I began a 12 week sermon series about the 23rd Psalm to begin the year 2023. These are some of my thoughts from the very first verse.
“The Twenty-third Psalm is the greatest poem ever penned in any language. It reigns supreme in circles of highest culture and in the humble homes of the lowly. It sounds all the chords of human experience… The Twenty-third Psalm is the best-known chapter in the Bible—and the least understood. It is the best-loved chapter in the Bible—and the least believed.” —Dr. Robert C. McQuilkin
Psalm 23 is not just a pretty poem but an accurate description of the kind of life that is available to anyone who will allow God to be their Shepherd. The 23rd Psalm describes the life we all desire – a life in which we lack nothing.
In Hebrew it is only 55 words. In most English translations it contains around 120 words – six simple, yet powerful verses. It starts with the LORD and ends, literally, with the LORD.
In more than 2 billion views conducted by visitors to Bible Gateway in 2019, 6 out of the 11 most popular Bible verses viewed were from Psalm 23. Clearly, for many people, Psalm 23 is not only very popular but also precious.
At a social function, an old minister asked an actor who was in attendance to recite something from memory. The actor, thinking to please the minister, decided to recite the 23rd Psalm. With perfect diction, elocution and in delicate shades of tone, he repeated the psalm in a manner that caused the audience to reveal their enthusiastic praise and applause. Afterward, the actor, in order to honor the minister, asked if he would recite something for them. The minister could not think of anything and decided, if it was okay with everyone present, to repeat the 23rd Psalm. Quietly, prayerfully, he slowly began to speak out the psalm as it came to mind. At its end, those in attendance sat hushed. Taking the preacher’s hand in his, the actor said, “We both know the psalm, but it is clear to us all, that you know the Shepherd.”
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23)
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
In other words, I am in the care of someone else. I’m not the one in charge. I’ve taken my kingdom and surrendered it to the kingdom of God. Let’s look at each word in this phrase:
The… It’s not “A LORD” or “That LORD” or even “My LORD”. This would alter the meaning to allow us to insert a deity of our choice. Even if David used, “The LORD of Israel” he would have limited God’s kingdom. But “The LORD” indicates the true God.
LORD… The actual Hebrew word used is spelled YHWH in English, pronounced Yahweh. It is sometimes translated “Jehovah.” It is the personal name of God He made known to the people of Israel. In most English translations, it is identified by putting LORD in all capital letters. It is interesting that several times through the Bible God’s name “Jehovah” is linked to another Hebrew word, such as Jehovah-shalom, or Jehovah-nissi, or Jehovah-jireh. An interesting Bible study is to look up all those places, and you will find that they correlate to one of the phrases in Psalm 23. It’s as if David wants us to know our LORD better. It is my prayer that this psalm will be a framework for getting to know God better.
Is… This is a very small, but important word. How different would we feel if it said, “The Lord might be my shepherd?” “Is” is a definite word. It means the Lord is my shepherd right now. In fact, the name LORD (Jehovah) means “I am”. He is ever-present, causes all to be – I will be who I will be. The Lord wants you to know that there will never be a moment in your life that He is not your shepherd. Whatever happens to you, you will always be able to say, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
My… This is David talking. He was a shepherd as a boy and he acknowledges that now God is His shepherd. It is a personal relationship. All told, there are 28 personal pronouns in these 6 verses – about 25% of the entire psalm. We can have a personal relationship with God. This does not mean customized where we get to pick only those aspects of the Christian life that make us feel good. A personal relationship is the knowledge that there is a God who loves you, who came to save you, who lives now within you, and will direct and guide you.
Shepherd… It may seem strange to compare God to a humble shepherd, but it is found throughout the Bible. Of the 75 times ‘shepherd’ is found in the Bible, Jesus is referred to a shepherd about a dozen times. And as a shepherd, David had firsthand knowledge of what it meant.
So if the LORD is our Shepherd, what are we? Sheep. Sheep are weak, helpless, and dependent. A sheep is the one animal that is utterly clueless and helpless without a human being nearby. One shepherd said, “To say that sheep are as dumb as a brick is to insult the brick.” Sheep need a shepherd. And so do we. Who is your shepherd?
“I shall not want“
Is David saying he did not want God? No. Does this mean he has no wants? No. Does God will give us whatever we want? No. This means David is content with God as his shepherd. The word “want” is an old word that simply means “lack.” If the LORD is your shepherd, you will have everything you need. But it also means that you will be utterly content with having the LORD as your shepherd. Contentment should be the sure sign that someone has the LORD as his shepherd. God takes care of those who trust Him.
This doesn’t mean that we won’t have problems. The rest of this psalm talks about hurts to our soul, and dark valleys and surrounded by our enemies. In fact, the remaining 5 verses of the psalm are simply a list of the implications of verse 1. But David does promise we ”shall” not be in want. “Shall” is another old word that means “I must have” or “I will be able to”. When the LORD is your shepherd, you can be content if you don’t have something, because you know you will have it if you need it. Every problem we go through strengthens trust in our Shepherd.
If you lost every material thing in your life tomorrow, but you still had the LORD, that would be enough. Having the LORD as your shepherd does not make you immune from trouble or loss, but it does mean you can always find strength in the Lord.
So, how can we develop an “I shall not want” attitude:
- Measure your life according to what you have, not what you don’t have.
- Measure your life in terms of blessings, not possessions. A man in financial ruin complained, “I’ve lost everything!” But he didn’t really. He did not lose his faith, his character, or his salvation. No amount of stuff can replace the intangible blessings of life, like relationships, friendship, love, happiness, and many more blessings.
- What you really need will come to you when you really need it. As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.” You can live day-to-day with the confidence that God is watching you and will provide what you need in the hour you need it.
Who is your shepherd? If the answer is Jesus, reflect on what else tries to be your shepherd at times: politics, money, relationships, or something different. What in life tries to get you to follow it over following Jesus? If Jesus is not your shepherd, start following today.
What would your life look like if each day you started with the belief, “Today I lack nothing because I have the Lord”? How would your attitude change? How would your pursuits change?
Charles Allen was a pastor of 2 large churches in Atlanta and Houston. A very successful businessman visited him one day. He had started at the bottom and became president of his company. Yet, he was not a happy person. He was a nervous, tense, worried and sick man. One of his doctors suggested he go see a minister. Pastor Allen talked of how the man’s doctors had given him prescriptions that he had taken. So he took a sheet of paper and wrote out a prescription: Read Psalm 23, five times a day for seven days. Read it carefully, meditatively, and prayerfully. Read it first thing in the morning, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner, and the last thing before bed. At the end of the week, he was a different man. He was content, happy, and energetic. He continued his prescription for many years. Why not try it?