1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
When it comes to providing comfort for the troubled soul, certainly no section of Sacred Scripture has been read more often than the twenty-third Psalm. The single sentence in verse four has no doubt consoled untold millions of breaking hearts as they watched the remains of their deceased loved ones being lowered into the earth or as they themselves confronted their own mortality. The very thought of having the Divine Shepherd lead His sheep into the unknown realms of eternity is enough to soothe the most troubled mind if we are following Him as our guide. Still, for all that this Psalm means to us as we contemplate death, its value as a source of comfort is much broader.
This Psalm is so rich and deep that entire books have been devoted to comments on it. There is no way that I can treat every precious facet of its meaning in just one chapter. That being the case, I want to focus on just one aspect of the Psalm, namely, the emphasis in the Psalm on the personal relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep.
Even a brief reading of the Psalm clearly shows that David, the inspired penman, is writing from the perspective of the sheep. Having once been a shepherd himself (I Samuel 16:11), he no doubt would have well understood the role of the shepherd and the needs of the sheep. Throughout the Psalm he uses the physical shepherd/sheep relationship to illustrate that which exists between God, the Divine Shepherd and those who faithfully follow Him through His Word.
The Psalmist inserts a personal pronoun into every verse. “I shall not want…” “He maketh me to lie down…” “He restoreth my soul…” In the King James Version there are 118 words in the Psalm. Of those, 17 are pronouns referring to the Psalmist himself. The Psalm opens and closes by identifying “the Lord” as the object of the inspired writer’s affection. In between those verses, he repeatedly demonstrates that it is this Lord who is taking care of him, as 10 times he uses the pronouns “he,” “his,” “thy” and “thou.” In essence, the great and mighty God, though He be the master of all creation (Genesis 1), still cares for His people individually and allows us to know Him on an intimate basis (I John 2:1-5). Any and every faithful child of God, can say, “The Shepherd knows me and I know the Shepherd.”
Suppose your favorite musician was performing in a huge outdoor stadium. Being such a loyal fan, you would be there with ticket in hand to join the tens of thousands of others who admire this talented individual. Now suppose that you’ve taken your seat among the screaming masses. The musician steps on stage and as he looks out over the packed stadium he spots you. He then promptly proceeds to the microphone and calls you by name to come down and see him. Can you begin to imagine how thrilled you would be? Here is this world-renowned musician singling you out by name in a crowd of upwards to a hundred thousand fans. It wouldn’t even matter to you how he knew your name. Just knowing that he knew you and knowing that everyone in that stadium knew that he knew you would be incredible.
It’s sad but true that what often excites us in the physical realm does nothing for us in the spiritual realm; yet to have the assurance that God as my Shepherd knows me personally is comfort beyond compare. As David brings out so beautifully in this Psalm, the Shepherd Divine doesn’t just know about me. He knows ME and He knows my every need. It’s because of this that “I shall not want.” I will never be in need of anything. My Shepherd knows what is best for me and He will readily provide all that I require. By giving concrete examples of the Shepherd’s knowledge of and provision for the needs of His sheep, the next two verses expound on the fact that because “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” God knows that we need emotional rest. He knows we need and want to be at peace. He also knows that the uncertainties of life can bring about worry and distress that can destroy inner peace. A sheep that is agitated by danger, disease, hunger or thirst will not lie down. Only in the abundance of pastures of tender grass will it feel content enough to not only lie down, but to rest comfortably. Through prayer, in which He allows us to cast our cares upon Him (I Peter 5:7) and through His written Word, by which our faith is established and strengthened (Romans 10:17), God has given us the green pastures in which we can relax and repose.
Notice just the words, “green pastures” in verse two. The shepherd will give his sheep a place to lie down. But where will it be? Will he lead them to dry, cracked, rock-covered clay much like what we see in the southern United States in the summer? No, he will lead them to the green pastures where his sheep can eat their fill and then lie down in the cool, soothing grass. He will give them his best. So it is with God the Shepherd. He offers us the best; the greenest of pastures, the highest of hopes, the pinnacle of peace, the zenith of comfort. No matter the level of our stresses, our hearts can be calm because our God knows our need for rest and peace and, what’s more, He provides these blessings in abundance. Being plural, the word “pastures” suggests ongoing provision. Wherever there is a green pasture, the shepherd will take his sheep there. God doesn’t offer us a crumb here and a morsel there. In Psalm 81:10 the Lord said, “open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.” Psalm 23:5 speaks of the overflowing nature of God’s blessings. Ephesians 3:20 reads, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.” We will never exhaust the blessings of God.
“He leadeth me beside the still waters.” Now the sheep is thirsty. Does the shepherd lead it to the raging rapids and force it in? Of course not. He leads his sheep to “waters of quietness” as the alternate rendering of this phrase in the King James Version reads. If there is truth in the maxim that “still waters run deep,” then we can see that this watering hole is not only a place of peacefulness, it is also a place of plenty as the water source is deep enough for the sheep to be able to drink its fill. As he has done in the first half of the verse, David is illustrating God’s knowledge of the needs of His sheep and His abundant provision for same.
“He restoreth my soul” is a continuation of the thought presented in verse two. This is a beautiful statement that lends itself to the idea that he (the shepherd) brings the sheep back to life. The sheep is weary and thirsty due to its meandering. In providing for the needs of the sheep, the shepherd not only refreshes it, but also restores it. The word “restoreth” indicates continuous action. “He continually restores my soul.” This is the case whenever we are distressed and seek God as the singular solution for our sadness. The world and its circumstances wear us down. We seek God through prayer and His written Word and every time we do He restores us. There is no limit to this. Just as the shepherd does not take a day off from giving his sheep the best, God’s restoration is available 24 hours per day.
“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God our Shepherd knows our spiritual needs as well as our physical. In Ezekiel 33:11 He said, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” II Peter 3:9 says that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Again picturing an earthly shepherd, we see him guiding his sheep along the safest path. Does that mean that there will not be any danger along the way? Certainly not, for the predators are lurking in the shadows, ready to attack. But the shepherd is there to guide and to guard. So it is with the Heavenly Shepherd. He wants His sheep to be with Him in eternity. He knows that along the path to the next world His sheep will face dangers as the “adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (I Peter 5:8). Still, through the comfort of His Word (I Thessalonians 4:18) and the commands therein (John 14:15; 15:14; I John 5:3), He leads His sheep to the place of eternal rest.
Now the Psalmist turns from speaking about the Shepherd to speaking to the Shepherd and honoring Him for the tender care that was highlighted in the first three verses. Verses four through six express a calm assurance in God’s guidance. There is not a “maybe” to be found here. The inspired writer has experienced the goodness of God and is confident that He will be with him throughout life and even into the valley of the shadow of death. He has found that the Lord was with him in good times and even in the bad when the enemy encompassed him. By his use of the continuous action verbs “preparest” and “anointest” in verse five, he shows that he is certain the Lord will continue to provide what he needs. In short, he knows this Shepherd and his knowledge of Him leads to the exultant conclusion in verse six, “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.”
God blesses all of mankind. Jesus said, “he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45). Any and all blessings enjoyed by humanity come from God above (James 1:17). Unfortunately, not everyone in the world understands this. Many ignore the source of their blessings and thus, when trials come upon them, they think they have no one to whom they can turn. Faithful children of God on the other hand know the source of their blessings. They regularly acknowledge God’s provision in their daily service to Him. When they face life’s trials, they know where to turn for comfort because they have learned to rely on and trust in God. They know that the One who has sustained them in life’s noonday will carry them through the darkest midnight. Like the sheep portrayed in this Psalm, they have seen that the goodness of God endures continually (Psalm 52:1). They know the Shepherd and confidently look ahead, assured that this Shepherd will be there for them.
The Shepherd knows me and I know the Shepherd. These two facts that are clearly demonstrated in the twenty-third Psalm combine to comfort our souls at a depth that no worldly thought could ever fathom. God knows me whether or not I acknowledge Him (Romans 3:3-4), but when I realize through faith that God knows me so well that He can understand my every need and thus provide what is best for me in whatever situation I may find myself as a faithful Christian, then I can rejoice with the author of this Psalm and confidently apply his Divinely inspired words to my own life no matter how dark or discouraging my way might become.
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