“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” So begins the beloved “Twenty Third Psalm.” This Psalm is just one of many written by David. And although each one of the 150 Psalms in the Psalmody is beautiful and meaningful in its own way, the 23rd Psalm stands apart from them all if only because it is the most well-known and most well-beloved of them all, to the point that many people are even able to recite this one from memory, and in the King James Version at that.
And so, as we embark on our Lenten journey with the 23rd Psalm in hand, we set out on familiar ground with an old friend, which also defines the challenge before us. What else can be said that has not already been said about the 23rd Psalm? So, our goal here is not so much to learn something new, but rather, to be reminded of what we already know, “the Lord is my shepherd,” and therefore, “I shall not want.”
As we set out on this journey, we are reminded that as far removed from our own experience the world of shepherding and sheep may be, the 23rd Psalm was written by a real shepherd who knew something about real sheep and what it means to be a real shepherd.
He knows the demands that are required of shepherds who are entrusted with the care of the sheep in their flock. And he knows that there are ‘good shepherds’ and ‘bad shepherds,’ the difference between the two, and most importantly, what it means to the sheep to live in the flock that is cared for by a ‘good shepherd.’
One more point that might be beneficial as we begin is to point to the literary approach that David uses throughout this Psalm. Rather than writing this Psalm from the perspective of the shepherd, ‘let me tell you sheep what I expect from you and what it means to be ‘good sheep,’ David speaks as one of the sheep of the flock of a ‘good shepherd. This talking sheep begins by telling how good it is to be a sheep of a ‘good shepherd.’
“I shall not want.” Which is to say…
“He makes me to lie down in green pastures.”
“He leads me beside still waters.”
“He restores my soul.”
The question is, ‘to whom is this sheep speaking?’ To whom is it ‘confessing’? And the answer is, he is speaking to all the other sheep in the flock who might take such a blessed life for granted. And he is speaking to himself, both reminding himself of the blessed life he has and rejoicing in it.
But then the same sheep turns to its shepherd and says basically the same thing to the ‘good shepherd’ himself.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
“You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
So now that we have staked out the path that this Lenten journey will follow, let’s set out on it. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
David begins by declaring that his shepherd is none other than the LORD Himself. This is the LORD who appeared to Abraham and said, ‘follow me;’ who shepherded Abraham and his little flock from his country, his kindred, his father’s house, to a land that He called, “the promised land.”
This is the LORD who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and said, ‘follow me,’ and shepherded Moses and his entire flock through the Red Sea and the desert to “the promised land.”
This is the LORD whom David calls, ‘my shepherd.’ David is reflecting on his own journey through life and how the Lord has led him, just as He led Abraham and Moses and all His flock.
David is also reflecting on the way that the LORD will lead him into the future. As he looks back, he sees the path that the LORD has led him on and how the LORD has brought him safely through lots of trials and troubles and danger. And in looking back, he gains trust and confidence that the same LORD will lead him safely into the future.
And as make David’s psalm our own, we too think about our journey through life and acknowledge and confess that it is the Abraham’s Lord and Moses’ Lord and David’s Lord who has led us also. And who will continue to lead us into the future, because He is THE LORD. The LORD is my Shepherd. He is MY shepherd.
But as we make David’s psalm our own and confess David’s Lord as our own, we also need to joyfully acknowledge that we have a name for our Shepherd that neither Abraham or Moses or David knew. When we say, “the Lord is my shepherd,” it is Jesus Christ whom we have in mind. We confess that “Jesus is LORD” and therefore the LORD who is my shepherd is Jesus Christ. The same Jesus Christ who declared “I am the good shepherd.”
The good shepherd leads His sheep to the Promised Land by His Word that is always true and right and salutary. The bad shepherd leads his sheep by his word also. But the word of a bad shepherd is cunning and deceptive and selfish and it cannot actually give what it promises.
“The sheep “of the good shepherd,” hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10)
So, as we confess that “The Lord is my shepherd,” we are saying that we know His Word and we love to hear His Word and we trust His Word and we want to join and remain with that flock in which His Word is spoken.
What we are also saying here is that we are also familiar enough with His Word that we can recognize that which is not His Word when we hear it and refuse to follow it, no matter how appealing it may sound and no matter how many others do.
Apart from His voice, we go astray and get lost and become entirely vulnerable to all of the predators that prowl around like roaring lions just waiting to devour us.
But when we hear His Word and listen to Him speak to us, we shall lack nothing because He supplies all that we need.
As we begin this season of Lent, we are reminded that these 40 days are to be used to give extra attention to the Word of our Lord, our good Shepherd. This may well require us to make some adjustments to our busy schedules – call them sacrifices if you’d like – but time devoted to ‘hearing His voice.’
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not WANT.”
We may be far removed from the world of sheep and shepherding, but we are very familiar with what it means to ‘want.’ We live in a world where our entire economic system is built on creating ‘wants’ and then offering us all kinds of ways to satisfy those ‘wants.’ Marketers and advertisers are very skilled to create all kinds of ‘wants’ and then turn them into ‘needs,’ convinced that we can’t live without them.
Certainly this is not what David has in mind when he says that since “I shall not want.”
What David confesses is that as he hears his Shepherd’s voice, as he listens to His Lord’s Word, His voice and His word which is one in the same, transforms his heart so that all that he wants is what his Good Shepherd gives him. He believes that his shepherd knows what he needs better than he does. And in his ‘goodness,’ He will not leave his sheep lacking in any good gift.
As we make this Psalm our own, we can be even more confident than David, because our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
Dear sheep, what else shall we WANT if we have our Lord’s word that we shall never perish and that no one can snatch us out of His hand? What more do we NEED if He has already given us this kind of security and even eternal life? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
And isn’t it right here where we realize just how critically important it is for the sheep to ‘listen to the good shepherd’s voice’ and let His Word guide and direct us. Because if we ignore His voice and rely only on what our eyes see, we will begin to have our doubts and loose our feeling of security in His care.
Sometimes we have this thought or that thought that churns inside us and we begin to question and argue with ourselves. “If the Lord is my Shepherd, why does He let this or that happen to me? Why doesn’t he take this or that away from me? Why doesn’t He deliver me from that which is troubling me or hurting me?”
And so we must close our eyes and listen only to His voice. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. I lay down my life for the sheep. For I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10).
This is the way it was for David. He didn’t have an easy life at all. He wasn’t always able to ‘count his blessings’ the way we usually count such things. There were lots of times when David was in great need and wanted much and suffered much. There were times when he doubted God’s justice and protection and care for him.
Nevertheless, he puts all of that aside and clings solely to His Lord’s Word and promise as if to say, ‘Be it as it may, this is the comfort of my heart. I have a gracious and merciful Lord who is my Shepherd. And He has made me a sheep of His flock and He will deliver me from all evil. And He is a good shepherd who does not go back on His word or fail to do all that He says. Therefore “I shall not want” anything more than this.
The fact that David WROTE the 23rd Psalm, means that he did not just intend these words for himself alone, but for all of the little lambs of God who also face daily temptations and doubts.
For David knows from experience that no shepherd shepherds just one sheep, but a flock of sheep. And all the sheep, as different as they may be from each other, have similar trials and troubles and face similar temptations and doubts.
So, along with David and all the other sheep of our Lord’s flock, we get COURAGE and ENCOURAGEMENT from one another as we travel together. Together, we follow our Lord, not on the basis of our feelings and experiences, but by listening to His Word and clinging to it. Come what may, we confess together the basis for our faith and hope, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”