A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [Part 3: He Makes Me Lie Down]


In these uncertain and anxious times, it has been encouraging and comforting to revisit W. Phillip Keller's classic book about Psalm 23, filled with insights from a shepherd's perspective. It is a book I wholeheartedly recommend. I have been sharing summaries and my own thoughts from the book, chapter by chapter. Keller's book is divided in twelve chapters, each titled after a line in the psalm. To review the previous posts, click HERE. Today, I am looking at the second verse of the psalm.

He Makes Me Lie Down in Green Pastures

This verse always had such a peaceful tone to me, filled with tranquility and rest. But I had no idea that it takes a lot for sheep to be physically and mentally be able to lie down. Keller explains the four requirements that needed to be met for his sheep to lie down in green pastures:

1. Be free of all fear. Sheep are timid, skittish creatures. They are always on the lookout for predators and ready to bolt. Seeing as they're not exactly the most noble or swift of animals, they likely want to get moving as quickly as possible when danger is in sight. We too can be anxious and ready to respond in "flight" more than "fight" when troubles arise. What a relief and a joy that we have a Good Shepherd who gives us a peace that surpasses our very real anxieties. A peace that helps us endure the hardships and uncertainties. "You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in You, all whose thoughts are fixed on You." (Isaiah 26:3). This was my life verse while I battled against panic attacks a few years ago. I would recite that verse at work in between patients when I could hardly breathe and my heart was racing from my body's response to stress and anxiety. It reminded me that He was present and could help me in my time of need. Just as a diligent, caring shepherd can relieve the fears of his sheep so that they can lie down, our Good Shepherd can do the same.  

2. Be free from friction with other sheep. Since sheep are social animals that travel in a mass mindset, any tension with nearby sheep prevents them from being relaxed enough to lie down in peace. Their dominance of status, or "butting order", is apparent with multiple sheep vying for top-sheep status. They do this by butting their heads into other sheep to boss them around, self-asserting their domineering status. This conflict can cause sheep to be edgy and tense, ready to defend themselves or at least scurry off to safety. We too struggle with inter-relational  conflict, a desire to climb the social ladder, and being on edge around certain domineering personalities. Just as the presence of the shepherd and his discipline towards the especially aggressive, abusive sheep helps the timid sheep feel safe and protected so they can lie down and rest, our Good Shepherd is near to us when we call Him. He is our Protector and Defender against the enemy's schemes. "The Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one." (2 Thess. 3:3)

3. Free from aggravating pests. Parasites and flies swarm around a flock and can make their way in the noses of the sheep, which is an intensely irritating sensation that can cause sheep to injure themselves in attempts to rid themselves of the itching and buzzing. The mere nearness of a swarm of flies can keep them on edge. We too get "bugged" by small annoyances that aggravate us constantly. Just as the observant shepherd places a soothing ointment in the nares of the sheep to keep the buzzing bugs away from entering their nasal passages, our Good Shepherd anoints our head (our anxious, spiraling thoughts) with oil by the calming presence of the Holy Spirit, often by reminding us of His truth in the Bible. "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." (John 14:26)

4. Free from hunger. If a shepherd drops flock off in a pasture with unkempt, weed-covered pastures, they are going to nibble on the sparse greens and still be hungry. They'll constantly be looking around for something else to eat. Only when they are in lush, rich, green pastures with grass that has not already been trampled on and eaten by previous flocks can sheep feel satiated. They can lie down and chew on that grass happily for hours. We too are often surrounded by "pastures" of rock-hard soil of bitterness, pride, discontentment where our souls are parched and famished for rest. Just as a hard-working shepherd prepares good pastures with intense labor and precision (clearing out rocky soil, dangerous weeds) and observes his flock for signs of hunger, our Good Shepherd cultivates the soil in us: "How He works to clear the life of rocks of stony unbelief. How He tries to tear out the roots of bitterness. He attempts to break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried clay. He then sows the seed of His own precious Word, which, if given half a chance to grow, will produce rich crops of contentment and peace. He waters this with the dews and rains of His own presence by the Holy Spirit. He tends and cares and cultivates the life, longing to see it become rich and green and productive." (p. 55) The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 powerfully captures this.

It is the responsibility of the shepherd to ensure his flock is free from all of these four problems so that they can feel content and safe. His keen observation and skillful care of the sheep allow them to lie down and finally rest rather than being on guard and agitated. Keller shared that often times, the sheep would visibly relax just by his nearness to them.  "The presence of their master and protector put them at ease as nothing else could do." (p. 44) 

How timely for this pandemic. The uncertainties surrounding us has us on edge, making it hard for us to feel lasting peace and rest if our minds are constantly on the latest headlines. This may lead to anxious thoughts of future plans, the possibility of an aged relative falling ill with COVID-19, or a depressing foreboding of financial repercussions to the recent quarantine that resulted in a severe increase in unemployment. It is enough to cause a similar mindset to the one described by the restless sheep. We are ready to flee mentally by checking out and filling our time with distractions, or spiritually by doubting God's power of this current trial. 

Jesus, the Good Shepherd sees these anxieties. He is Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Even though He is now in Heaven, He has sent the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to live in us to continue that presence. From the Old Testament, God the Father promised to His restless Israelite nation that He would never leave or forsake them (Deut. 31:6). That promise still stands for His children today through the Holy Spirit. And that makes all the difference: "It is the special office work of God's gracious Spirit to convey this sense of Christ's to our fearful hearts. He comes quietly to reassure us that Christ Himself is aware of our dilemma and deeply involved in it with us." (p 45)

Because the Good Shepherd is with us, we can rest in the presence of our Master and Protector, which allows us to lie down and rest like nothing on earth ever can do for long: "There is nothing like Christ's presence to dispel the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown... His presence in the picture throws a different light on the whole scene. Suddenly things are not half so black nor nearly so terrifying. The outlook changes and there is hope. I find myself delivered from fear. Rest returns and I can relax" (p. 44-45)

"In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety." (Psalm  4:8)

1. Describe a time you felt content, safe, and rested. What emotions can you recall?
2. What anxious thoughts can you lay down at Jesus' feet and trust He is able to carry your burden? It may help to write them down. I often can see how ridiculous some of my worries are when I write down my fear and beside it, write down what is actually true. Another way to do this is by writing down the worst-case scenario of you fear and beside it, how you'd cope if that happened. This can help you see that there would still be hope even if that worst fear came true.
3. What are some practical, immediate ways you can cultivate the soil of your mind with God's comforting truth? I like having note cards with Bible verses about peace, which I place in areas around the house or car where I can easily grab them when I need a reminder. I have also committed certain verses to memories that remind me who I am in Christ, which I can use to battle against thoughts of fear.
4. What relationships do I need to seek reconciliation where I have bossed or knocked people down in effort for top-sheep status?
5. What do I need to take a break from or ruthlessly eliminate from my life, like a root torn out from soil, in order to protect my mind and heart from anxious thoughts? I may be ignorant of breaking news, but I choose to avoid checking the news routinely because it just stirs up too much fear and unrest in me. I also benefit incredibly in my peace of mind when I take extended breaks from social media, which opens up time I can use for more life-giving practices and rhythms such as a quiet walk where I am noticing birdsong and/or praying, painting or doing some other craft while listening to encouraging worship music or relaxing classical music, going out for coffee (or FaceTiming/Zoom-ing) with friends and family, and digging deep in Bible study.


Here is a playlist I created with songs that help me meditate/reflect on Psalm 23