I Shall Not Want
Topic: Expository Scripture: Psalm 23:2–23:2
We are living in a time of economic uncertainty. Countries around the world are struggling; they are stuck in recessions, economic stagnation or “slow growth”. Aging populations, unbalanced budgets, fear of inflation, debt crisis. It is a scary time for young and old alike. Of course, in many of the countries we come from, economic uncertainty is the norm. 25% unemployment and up is not abnormal in many nations. Just getting by is a struggle. It can be tough here in Abu Dhabi. There are many advantages to living and working here – but it can be a struggle to make ends meet – with school fees, rent, utilities and I could go on and on.
Against this background, it is a good time to be reminded of the words from Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
This is the first of three bold personal assertions that punctuate this Psalm. Each one is a clear statement of confidence. I shall not want.
This is one of those phrases that I think is clear enough in intent, but rather difficult to render into smooth English. Usually when we use the word want, it is accompanied by a direct object. We “want” or we “don’t want” something, such as when we say. “I want a new car, I want a better job.” When we dig a little deeper, we find that the word “want” here is not expressing the idea of desire at all. It is expressing the idea of lack, of not having enough, of having insufficient resources.
The NIV translates: “I shall not be in want.” While accurate enough in its intent, the translation seems to lack any poetic ring or eloquence. On the other hand, if we translate it “I shall not lack anything” it is open to misinterpretation. Certainly there are things we lack or do not have.
I think the old Living Bible possibly captures it best, although it is the least literal. It turns the negative phrase into a positive one: Because the Lord is my shepherd, I have everything that I need.
I would like us to view this statement as the confident assertion of a sheep being led by the shepherd into the Judean hills. Remember the picture from last time. The sheep were led out into the wilderness, to the marginal land where water is scarce and grazing often difficult to find. What will face the individual sheep upon those often barren and rugged hillsides? How will he survive? The Lord is my shepherd. Because of his daily, hourly care, I will have everything I need. I am not worried. Yahweh has made himself responsible to watch over me, to care for me, to meet my every need.
Psalm 23 is above all else a psalm of trust. It is a psalm of quiet confidence. It is a psalm which asks the question: Can Yahweh be trusted? And it answers that question with a confident: Yes! We can trust the Shepherd. And trusting the shepherd means first of all, trusting him as our Provider.
When we think of God as our Provider, our first thoughts turn to our physical needs. Can we trust God, as our Shepherd, to provide for the basic needs of life? Our trust in God really starts at this very fundamental and basic level, doesn’t it? Last time I made reference to Jacob and his commitment to trust and follow God as his shepherd. And we know that Jacob was thinking in very practical and tangible terms. In Genesis 28:20, he states, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God.
“Food to eat and clothes to wear”: that’s life at a pretty basic and practical level isn’t it? Can we trust God at that level? Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Does God care about our physical needs? The Bible is clear. Once again, in Jesus’ own words in Matthew 6:31-32: So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”
The lessons of God’s provision are lessons each sheep must learn for himself/herself. For me, many of those lessons were absorbed early, first as a child in a missionary home. I remember my parents telling the story from our years in Tanzania. We lived at a remote mission station on the shores of Lake Victoria. For the first year, there wasn’t even a road. Our supplies came via a boat that stopped weekly at our little dock – at least most weeks. There was one time though, when the boat didn’t come for several weeks. We began to run low on basic supplies. My father usually hunted for our meat, but he’d been busy and had not had time to hunt. Local produce was scarce and seasonal. It happened to be the week of American Thanksgiving – a time of feasting. But we had nothing to feast on. In fact, when we got up the morning of Thanksgiving, the only thing in the house to eat was local sweet potatoes. So for Thanksgiving lunch we sat down to a lunch of …sweet potatoes. Now, I like sweet potatoes, but just sweet potatoes? But we prayed and thanked God for the sweet potatoes. As we got up from the table after the meal, a man ran up to the house and said to my father: “Quick, bring your gun. I heard some guinea fowl in the forest.” So Dad took his gun –and was able to shoot several guinea fowl. He’d no sooner returned to the house, when another man came and said: “Get your rifle, I just heard a bushbuck bark in the forest.” So Dad took his rifle –and returned an hour or two later with the bushbuck. While he was gone, someone else came up from the lake and said, “Some fishermen just came in with their boat – they have fish for sale.” So Mom sent him with money to buy some fish.
That night we sat down to a meal of bushbuck, guinea fowl, fish and…sweet potatoes.
I continued to learn this lesson in my young adult years after I had left home. I remember during my second year of university. I came to the end of one term of school, and I did not have the money to pay my tuition and room and board for the next term. My parents were in Africa. It took two weeks to exchange letters in those days, even if they had any extra money to help. During the week’s break between terms I went to stay with my grandfather in a nearby town. I was able to get a job working for a family friend in his apple orchard. But when the week was over, I was still $200 short of what I needed. I began to consider staying out of school and trying to get a job. But that evening the man I worked for came to the house. He handed me a check for $100 in addition to my wages. “I don’t think you should drop out of school,” he said.
I took that as a sign that the Lord was going to provide. I was still $100 short, but I took the bus back to school anyway. I didn’t know how I was going to pay the remainder. I just know somehow the Lord would provide. When I got back to my dorm, I picked up my mail. There was a letter from my parents. When I opened it, a check fell out. The letter read, “Somehow we just have a sense from God that you need this.” It was the only time they ever sent me money that way. On a missionary salary, they simply didn’t have the money to give. The check was for $100.
I learned a lesson about my Shepherd that day. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. It was a lesson that God continued to teach me in those days. I shared this story in one of my messages on the life of Elijah, but I think it’s worth repeating. When Esther Ruth and I first got married, we were still in school. We never dared keep a budget, because we knew we didn’t make enough money to cover our expenses. For our wedding, her grandmother gave us a $200 check. She told us, “Feel free to use this for living expenses and rent if you need to.” What we did was put that money in our checking account. We were saving it for something special, so we kept a separate record of that amount. But the problem is, we kept running out of the rest of the money in our checking account. So we’d borrow against our own $200. So our current account would run $-25 by the end of the month. When we got paid for our part time jobs, we’d come back into a positive balance. But by the end of the month, we’d be back in a deficit again. But it was always against our own money. That $200 became our cruse of oil. We kept borrowing against it, and God kept replenishing it. When we finished college and then seminary 4 years later, we were not only debt free, but we still had money in the bank. Did we have everything we wanted during those years? Of course not! Did we have everything we needed? Yes! The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
But there is more here than simply the provision of physical needs. Let’s look at the next 3 lines.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.
The aura that bathes these lines is one of contentment. It is a picture of sheep at rest. It describes sheep whose needs are met, and who have no worries for tomorrow.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. In the background reading I did, all the experts agreed on this one point. Sheep do not feed lying down. As one writer states: “Usually when the sheep reach green pastures they are in constant motion, grazing and foraging. The repose described here in the green pastures paints a picture of ultimate satiation after abundant feeding.” (Hareuveni – p. 51)
Now, you might say that this picture contradicts what I said earlier about the barren region in which the sheep were taken to graze. But I didn’t say that there was no grazing. I said it was a marginal region, dependent on rain and the occasional waterhole to provide sufficient pasture. It is an area in which the sheep were utterly dependent on the shepherd to know where that grass is and to lead them to it. The good shepherd knows where those patches are, and is able to lead his sheep to those spots where the grazing is good, where the sheep can feed until they are full, and then lie down in contentment to ruminate and rest.
The next line carries on this picture of contentment and peace.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
The two pressing needs of the sheep in the desert are for grazing and for water. The good shepherd knows that, and is committed to provide for his flock. Two things are worth noting about this phrase. First is the word “lead”. It is not the most common word for “lead.” The Hebrew word used here always carries with it the connotation of gentleness. It is a word that indicates great care. It is the word used in Isaiah 40:11 which speaks of the shepherd gently leading the pregnant ewes. It is used in another context of a widow who has sons to take her by the hand and gently lead her. So there is a great deal of compassion and tenderness expressed in this verb.
The second thing I want to explore is the phrase “still waters”. The word translated quiet or still is a word that typically means to rest or refers to a resting place. Now there are two ways to understand this phrase. First it is the waters themselves that are resting. In this case David is describing standing waters and quiet pools, as opposed to rushing streams or the torrents that rush through the wadis after a rain. This is an attractive picture and it is the one the translators have opted for in their rendering: quiet waters or still waters. The commentators rightly point out that sheep are afraid to drink from rapidly rushing streams.
But the phrase could also be translated as “a place of rest by the water.” I think this rendering probably better answers the context and normal word use. A good shepherd would no doubt know a series of such places, at intervals of easy travel; places he could bring the sheep to drink and then to rest. It might be by a stream, or a well, or a cistern, or a spring. The key is that there is good water to drink and a place, probably with shade, for the sheep to rest. With this interpretation, we see that these two phrases are an example of synonymous parallelism. The second phrase repeats and reinforces the earlier phrase and the picture of contentment and rest, with needs for food and water abundantly met.
The picture here is of a shepherd who is not only concerned about the bare physical survival of the sheep. He is also concerned about the intangibles; contentment, tranquility, peace, calm. These are the conditions in which the sheep will thrive and prosper. After hours of trekking and foraging and moving across often bleak landscape, he finds for them a place of quiet, of calm, of shade from the sun, and water and abundant pasture. He finds them a place where they can lie down and rest.
He completes this picture in the first line of verse 3. It is a phrase in which David abandons the metaphor and speaks in plain language. He restoreth my soul.
With this phrase, I believe that David signals to us that he is not speaking exclusively, or even primarily about God’s concern for our physical needs of food and clothes and shelter, as important as those are to us in certain times and circumstances. As human beings we have deeper, more complex, more intangible needs than sheep. In the daily hustle and bustle of our lives, our souls come unraveled. We begin to fret and worry and to feel that we and we alone are responsible for the cares of our lives and the cares of the world.
Now, how do we go from that unraveled condition, worn down by worry and care, to the state of contentment described by David in these phrases; a state that is described in verse 3 with the words: He restoreth my soul?
To allow this to happen, I believe something significant needs to take place. And that is the shifting of responsibility. You see, the environment hasn’t changed. The sun is still hot, the grazing areas may still be scarce, and water hard to find. But what David has recognized is that these circumstances are not the concern of the sheep. These difficulties are the responsibility of the shepherd. Finding sufficient grazing for tomorrow? That’s the shepherd’s job. Getting to the next watering place by evening? That’s the shepherd’s responsibility. Staying awake tonight to make sure a lion doesn’t attack? The shepherd will do that. He never slumbers or sleeps. Picking a safe pass through the mountains tomorrow? The shepherd knows the way.
The shepherd makes himself responsible for the welfare of his sheep. Yahweh is my shepherd. Yahweh has made himself responsible for me. There is a marvelous New Testament verse that expresses this very powerfully in I Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” That’s really a contented, resting sheep talking, isn’t it? “Why worry? Trust the Shepherd.”
I don’t know what might be causing your soul to come unraveled this evening. It may be pressing, urgent needs of physical survival; how to meet rising living costs or how to provide for your family. I could go on and on, couldn’t I? All of these things can keep us awake at night. What shall we do?
I remember a man we met in Alaska named Hal Farar. He had retired after a long career in the U.S. Coast Guard and a life of living life on his own terms. But after retiring and moving to Alaska, he had come in contact with Christians there and their loving witness had coaxed him to commit his life to Christ. Hal was one of the men I baptized in my very first baptism service as a young pastor in a very cold Alaskan lake. Hal used to love to give his testimony and then play his guitar and sing, with a real old Country/Western style. One of his favorite songs was about what to do when you can’t sleep and it started with these words: “I don’t count sheep. I talk to 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.
Cast all your cares upon him, because he cares for you. And then rest.