In Psalm 23 David famously writes, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” Though these words are familiar to most Christians, I wonder how much time most Christians have spent actually thinking about what this simple statement means.
What truth is David here expressing about God, and what does it mean for us as believers?
The LORD Is Lord
First of all, David claims unequivocally “The LORD is Lord.” In any English Bible where you find the word “LORD” in all capital letters, it is a subtle hint from the translators that this is the word “Yahweh” in the original language. This the personal, proper name of God which God gave to Moses at the burning bush. This name means “I Am,” and points to the self-existence and self-sufficiency of the one true God.
So we must be clear about this from the outset: far from being an ambiguous, inclusive statement that any God of my making or imagination is a sufficient Lord or faithful shepherd, the psalmist David is specifying that Yahweh is the only true God. The LORD alone is Lord.
Second, David asserts that the Lord himself is “my Shepherd.” For the pastoral culture in which David was writing, a shepherd meant provision, direction, and protection. And the psalm opens marveling in this personal relationship that all believers have with the Creator God: “The Lord himself is my Shepherd!”
We get a unique glimpse into the experience and faith of David as he volunteers to fight Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. When King Saul is skeptical of David’s abilities, seeing that the giant enemy is a seasoned warrior, David specifically shares what it means to be a shepherd:
David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (1 Samuel 17:34-35).
Shepherds sometimes have to be warriors. The rest and security of the sheep under the shepherd’s care is a result of the fervent, enemy-slaying work of the shepherd! This is the kind of brave, sacrificial shepherd David had in mind as he wrote Psalm 23. The God of the universe is following after me when I go astray, delivering me from the mouth of my soul’s enemies, and then slaying them on my behalf!
I Shall Not Want
And so, David continues, “I shall not want.”
Because God has engaged himself as my personal Shepherd, the result of his shepherding me is that I will never want for anything.
This is not a statement of the smallness of our needs, which can actually be numerous and large, but rather of the greatness of the Shepherd. The word translated “want” does not refer to a lack of longing, but rather to a lack of lacking. The word is also translated “to lack, fail, or need.”
God’s people may grumble at times, we may lust too often, but we will never truly lack anything that we need. The safety and provision of the sheep is due entirely to the activity of the Shepherd.
How then should we personalize David’s 23rd Psalm? How can I reflect these truths in my own prayer life? Well, if Yahweh is my Lord, then I am his sheep. The true Lord is my true Shepherd. So I can pray, “Lord, please shepherd me—today and every day. Provide for me, direct me, protect me.” Also, as his sheep, I can pray, “Lord, please give me a heart to follow you, to trust you, to rest under your care, wherever you lead.”
It is an unspeakable privilege to be able to call the God of the universe “my Shepherd.” And so it should lead to inexpressible peace and unqualified obedience, as his sheep.