As David's song of the sheep concludes, he suddenly drops the analogy to consider his own experience of God, both as a simple man in need of a Saviour and as a king in need of divine guidance.
No sheep ever ate at a literal "table" prepared for it. Abruptly, we are transported from the green pastures, the valley, and the rugged mountainside to "a table" in the enemy's presence. While the setting has shifted, David still has the analogy in mind. The common experience of a shepherd with his flock will help us understand. I have Charles W. Slemming to thank for help with this verse. He has done a masterful piece of work in his writings concerning shepherds in the Middle East.
In this case he tells of the shepherd who comes to a new field in which he plans to graze his flock. The shepherd doesn't just turn them loose; he inspects the field for vipers—small brown adders that live underground. They frequently pop up out of their tiny holes and nip the sheep on their noses. The bite from these natural enemies sometimes causes an inflammation that can, on occasion, kill the stricken sheep.
Knowing this danger, the shepherd restrains his sheep from a new field (which may be infested) until he can inspect it. He walks up and down, looking for the small holes. Upon finding these holes, he takes a bottle of thick oil from his girdle. Then, raking down the long grass with his staff, he pours a circle of oil at the top of each viper's hole. Before he leads the sheep into the new, green field, he also spreads the oil over each sheep's head—in that sense he "anoints" them (rubbing their heads) with his oil. When the vipers beneath the surface sense the presence of sheep and attempt to attack from their holes, they are unable to do so. Their smooth bodies cannot pass over the slippery oil—they become prisoners inside their own holes. The oil on the sheep's head also acts as a repellent, so if a viper does manage to come near, the smell drives the serpent away. Therefore, in a very literal sense, by oiling the vipers' burrows, the shepherd has prepared the table—the meadow—and the sheep are able to graze in abundance right in the enemy's presence.
We dare not overlook "My cup overflows." This refers not to oil, but to water. Again, David recalls his experience in the wilderness providing cool well water for his flock. When there were no streams, a shepherd quenched his flock's thirst beside a well—rather rare in the wilderness. Some wells were deep—as much as a hundred feet down to the water. To draw the water, the shepherd used a long rope with a leather bucket at the end. Since the bucket held less than a gallon and had to be drawn by hand, then poured into a stone basin beside the well, the process was long and laborious. If the flock numbered a hundred, the shepherd could easily spend two hours or more if he allowed them to drink all they wished. Only a kind, considerate shepherd satisfied his thirsty sheep with an overflowing basin.
How lavishly our Father provides! What bounty! What abundance! Ephesians 3:20 describes our Shepherd-God as One who does "abundantly beyond all that we ask or think." Not just barely, but abundantly!
I like the way Haddon Robinson expresses this thought:
With Him the calf is always the fatted calf; the robe is always the best robe; the joy is unspeakable; and the peace passes understanding. There is no grudging in God's goodness. He does not measure His goodness by drops like a druggist filling a prescription. It comes to us in floods. If only we recognised the lavish abundance of His gifts, what a difference it would make in our lives! If every meal were taken as a gift from His hand, it would be almost a sacrament.1
May God give us a fresh realization of the overwhelming abundance He provides. Indeed, our cup overflows. Grace super-abounds!
Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Living the Psalms: Encouragement for the Daily Grind (Brentwood, Tenn.: Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., 2012). Copyright © 2012 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights are reserved. Used by permission.