The Twenty-third Psalm is a favorite of many. It describes the love of God for us as that of a good shepherd caring for his own sheep. Most of the Psalm describes the work of a shepherd in terms that even those of us who never spent any time around sheep can understand: the shepherd makes sure the sheep can graze in good pastures and have plenty of water to drink; the shepherd protects his sheep and does everything he can to take good care of them. However, it may not be obvious what an overflowing cup would mean to sheep.
A look at one of the ancient water wells in Israel may help us understand. In Dothan, there is an ancient well known as Joseph’s well. It has large, round, cup-like depressions at the corners on each side. When we visited the site, our guide explained the purpose of these depressions. When the shepherd, or camel herder, led his thirsty animals to the well, the animals could not drink directly from the well, so the shepherd would draw water from the well and pour it into one of the depressions. The depressions were too small for all of the animals to drink from the same depression, so the shepherd would continue drawing water and pouring it into the cup-like depression until the water ran over the edge and into a trough connecting the cups. Only when the overflowing water from the cups filled the trough would all of the animals be able to drink.
Knowing something about the cultural context helps us to understand many passages of Scripture. Many things about the rural, agriculturally based lifestyle that is the background of much of the Bible are very different from the lifestyle of those who read it today, although people and their needs remain the same. Archaeology often helps us to understand that different world a little better, so that things written long ago come to life for us, and the message of Scripture becomes clearer.
In the Twenty-third Psalm we see the comparison between the shepherd’s careful attention to the needs of all his sheep and God’s loving care for his children. Just as the water overflowed the cups beside the well and provided more than enough water for all the sheep to drink, so is God’s love for us even more abundant than our needs require. God gives me everything I need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), and the Holy Spirit helps in my weakness (Rom. 8:26).
As Jesus rested by Jacob’s well (near Sychar on the way from Jerusalem to Galilee), he said, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13–14 rsv). God’s provision for the spiritual needs of his followers is so abundant that it overflows from one person to another. We often receive help and encouragement from others, and yet God is the one on whom we rely to provide that help. When we are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, we find that we can say with the psalmist, “My cup runneth over.”
Nancy Ferguson & Ann Doyle Words to Live By p48-50 (Leafwood Publishers 2017)