Understanding Psalm 23: What God Meant by Green Pastures and Still Waters

"He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters." Psalm 23:2 NKJ

Understanding Psalm 23: What God Meant by Green Pastures and Still Waters by Steppes of Faith June 2018

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.” Psalm 23:2

Not long ago, a well-known and respected Bible historian and pastor named Ray Vander Laan produced a series of videos explaining Bible history and illustrating their meanings as he led groups of people around Israel. In one video, we see him and his group hiking through Jerusalem’s sparse countryside while he explains Psalm 23. He finally stops and points out all the narrow dirt paths crossing the hillsides. The paths are where the local shepherds herd their sheep. It is here the good pastor explains the second verse of Psalm 23.

This portion of Scripture is arguably the most famous of all the psalms, but the psalmist’s, King David, reference to green pastures is likely not what you are picturing in your mind.

Western Green Pastures

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a pasture like this: “Plants (such as grass) grown for the feeding especially of grazing animals; land or a plot of land used for grazing; the feeding of livestock; grazing.”

The dictionary paints a picture in our minds of a wide-open field full of tall, lush grass, perhaps some flowers and a few trees. We basically think of a beautiful, serene meadow. We also commonly take the Bible’s green pastures to mean that God supplies all we need in amazing abundance. But, this is not what David was saying. Let me explain.

In the areas around Jerusalem, the hillsides are mainly dirt and sand. There is not a lot of lush, green grass. All you find are a bunch of rocks and maybe a sprig of grass popping up here and there, which you can see here.

Not much lush, abundant grass grows in Israel in the dry season. God leads us to where we can find the green grass we need so we can survive every day

So, what could David have been referring to when he says God makes him lie down in green pastures? To our modern eyes, we detect no pasture and certainly no greenery.

But look again.

Biblical Green Pastures

Just like where you live, there are certain times of year when it rains often and there are times when it is a bit dry. Psalm 23:2 is referring to those dry seasons, not just in the environment but in our lives.

In Israel, Pastor Vander Laan explains that the west wind blows its humidity against the hillsides where it condenses on the cool rocks at night. That little bit of moisture (along with the meager 23 inches of rain Jerusalem gets each year) is just enough to grow those little sprigs of grass.

If you step back from the scene after it rains, you will see those sprigs of grass on some areas of the hillsides facing the wind. These are the green pastures in the psalm. The photo here shows the grass during the rainy season, but you can imagine how sparse it gets in the dry season.

Even in time of abundance, God guides on the right paths to meet our every need each day.

Take another look at the photo and you will see dirt paths crossing the hillsides. These paths are where the shepherd allows his or her sheep to graze on those little sprigs, and they are spaced just far enough apart that the sheep can reach into the middle to get a mouthful of grassy goodness.

It is not a lot of grass. Just little sprigs. But it is enough to take a bite then walk a little farther and take another bite. The shepherd leads the sheep through the sprigs until each sheep has had a chance to eat. It is not a lot of grass sometimes, but it is enough for today’s meal.

The Shepherd Meets Our Needs

This is how God shepherds us. He does not always lead us to lush green cattle pastures where we have everything in abundance. No, God leads us along the right paths through the little sprigs giving us just enough for today. Tomorrow, He will lead us along other paths to supply our daily needs. Some days, He may bless us with a lot of sprigs, and other days there may only be a little. But, there will always be enough for what we need.

As for lying down in green pastures, the shepherd creates enclosures where the sheep can rest at night in safety as well as eat. In this sense, the green pastures are a place for us to rest under the shepherd’s (God’s) watchful eye. God does not “make” us lie down, but He offers His peace and contentment every day to those who seek it.

Isn’t that beautiful? It certainly changes our perspective of what David meant by green pastures, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s take a look at the other half of Psalm 23:2 and what David meant by “still waters.”

Still Waters

Here in the western part of the world, it is challenging to find anyone who can take life slowly. We tend to focus on staying busy, working hard (sometimes to the extreme), managing our spinning plates, and finding the perfect work-life balance. Some days go by in such a blur we have a hard time catching a breath. God offers us a chance to slow all that down.

The still waters we read about in Psalm 23:2 are not swift-moving rivers or even little streams, but a shallow, quiet trickle of water gently flowing along. Maybe you know of a small creek near your home or have seen one in a park somewhere. It is not deep– ankle-high at most– the flow is slow, and the bubbling of the water is amazingly soothing. It is a place where you can breathe deeply and take in the sounds of nature. This is the type of still waters David is talking about.

God leads us to calm streams where we can find rest and peace with Him so our souls may be restored to do His good work.

A shepherd would never lead his sheep to a rapidly flowing river. It would be too dangerous and loud and may cause the sheep to be frightened. God does not want this for us. He longs to give us peace, rest, and repose, so He takes us to where the water is pure, clear, and almost motionless so we can refresh ourselves in Him. It is a place where we can slow down, be quiet and still with Him, and experience His deep, pure love intimately.

Because the water is so calm, we can even step into the Living Water and wade around a little, fully immersing ourselves in His grace and quenching our thirst. His invitation to drink of His peace is found in Isaiah 55:1 which says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” He reminds us again in Revelation 7:17.

“For the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of water.”

We cannot experience the serene power of the still waters or satisfy our thirst when we only focus on our daily schedules and busyness. We must actively seek Him every day so He can lead us to a continual place of rest and prepare us for His kingdom’s work.

For His Name’s Sake

God does not lead us through green pastures and along still waters simply for our sake. It is all for His name’s sake and for His glory alone. We can only benefit from it all because of His grace. After the psalmist talks about green pastures and still waters in verse two, he says this.

“He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3

Supplying our daily needs and offering us peace and rest are all a part of God’s desire to restore our souls, to revive us in Him. It is only through His power and grace that we can. He alone deserves all the glory and worship for it.

The next time you are feeling frantic and stressed, and you are wondering how you are going to make it through the day, remember Psalm 23:2. Allow God the Good Shepherd to guide you along His paths knowing He has everything in control. He knows what you need, and He will help you get there. All you need to do is trust Him. Your green pastures and still waters are closer than you think.

Trust. Believe. Rest.

Further Reading 

Pastor Vander Laan does an exceptional job explaining what David meant by green pastures on his website called That the WORLD May Know®. You can watch the video of it here (not an affiliate link). He has other amazing videos and devotions you can watch on his website, but he will ask you to subscribe first. Thankfully, this one is free. I hope you enjoy it.


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16 Replies to “Understanding Psalm 23: What God Meant by Green Pastures and Still Waters”

  1. God will provide if he feeds the birds of the air what more will he do for his children that trust in him

  2. I have been reciting Psalm 23 for half a year now, maybe more. I am fascinated by this Psalm. One day in late Feb, I got an inspiration to write a Mandarin song to praise the Lord based on Psalm. It was then that I really actively tried to understand what the verses really meant. Before reading this blog, my understanding was that through this Psalm, God wanted me to quieten down, be calm and enjoy the peace that He brings – a calmness and peace unruffled by the most challenging and threatening situations, which he will walk me through and bring me to His house eventually. This blog and the one about the table and oil have deepen my understanding of Psalm 23. However, I also noticed that David said “lie down” in green pastures. It is a scene of peace and rest. The ground is soft, not hard. The sheep will find its food, not needing my help. Since late 2019, my company had notified me that my employment would end in March 2020. So I had been actively applying to jobs since November, at times sending out 20 applications a day. All to no avail. To date, I am still unemployed. The pandemic made it worse. But Psalm 23 gives me a lot of peace. It gives me another perspective – maybe God just wants me to rest and refresh myself during the pandemic months. He will lead me along the right paths until I am through the darkest valleys. As my finances thin out, I continue to recite Psalm 23 to revisit God’s promise. I look forward to His redeeming my life from the deepest pit. If God is for me, who can be against?

    • Sounds like God is working in your life right now, I think you’re right. For many of us, He’s making us hit the pause button and re-evaluate what’s really important. Still, I pray you find work soon. Until you do, remember He is always faithful. He is Jehovah Jireh, the God Who Provides. He will supply your every need as long as you can continue trusting Him. I’ve experienced this personally. It’s supernatural, but very real. So hang in there. The table He has prepared for you is just up ahead. I’ll be praying for you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Very encouraging.

    • Yes if God is with us who can be against us the Lord is truly Mt shepherd I believe in my heart and I believe you will get a job soon God looks after his followers n we are his friends praise be to God the Father God the Son n God the Holy Spirit one God forever n ever Amen x

  3. Hi Gina,like the way you explained this verse,thanks so much.The only thing that disturbs me is these endless debts,i’ve reached to the extent of failing to pray-lost my spiritual energy b’se of this problem.i’ve tried my best to get out of this but all in-vein.i even tried betting- my Jesus told me to quit betting & stop supporting these games.BUT am now encouraged by your verse explanation,let me trust,believe and rest like you’ve said and wait God to help me as i keep working hard to earn a living. Am a born again x-tian,and unemployed medical laboratory assistant.

    • I’m glad I could encourage you, Birungi. Definitely keep your trust in God. He will never fail you. He will shepherd you all the way if you can hang in there. He’ll bless you, you’ll see. Praying 2020 will be your best year yet.

  4. This was a very spiritual experience, reading the part where we are alwaus busy and how we need to slow down and rest.
    I was in a car accident Sunday where a driver from my right flew out in front of me, making a left. My light was green so I had no intention of stopping until I saw the streak of light coming toward me. I instunctively held both hands on the steering wheel and presses my feet firmly down on the breaks, in an attempt to stop. At that moment I could see the driver crouching down amd continuing into the left turn, then BAM! We collided. It all happened in a matter of seconds. There is no police report and it has been a week. The only witness fled the scene because they didn’t have car insurance.
    My light was green and I was very close to the intersection when this all happened. I told some friends about it and they immediately said that the ins. company of the other driver is going to try and pin it on me. It seems to me that this sounds like the likely scenario, being that there were no witnesses. I just pray for peace, answers and the right car to replace the one that got wrecked. My car is wrecked beyond repair, I’m a single mom and woek full time so I need a dependable car. God has it right? I kwep saying that and NO weapon formed against me shall prosper. I loved the part of the passage where it refers the God preparing a table in the presence of my enemies, then the encouragement that he will provide what I need. God is SO GOOD. I see Him more and more in my life and I am able to relate things that happen, with His presence, always being a part of it.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your accident! I was in an accident this past summer, and the car was totaled. I feel your pain every way. I’m so glad you’re okay. It sounds like maybe the other guy ran a red light maybe? Either way, I’m praying for your protection and that God will provide an affordable car for you. Yes, God has this! Absolutely! You will never leave His hands unless you make the move, and it doesn’t sound like you are. He already has the victory for you. Just trust and believe and keep looking for that table set before you. Indeed, God is so good! I’m so thankful my post could bless you during a difficult time. That blesses me so much. I promise to pray for you. God bless you, my sister.

  5. Well to say, I pretty much are aware of that, after my discovering who I am, and what I am, and what my nationality is, and that is, a Hebrew Israelite!!!..
    I take it that you are a Caucasian, but let me say your depiction interpreting the Scriptures you are to be commended for it, but I say the Bible is not for
    you and your Edomite evil Christian Adulterous beliefs…You and your people
    worship the white god Cesar Borgia who was the illegitimate son of pope Alexander VI, his sons homosexual lover Leonardo de Vine was commissioned to paint a portrait of Cesar Borgia and that is who white people Worship a long with the 2/3 of the sick Israelite’s that will die! at the time when YAHAWASHI comes back!!!!.

    • That is completely unBiblical. No one here believes in any “white god,” let alone one no one has ever heard of. I encourage you to explore your Hebrew roots a bit more and learn who it is you truly worship. If it’s not God (YHWH), then it’s time for more examination. I wish you luck and blessings.

  6. Like the shepherd brought the sheep to a safe place to rest each night your explanations made me realize how much I miss of the presence of Jesus when I dont stop and spend time with Him. This is such a beautiful psalm. Thankyou for helping me to understand it better

  7. Thanks for the detailed post and insights. It’s very inspiring. I remember Selwyn Hughes had a detailed devotional of the entirety of Psalm 23 in the “Every Day With Jesus” reading notes some years ago. It’s always interesting to read commentaries on this Psalm and to see how Jesus is our Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Robert. We serve a very loving Shepherd. Thank you so much for reading. God bless!

    • Tia, I’m so glad I could bless you. The Lord does amazing things, doesn’t he? Thank you so much for reading. I hope you stop by again soon.