The Green Pastures of Psalm 23

During our recent trip to Israel we read Psalm 23 in the landscape from which David drew his inspiration. Our interpretation of scripture is influenced by the images we hold in our mind. This is especially true when it involves landscape. 

In this blog post I wish to focus on one element of this Psalm – the green pastures.

Before travelling to Israel the imagery I always associated with Psalm 23 was something similar to this: 

When we associate this imagery with Psalm 23 it is easy to come to the interpretation that the Christian life should be one of comfort, ease and security as the landscape is Edenic – we are led into these lush green pastures… into tranquility, peace, security and abundance.

Whilst living an authentic Christian life we often experience periods of extreme trials and testing – the landscape that we find ourselves in often bears no resemblance to the Edenic imagery we hold. Rather than being strengthened and encouraged by this Psalm we can become discouraged and start to question what has gone wrong, where is my green pasture?

David was not inspired by an Edenic landscape when writing the 23rd Psalm. The landscape from which he drew inspiration was a vastly different one – that of the dry and harsh Judean Wilderness.

The Judean Wilderness

How do we know that this Psalm was inspired by the harsh Judean Wilderness?

David tended his father’s flocks near Bethlehem. Bethlehem is situated 10km south of Jerusalem in the southern Judean Mountains, along the western edge of the Judean Wilderness. 

Bethlehem receives on average 28 inches of rain each year which is sufficient for growing barley and wheat. The Judean Wilderness lies just to the east of Bethlehem in the rainshadow that is formed by the Judean Mountains. The Judean Wilderness only receives 5 inches of rain which is insufficient for the growth of grain crops.

The landscape of the Judean Wilderness is stark. It is an unforgiving space. It lacks everything. A sheep or goat left to its own devices here would not last long – it would die of starvation or thirst, injure itself in the harsh landscape, or fall prey to predators. 

It is in this environment in which David spent most of his time shepherding his father’s flocks. 

The farmers and shepherds of Bethlehem have a symbiotic relationship. Once the grain crops are harvested in the summer the shepherds bring their flocks into the fields where they can graze on the remaining stubble. In exchange the sheep and goats leave behind their manure. However, once the first rains soften the ground the shepherd moves his flock on so that the farmer can replant his fields.

When the flocks are not in the fields of the farmer the shepherd and his flock roam along the edge of the Judean Wilderness just to the east of Bethlehem. This is the landscape in which they spend the majority of their year.  

An Altered Perspective

Changing the imagery we associate with this Psalm changes our perspective.

When we associate Edenic imagery with Psalm 23 two things occur:

  • The role of the Shepherd is diminished.
    There is plenty of green grass, water, shade, and protection provided by the surrounding fence lines. There seems to be little for the shepherd to do, and the sheep will be just fine should the attention of the shepherd be diverted for a time.
  • Our focus is on the landscape, rather than the shepherd.
    When our focus is on the abundance of our landscape we subconsciously place our security in it – our profession, social connections, finances, possessions etc

Whilst David was himself a shepherd he starts writing the Psalm from the perspective of a sheep, he states:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Psalm 23:1

David’s focus is not on the landscape, it seemingly lacks everything needed for survival. He recognises that security and comfort do not derive from the conditions of the landscape. Rather they come from his relationship with the Lord who, as his shepherd, will lead him through the impossible landscape he finds himself in. He is focused on his Shepherd.

Despite the harsh conditions, the flocks we observed in the Wilderness were not sickly looking animals. They were healthy and robust. The flocks here were not merely surviving… they were thriving.

Whilst Edenic imagery can lead us to think of the shepherd as remote and distant, here in the Judean Wilderness the shepherd is always present. He and his flock must remain in close and intimate relationship… otherwise death is inevitable.

When the Lord is our shepherd we can be assured that we will not merely survive through the harsh wilderness season of our lives, we will thrive. Like David, we shall confidently proclaim I shall not want.

A Shepherd who provides

You can make many animals lie down. A dog will lie down, a camel will lie down, as will a horse. However you can not make a sheep lie down.

He makes me lie down in green pastures

A shepherd can not “make” his flock lie down – they will lie down once their needs have been provided for and they are at rest.

In his book, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament, Kenneth Baileystates that in the Greek Old Testament the word κατασκηνόω is used which can be translated as “settle down” or “rest”.

Psalm 23:2 can therefore be rendered as:

 He settles me down in green pastures

The use of the word settle brings to mind a shepherd who provides – he leads his flock to pastures that are sufficient so that they are able to enter into a state of rest.

The Shepherd has an intimate knowledge of the landscape

Where are the green pastures in the landscape of the Judean Wilderness?

Green pastures are not the norm here. Grass will only be green for 3 months of the year when the rain falls. For the remainder of the time the pastures will be brown and patchy. Knowing where to find sufficient pasture requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape.

Pastures will persist on the western slopes of rising terrain, as these collect more rainfall and dew, as well as on the northern sides of hills, as these receive less sunlight and therefore loose less moisture through evaporation.

With an intimate knowledge of the landscape the shepherd knows where to find pastures that are suitable in size for his flock. If the pastures are too small the sheep and goats will compete amongst themselves and become stressed and the resultant over grazing will damage the pasture.

Just as a shepherd needs to have an intimate knowledge of the landscape, so Christ has an intimate knowledge of the landscape of our lives. He will lead us to those green pastures, so that even within the chaos of our season in the wilderness we can settle down and be at rest.

The sheep must follow

In the Judean Wilderness a flock needs to cover about 5 square miles a day, moving from pasture to pasture in order to find sufficient forage for the day.

In the Middle Eastern context of shepherding the shepherd walks ahead of his flock leading them from one pasture to the next. The pastures will not always be visible as the flock moves from pasture to pasture. They may be behind the next hill, or over the next ridge. However the shepherd knows where to find them. The sheep must follow.

Just as the sheep need to continually follow the shepherd so we must remain in constant communion with Christ, following Him as He moves us through the wilderness season. 

The green pastures of the Judean Wilderness are not “everything that one needs for the rest of one’s life”. Here the green pastures are “just enough”, just enough for today.

Therefore be not anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for today is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:34

When we are anxious about our future we are dealing with the future’s problems on today’s pasture.

What does the landscape teach us?

The season of wilderness does not last forever. Whilst the Psalm starts in a Wilderness setting it concludes in the house of the Lord. 

Whilst the landscape of the Judean Wilderness is harsh, the life of the Christian in the Wilderness is not one of stoicism. It is not one where we put our heads down and get on with it in order to get through it.

Placing the 23rd Psalm in the context of the Judean Wilderness teaches us that:

  • Our security does not come from the landscape… rather it is provided by our shepherd.
  • We are never alone… our shepherd is always intentionally guiding and providing.
  • We must follow.
  • Wilderness is not permanent, it is a season. It is a time when we learn to hear, follow, trust and obey.

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