A great majority of Christians on the planet today have grown up hearing verse one of Psalm 23 this way:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
(Psalm 23:1, KJV)
Pausing to reread those nine words, try to take in what is meant by, “I shall not want.” If you read it as I do, it sounds as if we’re being told what to do: don’t want. It reads like a prescription for believer-behavior because the Old English word, shall, brings with it a sense of obligation, conveying a high moral should-ness.
But that’s not David’s intent. A quick overview of his life helps us understand:
As a young shepherd, David faces and fights-off ferocious animals.
As an awkward teen, David has to kill a giant. Or be killed.
As the hero of his people, David slays tens of thousands–in battle after battle (1 Samuel 18:7).
As the anointed king, David runs for his life from mad King Saul. For years.
As the proud king of Israel, David dances but his wife despises him (2 Samuel 6:16).
As the restless king, David sleeps with another man’s wife. Then kills her husband.
As the repentant king, David grieves the loss of his child.
As the aging king, David watches as his children spiral out of control.
And yet. David looks over his life and announces, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
This list of life’s hardships and losses seems harsh. In fact, the world would tell David to give up on God because He’s failed him. The world would look at this list and say God can’t be good because David’s life has been way too hard.
But, David says otherwise. To make sense of his assertion, let’s begin our search of Scripture with a working-out of word choice.
Comprehending Want and Lack
In this Psalm, which is a descriptive poem, David sets out to express the result of a life in the care of the Good Shepherd. So, with these two opening statements that make up verse one, he establishes the Who (God) then emphasizes the Who. To clarify, “I shall not want” serves as a magnifier to express a reality: with God as his shepherd, David wants for nothing.
It also helps to know that the Hebrew word for ‘want’ means ‘to lack,’ which is why a translation like the NIV helps us hear David’s intent a little more clearly (despite the comma splice):
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
(Psalm 23:1, NIV)
JD Walt helps differentiate: “To say, ‘I have a good shepherd; therefore, I lack nothing,’ is quite a different thing than to say, ‘I have a good shepherd; therefore, I should not want anything’” (The Seedbed Daily Text, Feb 25, 2020). The difference is more like cause-and-effect rather than behavior modification.
Interpreting That Lack
So, now that we understand what David is saying, we can work toward knowing what he means. Shepherd, pastor, and scientist, Phillip Keller, helps us make further sense of the relationship between the Shepherd and this lack of need. He observes, “It is the boss–the manager–the Master in people’s lives who makes the difference in their destiny” (Keller, 33).
As a scientist, Phillip has observed wealthy men who dazzle with their outward show of success yet remain “poor in spirit, shriveled in soul, and unhappy in life” (p.33). However, he’s witnessed people in great physical poverty radiate “a deep, quiet, settled peace that is beautiful to behold” (p.34). As he’s analyzed this incongruity, he concludes the two groups serve two different masters: money and God. Perhaps too often we try to convince ourselves we can manage both. But, Jesus warns, we can’t serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We either serve money or God–but never both.
Phillip attests that those who wholeheartedly follow the Good Shepherd are content. They’ve put every piece of their lives under the faithful care of the Master who loves them. God is enough, and their lives reflect that truth.
As a shepherd and pastor, Phillip has watched his flocks with curiosity, noting how some have deep wells of dissatisfaction–always wanting what they don’t have. Sheep who look for holes in the fence in order to get to other pastures. People who covet what others own. Neither are ever satisfied (p.34).
So, when David says he lacks nothing, he’s expressing a contentedness of spirit that goes beyond the physical. Even in all those hard circumstances, David’s Master has been there for him. The Good Shepherd has always provided. And David’s spirit rests contentedly.
Applying the Truth
When we come up against our own discontent, the lies of the enemy, or the pull of the world, truth will be our anchor. Jesus says He is the truth (John 14:6). Paul instructs us to buckle on the truth (Ephesians 6:14). Peter warns us we require constant reminding of the truth (2 Peter 1:12). And truth is always at the ready in God’s Word (John 17:17).
While the world balks at believers who stubbornly stand on faith in the face of adversity, trying to convince us that God is fickle, the truth is God remains firm and steady. While some will tempt us with the grass on their side of the fence–to follow their master–the truth is, we can remain firm and steady in Christ.
When we pick up truth, we remember that Jesus told us we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). In other words, life is hard, but our Shepherd always leads and never leaves–He has overcome the world!
Truth can be bolstered each time we reflect on God’s past provisions–to carry, nurture, feed, and lead us. As we look back, we remember the truth: God is faithful. As such, we can put trust in our Shepherd, who will be there for us, now and in the future.
As I am learning how my role looks in this season as a parent of adult children who have not yet fully launched into the world, I have come face-to-face with truth: I have not fully released my sons to God–even though He has promised He has them in His hands. I feel the reality of my lack of trust in God when overwhelm rises because I’ve taken on responsibilities that are my sons’. Or, when dread creeps in as I anticipate confrontations. Or, when anxiety rises because I worry about their futures. Overwhelm, dread, anxiety. These are not the feelings a mom wants to have when she thinks about her kids. And that’s my clue I’m not dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. Instead, I’ve stepped away from truth and picked up old habits.
It helps so much to think back over my sons’ lives and recall all the times God showed up and provided. When I focus on the many moments of God’s faithfulness, my own faith in Him reignites.
It also helps when I spend more time in His presence–because it’s with Him that I find covering and peace and hope. So, when I woke up with anxious thoughts this morning, rather than feeding them with conversation rehearsals or controlling plans, I grabbed my Bible. I went out on my porch and sat in with Him. I filled my mind with His Truth. I focused on Jesus, choosing to trust that 1) He really does have my sons in His hands, and 2) He will give me all I need to say and do–in His time.
A miracle happens each time I do these things. My spirit rests; the anxiety dissipates; my heart finds peace and joy.
And, “there’s not a deeper satisfaction for the Shepherd than seeing His sheep contented” (p.35).
Dying to Self
Much comes against our desire to live content lives with our Shepherd. Temptations teasing us to ‘want more’ flash across screens and flaunt in the stores. Our own tendencies to compare ourselves with others leave us with that feeling of lack. Lies within the Church that say material prosperity is a sign of God’s favor beckon us to their fallow fields.
But, in writing this Psalm, David has left us a treasured truth. With God as our Shepherd, we truly lack nothing. Because in Him, we have everything.
And there’s the ‘dwelling’ truth for us today. To dwell fully in God is to know Him as the Good Shepherd–the One who provides for every need and carries us through every valley.
To dwell fully in God is a ‘dying to self’ decision (Galatians 2:20). It’s to choose our Master. As Kendra Adachi, the Lazy Genius, would say: decide once. Decide once that God is your Master. Decide once to believe His promises and trust His good nature. Decide once to follow the Shepherd–and keep following!
Then look for Him in every moment. Choose to dwell in His pastures. Choose to go where He leads. And discover a deep contentment in your spirit. Encounter the peace and joy you’ve been seeking. Become a sheep who knows she lacks nothing–because she has the Shepherd.
Father God, You are good. You promise to always be with me, to guide me with your counsel and lead me to a glorious destiny. Lord Jesus, I belong to You. You’re my Good Shepherd. And I know that by belonging to your flock, I will discover depths of love and goodness, of hope and joy, of peace and faithfulness that I cannot find anywhere else. So, as I stand at the edge of your green pasture, I look not at the world beyond but at You. And I see everything I could ever want. Holy Spirit, I know my weaknesses–I easily compare myself to others and covet what they have. I fall into the trap of discontent and get restless for more. Remind me, I pray, each day to whom I belong and that He’ll always provide and protect and prepare all that I need. It is with great belief that I choose to follow You, Good Shepherd. Help my unbelief. In your name I pray, amen.
(influenced by Psalm 23, Psalm 73:23-24, John 10:11, Galatians 5:22, Philippians 4:19, 2 Thessalonians 3:3, Mark 9:24)
- Rhythms: As sheep in our Good Shepherd’s flock, we’ll be most content when we live in His rhythms–like prayer-speaking, Scripture-soaking, and praise-worshiping.
- Specific to this series is the rhythm of memorizing Psalm 23. Now that we know David’s intent behind verse one, let’s put it to memory, then it becomes our reminder that our Shepherd calls us to a content life. “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.”
- Then we have the rhythm of looking back, of remembering God’s faithfulness of the past. David employed this rhythm on the regular (see these Psalms as examples: Psalm 63 and 77). And, when we list those times He came through for us, our faith builds. Our trust grows because we know He’s always faithful. Always.
- Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
- Audrey Assad’s song, “I Shall Not Want,” beautifully captures many of the desires and fears that can creep in and crush us. Discontent has many sources, but our Deliverer has power over them all. You’ll find her song on our Dwell: Psalm 23 playlist.
- Phillip Keller’s chapter, “I Shall Not Want,” in his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 has informed much of my understanding of verse one. He brings much wisdom as a scientist and experience as both pastor and (literal) shepherd. I’m so grateful.
- Bible study teacher, Jen Wilkin, uses a three step method when diving into Scripture: Comprehension, Interpretation, and Application. It was fun applying her strategy to today’s verse. You can read more in her book, Women of the Word.* Or, she has a video series: Step One, Step Two, and Step Three.
- In a moment of sheer fun, I mentioned Kendra Adachi. But including it was also my way of putting that principle into action in my own life. Kendra’s life strategy brilliantly offers thirteen principles that can be applied to any situation. One of those principles is “decide once.” I’m discovering to ‘decide once’ means you have to stick to that decision, like choosing to trust God with my sons. She has a book, The Lazy Genius Way,* and a podcast, The Lazy Genius Collective. Here’s an episode that talks about all her principles. And with Emily P Freeman, she discusses the “Decide Once” principle, specifically.
- In ‘decide once’ fashion, decide once to follow Jesus as your Good Shepherd, following Him in full trust. Write your decision down and date it. Then when you’re tempted to to doubt or worry or go your own way, go back to your decision and keep choosing it!
- Today’s post lent itself more personally than corporately. But, friends, we need each other. There are days we need someone to encourage us or to speak truth over us–or just have fun with. We are community. So, let us know how we can hold you up today.
- As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
- I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.