
The shepherd's staff was his crook, which was bent or hooked at one end. It provided the shepherd with an instrument for prying a sheep loose from a thicket, pushing branches aside along the narrow path, and pulling wandering sheep out of holes into which they had fallen. He also used it to beat down high grass to drive out snakes and wild beasts. Like the rod, the staff was a symbol of the shepherd's power and strength. The sheep took comfort in the strength of their shepherd.
Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Living the Psalms: Encouragement for the Daily Grind (Brentwood, Tenn.: Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., 2012). Copyright © 2012 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights are reserved. Used by permission.