A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 [ Part 4: Still Waters ]

The past few weeks, I have been sharing insights from one of my favorite books, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller, who was both a lay pastor and a shepherd.  He used many of the same techniques mentioned by David in this beloved Psalm. His personal experience and keen insights from both a Christian perspective as a pastor as well as shepherding knowledge make this a thoroughly interesting and comforting read, especially in these uncertain times.

[ For the past three lessons, click HERE ]

Today, I am reviewing the fourth chapter of the book, which focuses on the latter half of the second verse:

He Leads Me Beside Still Waters

Access to clean, fresh water is essential to a flock of sheep. It is the responsibility of the shepherd to locate water that is free of disease-causing insects.  If he is not intentional and adamant about leading his flock to pure water sources, they will seek out water on their own, often settling for polluted pot holes that will later make them ill. The shepherd knows far better than the sheep where the pure, satisfying waters are located. 

Just as a responsible and caring shepherd points his flock to thirst-quenching streams, our Good Shepherd also points us to a quenching water. Except the difference is that He is pointing us to Himself. In John 4, Jesus does the unthinkable: He strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well while waiting for His disciples to return. First, she is a Samaritan, the despised "half-breed" nation to whom the Jews indignantly believed themselves superior. Second, she is a woman, thought to be of lesser value in that culture. And not just any woman; she was living in shame and sin, as evidenced by coming out to draw her water during the heat of the mid-day, rather than joining other townswomen in the morning for chit-chat and community. She was ostracized and avoided, admitting that she had been married five times before and was currently living with a man who was not her husband, a big no-no in that society. Any respectable person would avoid such a woman. Yet Jesus, in His infinite compassion and wisdom of what she was lacking, noticed her and talked to her. He asked for water from the well, and eventually, He got straight to His redeeming gospel message as He offered her a thirst-quenching water. He gave her dignity, hope, and identity when He invited her to His Living Water:

“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water...  whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (v. 10, 13).

He is the only one that can satisfy our thirsty souls. A few chapters after His encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus attends the Feast of Tabernacles in Galilee and as He is teaching in the Temple, He makes a bold statement:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38)

When Christians have a thirst of meaning and truth, yet ignore the Good Shepherd's call to Himself for the Living Water, we search on our own and end up settling for far less. We drink from pools of water that are polluted with misconceptions, lies, and beliefs that lead to fear, pride, selfishness, or self-righteousness.  Saint Augustine once wrote: "O God! Thou has made us for Thyself, and our souls are restless, searching, 'til the find their rest in Thee." Jesus wants us to accept His leading rather than pridefully and foolishly attempting the trek ourselves. 

The three main sources of pure, clean water for sheep are early morning dew on the grass, deep wells, and streams. The shepherd makes sure to wake early to lead the flock to grassy fields heavy with droplets of dew, quenching their thirst from the night.  Before the busyness of the day fractures our attention, Keller recommends Christians carve time early in the mornings to optimize the quiet, still waters of Christ in early morning Bible study, prayer, and devotional reading or journaling. The rest of the day benefits from starting off the day being satisfied by Him. Just as the sheep are happily refreshed, we can be relaxed and content from starting off the day with the Good Shepherd, even if that is only a few minutes, which is sometimes the case with me as a mama to an early-bird infant. I feel like the rest of my day is more intentional and my mood is more positive and joyful when I meet with Jesus, whether that is a long Bible study session or reciting and praying through a few verses that remind me who I am in Christ. Sometimes I only have a few minutes to pray before Elliot wakes up and my day starts. But even those few moments can be infused with refreshment when given to Him. 
Too often, Christians can forgo time with Jesus in exchange for chasing after other philosophies, distractions, desires, or relationships to quench their soul's thirst for meaning and truth. They go looking for deep truths everywhere else. They end up like the Jewish nation when God gives the prophet Jeremiah a haunting warning. He says they were  forsaking God as the living water and digging their own broken cisterns that can never hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). A cistern is a tank (often underground, such as a deep well) that holds fresh rainwater. A broken cistern would be prone to leaking as well as becoming contaminated. Those things may momentarily satisfy us, but it will not last, and we often return to searching discontentedly and restlessly unless we return to the Living Waters of the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Efficient, dependable deep wells or cisterns are a labor of love. A shepherd spends many hours and resources to create these receptacles of clean water to be accessible to his sheep, often hewn out of rock in caves. He leads his flock tenderly in the darkness of the deep reservoirs of pure water to invigorate and refresh them. Deep wells give an imagery of darkness, which can seem a bit daunting. I would guess that the sheep being led by a trustworthy shepherd into these dark caves, do not give into fear of the darkness. We can do the same:

"Many of the places we may be led into will appear to us as dark, deep, dangerous, and somewhat disagreeable. But it  simply  must be remembered that He is there with us in it. He is very much at work in the situation. It is His energy, effort, and strength expended on my behalf that even in this deep, dark place is bound to produce a benefit for me. Is is there that I will discover He only can really satisfy me. Is is He who makes sense and purpose and meaning come out of situations which otherwise would be but a mockery to me. Suddenly life starts to have significance. I discover I am the object of His special care and attention. Dignity and direction come into the events of my life, and I see them sorting themselves our into a definite pattern of usefulness. All of this is refreshing, stimulating, invigorating My thirst for reality in life is assuaged, and I discover that I have found that satisfaction in my Master." (p. 65)
Lastly, and most known to the average reader of this Psalm, streams are a source of pure water for a flock.  In dry, arid climates, many streams dry up, so the shepherd needs to adjust his route to ensure that there are spots for the tried and thirsty sheep to hydrate. What joy and excitement sheep must have when a glistening stream is in view amid dry land. What contentment and rest to be able to lie down beside the refreshing waters. And the same can happen with us:

"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland." (Isaiah 43:19)

"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or set foot on the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the Law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water,  yielding its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither, and who prospers in all he does." (Psalm 1:1-3)

"As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God." (Psalm 42:1)

We can look with hope and anticipation to the source of the thirst-quenching Living Waters, Jesus. He is both our Good Shepherd and our Living Waters, and so His leading leads to Himself. He is available to those who believe and accept Him as their Good Shepherd who has saved them from their sin-sick state and redeemed them and called them His own, claiming them in the fold of God.


1. Have you ever felt refreshed, satisfied,  or  as if your soul is quenched after spending time with Jesus? When was the last time and what were you doing when this occurred?

2. What practices or rhythms can you add into your morning to carve our time with Jesus?

3. Are there any other "cisterns" you gravitate towards when you are in trouble, anxious, or seeking answers? How can you re-direct or remind yourself that Jesus is the lasting source of satisfaction in those moments?


Here is a playlist I created with songs for meditating on Psalm 23: