Psalm 23 is full of action words. It describes a journey, not a standstill. Even when the sheep lie down in green pastures, it is a temporary rest for the weary. From that point on in the psalm, the sheep are moving. The Shepherd leads them beside still waters and through the valley of the shadow of death. All the days of their lives He leads them in the paths of righteousness, with goodness and mercy constantly following them.
I can’t read Psalm 23 without thinking of Luke 15. That chapter is all about how God in Christ seeks and saves the lost. The most memorable part of the chapter is, of course, the story of the Prodigal Son. But that comes at the end of an extended discourse that begins with a much shorter parable using the well-known pastoral imagery of Psalm 23. Here a shepherd leaves his large flock in the open country in order to seek and rescue a lone lost sheep. “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:5)—and he carries it home.
Christ, of course, said that He Himself is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). It was one of His most shocking public claims because it was so clearly a declaration of His deity. The one true “Shepherd of Israel” is and always has been Yahweh. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh is repeatedly identified as the Shepherd of His own people.
Yet Jesus not only called Himself “the good shepherd,” but He also referred to all believers as “my flock” (John 10:11). For Christ to claim that role was tantamount to saying He is Yahweh. The New Testament also calls Him “the great shepherd of the sheep” and “the chief Shepherd” (Heb. 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4).
God’s work in salvation is comprehensive.
As Psalm 23 stresses from start to finish, the Great Shepherd’s gentle leading is always focused, purposeful, and filled with goodness and mercy. He is intent on bringing His lambs away from evil, out of peril, through the valley of the shadow of death, and into safety and blessing. All of that is encompassed in the statement, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
The sheep represent fallen creatures who on their own would never be able to find or successfully travel the paths of righteousness. “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14). But where else could the Great Shepherd lead? Yahweh “is righteous in all his ways” (Ps. 145:17).
These facts further highlight a truth we often stress, namely, God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners. The divine Shepherd seeks and saves the lost. He is not only the restorer of their souls; He is also the One who guards them, cares for them, keeps them in the faith, brings them back when they wander, and leads them in paths of righteousness. God’s work in salvation is comprehensive. The rescued sheep has no accomplishment of his own worth boasting about.
Many passages of Scripture stress this fact. Romans 8:29–30 traces the salvation of the elect from their predestination in eternity past to their glorification in eternity future, and God is the One who accomplishes all of it. Ephesians 2:8–9 reminds us that our redemption from sin is not our own doing: “It is the gift of God . . . so that no one may boast.”
“What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:27). Every aspect of our salvation is wrought by divine grace—so much so that even the good things we do as redeemed people are works that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Thus, the Great Shepherd sovereignly leads us in paths of righteousness.
However, while Scripture places much emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty in the work of salvation, it never excludes or downplays human responsibility. The Shepherd leads, but the sheep are not passive. They follow Him, as is their duty. They may stumble or meander at times, but they know the true Shepherd and are known by Him, so they will never depart from Him completely. In Jesus’ words, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Their own righteous walk is one of the key evidences that they belong to the Good Shepherd. They are not saved by their righteous walk, but their righteous walk proves that God has saved them.
And here’s the ultimate proof that their faith in the Great Shepherd is authentic: they persevere. Those who depart from the paths of righteousness never to return did not belong to the Shepherd in the first place.
Yet because God is sovereign, His sheep are secure. They do persevere in the paths of righteousness. Moreover, the Shepherd Himself said: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28–29).
Dr. John MacArthur (@JohnMacArthur) has been pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., for the past fifty years. He is the featured teacher on Grace to You, and he has written numerous books, including The Gospel according to Jesus.