7. Psalms: Resting in God's Care
(Psalms 131, 23, 16, 3, 31, 46)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (27:43)

Detail of "The Good Shepherd," Tiffany stained glass memorial window (designed in 1898, created and installed later), Arlington Street Church, Boston. Photo ©2002, cambridge2000.com. Used by permission. Larger image.

The Psalms are about trust. They have been penned in all sorts of circumstances, many of them crisis times when nerves are on edge and fear is nibbling at the heart. The theme of some of our most beloved psalms is peace in the midst of the storm. In this lesson we'll examine several psalms that speak about resting in God, no matter what is going on outside.

Psalm 131 - I Have Stilled and Quieted My Soul

The first "resting psalm" we'll consider is a short little gem, Psalm 131. It contains only three verses. It is attributed to David and was included by the editor of Psalms as one of the psalms termed "a song of ascents," traditionally sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for a feast.

Humility and Trust (131:1)

It begins with an attitude of humility. We can't rest when we feel we have to be in control. We can't relax when we have to feel like we're in charge.

"My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;1
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful2 for me." (131:1)

Resting in God begins with humility -- and perspective. He's not talking about squelching normal curiosity and inquiry. But there comes a point of obsession where we must understand. That attitude is part of the urge to control everything. There are some things beyond my knowledge. Therefore, those things that I can't fathom, that I can't understand why, I must be willing to let them go in order to rest in God.

I Have Stilled and Quieted My Soul (131:2)

The second verse describes the psalmist's participation in settling down in trust and rest.

"But I have stilled3 and quieted4 my soul;5
like a weaned6 child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me." (131:2)

You'd think that there's nothing more peaceful than a little babe nursing. But that's not the imagery here. It's a weaned child that is our image. If you've observed breast-feeding, you've know that the tiny little baby can become a tyrant when he's hungry. He'll start fussing, reaching for his mother, and won't quit until he gets the milk he needs. But the demanding baby isn't forever. Children were probably weaned by age three in most cases, perhaps sooner.

As much as the mother may enjoy the intimacy of breast-feeding, a weaned child moves one more step toward maturity. He is no longer so demanding of his mother. He doesn't have to satisfy his own needs instantly -- at least quite as fast! That's what David means here. When we are at rest with God, we are like a weaned child with his mother, in contrast to a still-nursing child.

If we are like weaned children with God, we're beginning to move beyond the place of acting out of "selfish ambition or vain conceit" (Philippians 2:3-4). Rather, with the Apostle Paul we can say, " I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances" (Philippians 4:12). We have moved to a place of trust.

Hoping, Trusting in the Lord (131:3)

This short psalm concludes with a note of hope:

"O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore." (131:3)

To hope (yāḥal) carries the ideas of "tarrying" and "confident expectation, trust."7 When we are expectant of God to act on our behalf, then we can rest in that confidence. Our attitude is not one of insistence, but one of trust.

This little psalm carries a big message.

Q1. According to Psalm 131, just how does David quiet his inner person before the Lord? What are the elements mentioned in this psalm?




Psalm 23 - The Lord Is My Shepherd

Our next psalm of resting and trust is the 23rd Psalm, probably the most popular and beloved psalm in the entire Psalter. As I've asked people why they like it, they tell me that it is comforting, peaceful. In short, it speaks of a rest and confidence in God that the sheep experiences with a good shepherd.

The psalm is attributed to David, probably a reflection that drew on his years as a shepherd for his father's flock. The imagery is strong and compelling.8

The shepherd was often a younger family member, though sometimes individuals were employed to shepherd an owner's flock. A shepherd was expected to:

  1. Lead the sheep to watering holes and fresh green pasture when they had eaten off the grass in one place.
  2. Protect the sheep from dangers such as wolves, lions, and bears.
  3. Heal the sheep when they were injured and help during birthing.
  4. Rescue the lost sheep. If a sheep wandered off, the shepherd would look for it until he found it.

The Lord our Shepherd (23:1)

Psalm 23:1 identifies Yahweh as "my shepherd," from the verb rā`ā, "to pasture, herd, tend."9 Look at this psalm with me as one which invites us to rest in God.

"The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want." (23:1)

The basic premise is that since Yahweh is my shepherd, then I shall never be in need for anything. "Be in want" is ḥāsēr, "lack, have a need, be lacking."10

The Shepherd Provides Food (23:2)

The Shepherd helps the sheep find rest, pasture, and water to meet their physical needs.

"He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters." (Psalm 23:2)

"Leads" is nāhal, "lead with care, guide to a watering-place or station, and cause to rest there, lead, guide, refresh."11 Lying in green pastures is the image of sheep that are content in the abundance found for them by their shepherd. The quiet waters refer to the part of the stream where the water isn't rushing and dangerous, but easy and safe to drink from and be refreshed.

The Shepherd Provides Restoration and Refreshing (23:3a)

Verse 3a continues the parallelism begun in verse 2 of the shepherd's ministry of caring for the sheep:

"He restores my soul" (23:3a).

"Restore" is shûb, which we saw in Psalm 80:19 above. Here it means figuratively, "refresh, restore," literally, "repair."13 For a sheep, this might include rescue from danger and then getting the animal back into good health through rest and recuperation. For a person, it might include rescue from a messed up life, and the gradual restoration to wholeness through loving care. God is in the restoration and wholeness business. He wants you to be refreshed and renewed as you rest in him.

The Shepherd Guides in Righteous Ways (23:3b)

Now the psalm takes a moral turn.

"He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake" (23:3b).

"Guide" (NIV) and "lead" (KJV, NRSV) here is nāḥâ, "lead, guide," with the idea of conducting one along the right path.14 Notice the reason that he leads us in these particular paths -- "for his name's sake," that is, because the Lord's reputation and character require that he lead in righteous ways. We are tempted to get off the trail by taking moral short-cuts, but our Shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness.

Protection and Assurance in Fear (23:4)

When we are afraid, it is difficult to relax and rest. But the shepherd calms the sheep in times of danger, too.

"Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me." (Psalm 23:4)

The shepherd will sometimes need to lead the flock through uncomfortable places to get them to the next pasture. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and father of the American national park movement, was a shepherd when he was young. Early in the summer he would be given a flock and take it higher and higher into the Sierra to bring it to fresh, green pasture. Sometimes the trail between pasture in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows might be terrifying to the sheep. They wouldn't know where he was going. If they had been people they would have second-guessed their shepherd: "Do you know where in the world you are going?" they might ask -- as we sometimes ask of God.

The "valley of the shadow of death" could be rendered "darkest valley" (NRSV, NIV margin). Ṣalmāwet, means "deep darkness," sometimes translated "thick darkness," "thick gloom," from ṣālal, "to be dark."15

What encourages and comforts the sheep in the fearful darkness of this mountain canyon is the sight of the shepherd's rod and staff. They are the elements of protection that will ward off the wolf. The sheep see the rod and they know that the shepherd will use it to protect them, even to the extent of putting his life at risk -- and they are comforted. Your Shepherd is committed to delivering you from your enemies and has indeed laid down his life for you in the battle for your soul.

The Gracious Host (23:5)

Now David strays from the sheep analogy, but Yahweh is still the subject of his thoughts:

"You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows." (Psalm 23:5)

The word for "table" (shūlḥān) means properly "skin or leather mat" spread on the ground.16 I imagine a sumptuous picnic set by a gracious host. Enemies are hiding in rocks around about, spying on the feast set for the guest by the host. But their malevolence doesn't ruin the party because of the host's loving attention. The psalm is about rest, about the host putting the guest at ease.

When guests were welcomed in a Near Eastern home it was polite to provide a basin for them to wash their feet, they would receive a kiss, and the host would pour fragrant olive oil on their hair (Luke 7:44-46).

"My cup overflows," is a metaphor of abundance. The host doesn't just pour it almost full, but overfull -- it is figurative, of course, not literal. God's love for us and provision for us is not meager or stingy, but liberal and abundant. We can trust him. We can rest in his presence.

Eternal Life (23:6)

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever" (Psalm 23:6).

"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me," is David's firm assurance of his future, since Yahweh is his Shepherd and Host. "Follow" is rādap, "be behind, follow after, pursue, persecute."17 In this context, enemies will not chase after him, but he will be pursued by goodness and mercy. What a positive, hopeful, wonderful promise. The psalmist is not a bitter pessimist, but a faith-filled, in-awe-of-God optimist.

"Forever" (NIV, KJV, NASB), "my whole life long" (NRSV), "for all time to come" (New Jerusalem Bible) translate two words: ´ōrek, "length" (from ´ārak, "to be long") and yôm, "day, time, year." Hebrew really has no synonym for "eternity" and "forever." But the phrase "to the length of days" found here can be used to express "a protracted period of time" and "in some contexts signify the everlasting afterlife."18

Verse 6a and b show the synonymous parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry. As is common, the second line of the couplet carries the thought a bit further than the first. The first line speaks confidently of this life, the second speaks of the life beyond this earthly life.

We are comforted by Psalm 23. With dangers and perils all around us, only in the presence of one who we believe really cares for us can we afford to rest. In a sense, our ability to rest is directly dependent upon the degree of our faith in the care of the Shepherd.

Rest, O sheep. Your Shepherd does indeed care for you and interposed his own life for the sheep (John 10:11) to give them eternal life.

Q2. According to Psalm 23, how does the Lord our Shepherd quiet his sheep and give them confidence? How many ways can you find in this psalm?



Psalm 16 - You Will Not Abandon Me to the Grave

Let's look at portions of a few more psalms of rest. David's "miktam" in Psalm 16 also considers the rest we look forward to, even in death. The psalm begins with a general plea for safety:

"Keep of me safe, O God,
for in you I take refuge." (16:1)

But the psalm concludes with a remarkable insight for David, one of life after the grave:

"9Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
10because you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
11You have made known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand." (16:9-11)

Notice that David is able to "rest secure" physically in verse 9 because of his confidence in the bodily resurrection, that the termination death brings is not the end.

Verse 10 is quoted as a prophecy of the Messiah ("your Holy One") in Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:24-28) and Paul's sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:35).

How do you rest in the Lord at your deathbed or the bedside of one you love? With this confidence that death is not the end -- resurrection is! Look at his expectation of eternal life in verse 11:

  • Joy in Yahweh's presence and
  • Eternal pleasures at his right hand!

Psalm 3 - I Lie Down and Sleep

Psalm 3 is another psalm of David, penned "when he fled from his son Absalom" (2 Samuel 15-18). Even in flight for his life he senses the protection of God and is able to rest.

"3But you are a shield around me, O LORD;
you bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
4To the LORD I cry aloud,
and he answers me from his holy hill. Selah
5I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
6I will not fear the tens of thousands
drawn up against me on every side." (Psalm 3:3-6)

I think of that hymn, written by Cleland B. McAfee after two of his nieces died of diphtheria:

"There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God."19

We Christians have a great hope -- in this life and beyond the grave! Since we have that confidence, we can rest in God. We can relax in his care.

Psalm 31 - Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

Psalm 31 is another psalm attributed to David, a musical psalm no doubt sung later in the temple: "for the director of music." Look at the place of rest that David finds amidst the machinations of his foes:

"3Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4Free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
5Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth." (31:3-5)

Verse 5a was on Jesus' lips at his death:

"Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.' Having said this, he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46)

How can a Christian be composed at his own death? By resting in faith in the promises of God. In this Jesus was the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2, NRSV).

Psalm 31 also contains another passage expressive of resting in the Lord:

"14But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, 'You are my God.'
15My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me.
16Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love." (31:14-16)

The insight, "My times are in your hands," can help us with our trust issues, too. Times (`ēt) is found in the plural and refers here to the specific "appointed times" in our lives that are ordained by God for us. "The basic meaning of the word relates to time conceived as an opportunity or season."20

We're often in a hurry. Or the opposite: dreading the future and trying to repel it with every ounce of strength we have. Verse 15 does not express the fatalism of the song, "Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be...."21 Rather it demonstrates an active trust in the Living God who loves us and will order our lives in love according to his plan for us.

Q3. (Psalm 31) What does it mean to say to the Lord, "Into your hands I commit my spirit" (31:5)? How does that statement bring peace to a person? How does the statement, "My times are in your hands" (31:15), bring peace to the troubled soul?



Psalm 46 - Our Ever-Present Help in Trouble

The final psalm I want to consider under psalms of rest is Psalm 46, attributed to "the Sons of Korah," a school of temple singers. "According to alamoth" may refer to a song in the treble range, though we're not sure. See how the psalmist rests his soul in God in the midst of the commotion he describes:

"1God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah." (46:1-3)

In verse 1 he sees God, "an ever-present help in trouble." In verses 2 and 3 he pictures the trouble as a great earthquakes and cataclysms of mountains and ocean. The imagery expresses vividly the turmoil, agitation, confusion, chaos that we feel sometimes, where life seems to be spinning out of control around us. "Selah" probably directs there to be pause in the music at this point.

But in the middle of the turmoil, the scene shifts to a river, a stream that flows in the midst of the "city of God."

"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells." (46:4)

It brings the same feeling as the "still waters" of Psalm 23:2. It is an image of refreshment, of life, of peace. We see this same fabled river pictured in Ezekiel 47 flowing out from under the threshold of the temple and flowing down to bring life to whatever it touches. In Revelation 22 it flows in the Heavenly City:

"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22:1-2)

The water of life is to refresh you, to sustain you in trouble. It is God's provision for you, though outside of the City of God there is clamor:

"5God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah" (46:5-7)

The psalm concludes recounting what God has done to bring peace.

"8Come and see the works of the LORD,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire." (46:8-9)

Then the psalmist speaks prophetically for God:

"Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."
The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah" (46:10-11)

We are to still ourselves before God, he tells us. Why should we be still? What should we know? That in spite of all the chaos round about, the One who is with us is God himself. He is the Authority. He is the Power. He is the Might. Nothing can withstand Him!

Experiencing the Psalms, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, a Bible study on Psalms in 12 lessons
Now all the lessons are available together in e-book and paperback formats.

Because He is with us we must still our fears and worries about our circumstances. He is enough! Because He is in the "City," the city is impregnable. Because God is with us, no one can stand against us. Because God is with us -- and more importantly, we are with God -- we cannot fail!

The ultimate source of peace in this troubled world is a clear vision of who God is and faith that He is completely in charge. Outside life may be full of confusion, but in God's presence -- in the City of God, in his Hiding Place, in the Shelter of the Most High -- there is peace. There is rest -- for you!

Q4. (Psalm 46) How does the imagery of the river and streams in verse 4 function in Psalm 46 to speak peace to the harassed and harried person? Verse 10 tells us: "Be still and know that I am God." How does knowledge of who He is affect our peace? How should it affect our words? Why does He command us to "be still" as a result of this knowledge?





Q5. After you've studied the psalms in this chapter, what do you think it means to "rest" in God? How do you seek God's peace when you have a dozen things coming against you?





Exercise. For one of the psalms in this lesson -- or another psalm with a similar theme -- do one of the suggested exercises to help you experience the Psalms (www.jesuswalk.com/psalms/psalms-exercises.htm). These include such things as praying a psalm, meditating, reading to a shut-in, paraphrasing, writing your own psalm, singing, preparing a liturgy, and memorizing. Then report to the forum what the exercise meant to you personally or share what you've written with others.


Lord, we worry so much, "cumbered with a load of care." I pray that you would teach me more deeply in my heart to rest in you in faith and confidence. Help me to unload my fears at your feet. Help me to put my petty frets down before you and rest the weight of my life upon You. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


  • "A Shield About Me," words by Donn Thomas, music by Donn Thomas and Charles Williams (© 1980, 1982, Spoone Music Corp and Word Music). Psalm 3:3.
  • "Be Still," words and music by David J. Evans (© 1986, Thankyou Music). Psalm 46:10.
  • "Be Still and Know," composer unknown. Psalm 46:10.
  • "Be Still, My Soul," words: Katharina A. von Schlegel (1752), translated to English by Jane L. Borthwick (1855), music: Finlandia, Jean Sibelius (1899). Psalm 131.
  • "Cause Me to Come to Thy River, O Lord." words and music by R. Edward Miller (© 1974, Maranatha! Music). Psalm 46:4.
  • "Gentle Shepherd," by Gloria and Bill Gaither (©1974 William J. Gaither, Inc., Gaither Copyright Management). Psalm 23.
  • "God Is My Shepherd," words: Scottish Psalter (1650), music: J.L. Macbeth Bain (1915), Chalice Hymnal #79. Psalm 23.
  • "God Will Take Care of You," words by Civilla D. Martin (1905), music by W. Stillman Martin (1905)
  • "He Leadeth Me! O Blessed Thought," words by Joseph H. Gilmore (1862), music by William B. Bradbury (1864). Psalm 23.
  • "His Sheep Am I" ("in God's green pastures feeding..."), words and music by Orien Johnson (©1984, Word Music, LLC, a div. of Word Music Group, Inc.). Psalm 23.
  • "My Glory and the Lifter of My Head," words and music by Mae McAlister (© 1967, A Christian Church on a Hill, Thornhill, Ontario, CA). Psalm 3:3.
  • "My Shepherd, You Supply My Need," words: from Isaac Watts (1719), music: "Resignation," Southern Harmony (1835). Psalm 23.
  • "My Times Are in Thy Hand," words by William F. Lloyd (1835), music: Virgil (Albans), arranged from Giovanni Paisiello (1875)
  • "Quiet, Lord, My Froward Heart," words by John Newton (1779), music: Jesu, Jesu, du Mein Hirt, Paul Heinlein (1676). Psalm 131.
  • "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us," words: attributed to Dorothy A. Thrupp (1836), music by William B. Bradbury (1859). Psalm 23.
  • "Shepherd of My Soul," words and music by Martin Nystrom (©1986, Maranatha Praise, Admin. by Music Services). Psalm 23.
  • "Still" ("Hide me now..."), words and music by Reuben Morgan (© 2002, Hillsong Publishing)
  • "Stilled and Quieted My Soul," words and music by Tom Howard (© 1982 Maranatha! Music). Psalm 131.
  • "Surely Goodness and Mercy," by John Peterson & Alfred B. Smith (©1958, Singspiration). Psalm 23.
  • "The King of Love My Shepherd Is," words by Henry W. Baker (1868), music ancient Irish melody. Psalm 23.
  • "The Lord's My Shepherd," words: Scottish Psalter (1650), music: "Crimond," by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1871), descant by W. Baird Ross (20th century). Chalice Hymnal #78.
  • "There Is a River" (that flows from deep within), words and music by David and Max Sapp (© 1969, David Sapp Ministries). John 4; Psalm 46:4.


  1. "Proud" (NIV, NASB), "haughty" (KJV), "lifted up" (NRSV) is gābah, "be high, exalted," from a root that means "to be high or lofty" (Victor P. Hamilton, gābah, TWOT #305). The second line has the synonym, rûm, "be high, lofty, rise up," here representing pride and presumption (AB, rûm, TWOT #2133).
  2. "Wonderful" (NIV), "marvelous" (NRSV), "high" (KJV) is pālā´, "be marvelous, wonderful," things that are unusual, beyond human capacities (Victor P. Hamilton, pālā´, TWOT #1768).
  3. "Stilled" (NIV), "calmed" (NRSV), "behaved" (KJV) is shāwā, "agree with, be(come) like, level." It is to be distinguished from another similar word, "to set, place" (Victor P. Hamilton, shāwā, TWOT #2342). In the Piel stem it means to "make (ground) level," and thus in our verse "to sooth" (shāwā, Holladay 364a).
  4. "Quieted" is dāmam, "be silent, still; wait." Several times the word is used in the Psalms of being still before the Lord in quiet meditation (Psalm 4:4; 30:12; 37:7) (Dāmam, TWOT #439).
  5. "Myself" (KJV) or "my soul" (NIV, NRSV) is nepesh, "life, soul, creature, person, appetite, mind" (Bruce K. Waltke, nāpash, TWOT #1395a).
  6. "Weaned" is gāmal, "to wean a child." (1 Samuel 1:23-24; Hosea 1:8) (Jack P. Lewis, gāmal, TWOT #360).
  7. Paul R. Gilchrist, yāḥal, TWOT #859.
  8. For more detail on Psalm 23, see my exposition of the Psalm in Names and Titles of God (JesusWalk Bible Study Series, 2006), chapter 8.
  9. William White, rā`ā, TWOT #2185.
  10. Jack B. Scott, ḥāsēr, TWOT #705.
  11. Nāhal, BDB 625.
  12. "Soul" is nephesh, which we saw in 131:2, footnote 5 above.
  13. Shûb comes from a root meaning of "turn, return," and is often used with reference to repentance (BDB 1000, Po`l stem, 2a.
  14. Hiphil, nāḥâ, TWOT #1341. BDB 635.
  15. The word for shadow (ṣel) comes from this root also (John E. Hartley, ṣālal, TWOT #1921b).
  16. Shūlḥān, BDB 1020.
  17. William White, rādap, TWOT #2124.
  18. Victor B. Hamilton, ´ārak, TWOT #162a.
  19. "Near to the Heart of God," by Cleland B. McAfee (1903).
  20. Leonard J. Coppes, `ōnā, TWOT #1650b.
  21. "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," words by Ray Evans, music by Jay Livingston (1956). In 1956 it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

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