The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
Psalm 23 is to me the greatest psalm in the Bible, by virtue of its amazing ministry to so many people and also by virtue of it being the most memorised psalm (probably?). In all cultures, in all languages, if you ponder about the most known psalm, the most sang psalm, the most preached psalm, you will very likely find yourself thinking about Psalm 23. It is a short and simple psalm, sandwiched between two similarly themed psalms, and also known to be a universal psalm. Have a happy occasion and want to recite a psalm to express your delight? Psalm 23. At a funeral memorial service and want to recite a psalm to express your grief? Psalm 23. At a graduation party and want to recite a psalm to express your hopes for the future? Psalm 23. It is exactly the kind of passage that you can use whether in good times or bad, and probably still be immensely touched by it, as it addresses our longing and desire for God. Verse 1 sets the tone for the psalm using a imagery that appears often in the Bible – Lord as Shepherd – and sums up the rest of the psalm adequately: We lack nothing. In this study, we will examine the two parts in this verse along with the implications we can gather from within them, as we explore why this verse is one that is held in such high regard by many.
Analysis – Shepherd and Sheep
The Lord is my shepherd – not once in this psalm did David explicitly call himself a sheep, but the implication cannot be more obvious. After all, that’s exactly what shepherds do. They tend, feed, guard and herd sheep. Shepherds don’t herd cows. Shepherds don’t guard chickens. At least, not that I know of. Shepherds tend sheep. The comparison of our relationship to God to that of a shepherd and his flock of sheep is not uncommon in the Bible. It was first mentioned in brief by a dying Jacob – May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day [Genesis 48:15], but it was really in Psalm 23 that David expended the imagery for the first time in the Bible. Subsequently, the shepherd/sheep imagery appeared in many parts of the Bible – the psalms of Asaph regularly touched upon this; a variety of prophets spoke about it; Jesus used the imagery a lot; and God himself used that imagery too. Perhaps this entire image is aptly summed up in Hebrews 13:20 – Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep.
Why, then, is such an imagery so popular in the Bible, that so many authoritative figures have used it? Why not use tigers or even dogs to describe us, why use sheep? Today we’re probably very distant from the act of shepherding, but back in those days, you’ll probably easily find a shepherd in a family or at least in the neighbourhood. Chances are, you will know a shepherd. Sheep are animals that the people understood, and animals that matched the characteristics of us, as believers, in our relationship with God. Sheep are very simple-minded. Ask any shepherd and you’ll probably hear the same thing. If a single sheep jumps off a cliff, the second sheep following in line won’t think twice about following. Sheep have no means of protecting themselves at all, and are hence extremely reliant on the Shepherd. The metaphor ‘lost sheep’ perhaps describe us as believers very well, as we often wander away from God. In terms of the spiritual aspect, we are probably very simple-minded and foolish as well.
I shall not be in want – because I shall not be in want, it really just means that God provides. So what if sheep are stupid? They can rely on the shepherd. The same goes for us. The notion that God provides is further elaborated in the next few verses, and perhaps can be summarised in these statements:
- I shall not be in want of provision (v2: He makes me lie down in green pastures – which is pretty much food for sheep )
- I shall not be in want of rest (v2: he leads me beside quiet waters )
- I shall not be in want of strength (v2: he refreshes my soul – replenishing our energy, hence our source of strength )
- I shall not be in want of guidance (v3: He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake – Because of his good name, he will guide us to the right, and best, paths )
- I shall not be in want of company (v4: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me – God’s presence will be with us. We won’t be alone, won’t be lonely. We can depend on him. )
- I shall not be in want of comfort (v4: your rod and your staff, they comfort me [Analysis] – The rod is God’s words, providing strength and guidance; while the staff is his promises, which We can depend on, and gives us hope. )
- I shall not be in want of protection (v5: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies – even if we are surrounded by enemies, we are still protected and can feast without fear )
- I shall not be in want of blessings (v5: You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows – the best kind of blessing, the highest kind of blessings )
- I shall not be in want of eternal love and grace (v6: Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life )
- I shall not be in want of the heavenly promise (v6: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever )
Perhaps you will have your own interpretation of God’s provisions from Psalm 23, but that is a quick summary of this entire chapter, and what the phrase ‘I shall not be in want’ really suggests. Even though there are but just 6 verses, the 10 provisions of God probably covers every aspect of our lives. What more do we need, when we are already provided with all these? Hence Psalm 23 is the psalm of psalms, the universal psalm.
Can you memorise Psalm 23? If you haven’t tried, you probably should. There’s likely a good reason why so many people preach it, recite it, sing it and memorise it all the time. What’s more, it’s only has 6 verses, and it is so well written no matter which version you prefer that it probably wouldn’t take you very long to commit it to memory. Why do we memorise verses? I don’t know about you, but I memorise verses in good times so that in bad times, even if I make no effort to remember them, I will be led to remember them, and I will be greatly comforted, whether I apply it or not.
Embedded is a video of the version of this hymn that I’m most familiar with.