I shall not want?


Why Psalm 23 is more than an infomercial for satisfaction

By Pierre Gilbert
Psalm 23 is one of the best-known biblical texts of the Old Testament and a favorite of pastors and chaplains on hospital calls. If your pastor starts reading it to you during a visit, you may want to draw up your will!

This favorite psalm begins with a puzzling observation: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want!” What’s so puzzling about that? Well, if you are not sure, keep reading.

God is everywhere!

Before we get to the heart of the problem, let’s make a couple of observations about the structure of the psalm. Psalm 23 begins with a reference to Yahweh (one of the Hebrew names for God, most often translated as LORD) and also ends the same way: “I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Yahweh is at the front and back end of this psalm. What the psalmist is trying to say is that Yahweh is everywhere. He is there at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of our lives.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Well, not so fast. It would be more accurate to say that while God can intimately be involved with us, he doesn’t have to be.

The late professor Peter Craigie, who has written what many consider to be one the best commentaries on the book of Psalms, notes that the translation we are familiar with may not be telling the whole story. He believes there is something implied in the statement, which should read this way: “As long as the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Absentee landlord or shepherd? 

God loves, cares for and sustains the world. In a way, God is the Great Landlord. He provides humanity with a place to live and with all that is needed to sustain life. For a lot of people, that’s about it: The Lord is their landlord. Now whether they recognize him as such or not, it makes no difference to God; he takes care of business. Or as Jesus puts it: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45).

“The Lord is my shepherd” entails much more. Using the name Yahweh and the shepherd imagery imply a close and intimate relationship. It also alludes to personal choice, allegiance, loyalty and love. The Lord is everyone’s landlord and creator, but for him to become my shepherd, I have to trust him as such and voluntarily put myself in his care.

To those who do not embrace God as shepherd, he is just Elohim (another common Hebrew name for God)—the powerful and creator God. He is more like the absentee landlord or the mortgage company. He is perceived as being out there somewhere but not close by.

But for those who personally put themselves under the care of Yahweh, he becomes their shepherd. They come under his protection, and they are given a new identity. In fact, God becomes accountable for their wellbeing—a most surprising truth in the context of the Mesopotamian culture where the gods viewed men and women as little more than slaves.

I shall not want?

“I shall not want!” What a statement! Who can honestly say they have no wants? Is there anyone out there who is perfectly and always happy? In fact, if we stop to think about it at all, it is easy to be skeptical.

It’s like watching an infomercial about a new revolutionary set of knives. I am sure that most people who succumb to the temptation do so because it’s late at night, and they start thinking these knives will indeed bring them happiness: “If I buy these knives, I shall not want.” The next morning, of course, the promise of happiness that seemed so concrete melts away as quickly as ice cream on a hot day. Is Psalm 23 just a fancy infomercial?

To understand what the psalmist is talking about, we have to examine the Hebrew verb that is translated “want.” In the Old Testament, the verb khasar normally describes a desperate situation. To “want” is, for instance, to face conditions that threaten life itself: no food, no home, no clothing, no friends. Those who “want” face physical and emotional desperation (Deut. 2:7; 28:48). To “want” has nothing to do with only being able to afford a Honda Civic instead of a Lexus. Those who “want” lack the basic necessities of life.

The Lord is not my Shepherd, I shall be in dire need.
I shall be obsessed with my wants and my desires.
The Lord is not my Shepherd, I shall hunger.
I will become empty, without substance.
The Lord is not my Shepherd, I will be forever unsatisfied.
Ever wanting, never getting.
Ever seeking, never finding.
The Lord is not my Shepherd, I shall fold in on myself
Until a ball of pain I become.
The Lord is not my Shepherd.

I realize that for most of us this seems a little exaggerated. Well, perhaps. But I can think of at least a dozen acquaintances for whom the Lord is not their shepherd… and they want. They obsess with money, cars, vacations, trips to Mexico, computers, clothes, jewelry—the list could go on. The more they have, the emptier they feel and the hungrier they get.

The Lord is not my shepherd, I shall want!

Let’s not confuse this disease of the soul with the normal sense of dissatisfaction most people experience from time to time. Feeling frustrated is not necessarily a capital offense. The desire to improve one’s life is not a sin in and of itself. To some extent, it’s all perfectly normal. We are designed that way.

In fact, God has hardwired us with the need to improve our world and ourselves. This is why the Iraqi people came out by the millions to vote in 2005. They did so because they hoped for a better future than what they had been dealt under the ruthless rule of Saddam Hussein. This is also why we drive cars and live in homes with central plumbing and heating instead of hobbling along in horse buggies and traipsing to the outhouse. The desire to improve our lives is legitimate. Human beings either go forward or they go backward. There is no neutral position.

The good life

Those who choose the Lord as their shepherd experience the good life. Because they have a deeper and compelling sense of mission, they do not obsess with money, food or shelter. They are not controlled by their hungers and their wants. They experience life, significance and purpose. They live full and satisfying lives. The good things life brings to them simply add to their sense of inner contentment.

Isn’t that what the Great Shepherd himself promised to those who would accept and follow him? “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Too good to be true?

What about those Christians who say they do not experience the good life the psalmist and Jesus refer to? I have no easy answer to offer except to go back to the fundamentals of definition, reality and commitment.

First, the good life is not the perfect life. Jesus never promised his disciples a perfect life, only a perfect eternity.

Second, Christians still need to contend with the sin nature and living in a fallen world. As long as we exist in this reality, we will face temptations and struggles. The promise of a full life relates in great part to a life of purpose and intimate fellowship with God actualized through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Third, in spite of the challenges we face, we will experience the full life as long as we don’t allow ourselves to be consumed by the distractions of this world and remain committed to the only source of life there is.

C. S. Lewis said it best in Mere Christianity: “Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.

“They are not a sort of prize which God could, if he chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty sprouting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?”

Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Bible and theology at MB Biblical Seminary and the author of Demons, Lies & Shadows. A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason (Kindred Productions, 2008).


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