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 dear friend forwarded a video link created by a relatively well-known Bible historian and pastor named Ray Vander Laan. In the video, Pastor Vander Laan leads a group of people on a hike through Jerusalem’s sparse countryside while he explains what certain Scriptures mean. 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’s here the good pastor explains what Psalm 23:2 means, and it hit home for me in a way I didn’t expect.

Let’s explore more of this widely recognized Psalm because it’s likely what you’re picturing in your mind isn’t quite right.

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 isn’t what David was saying. Let me explain.

In the areas around Jerusalem, the hillsides are mainly dirt and sand. There’s 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’s 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 the Bible talks about. 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’ll 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 so the sheep can both reach into the middle to get a mouthful of grassy goodness.

It’s not a lot of grass. Just little sprigs. But it’s 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’s not a lot of grass sometimes, but it’s enough for today’s meal.

The Shepherd Meets Our Needs

This is how God shepherds us. He doesn’t 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 need. 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 doesn’t “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’s 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 aren’t 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’s not deep– ankle-high at most– the flow is slow, and bubbling of the water is amazingly soothing. It’s 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 causing the sheep to be frightened. God doesn’t 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’s 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 can’t 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 doesn’t lead us through green pastures and along still waters just for our sake. It’s 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. Note the use of the word “path” again:

“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’re feeling frantic and stressed and you’re wondering how you’re going to make it through the day, remember Psalm 23:2. Allow God the Shepherd to guide you along His paths knowing He has everything in control. He knows what you need and He’ll 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.

Your Turn

What was your perspective of green pastures and still waters? How does knowing what the psalmist originally meant according to his surroundings at the time change how you view Psalm 23:2? How does it not? I’d love to hear from you about it. Leave a comment below or you can contact me here. Let’s help each other understand this very important chapter of the Bible even better.

Further Reading 

Pastor Vander Laan does an exceptional job explaining what the psalmist 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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4 thoughts on “Understanding Psalm 23: What God Meant by Green Pastures and Still Waters

    • 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.

  1. 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.

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