“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” This Bible verse from Psalm 23:1 is one of the most famous Bible verses in all of Scripture. This is a verse that encourages both believers and skeptics alike. But what is the meaning of the phrase, “the Lord is my shepherd?” 1
Overfamiliar Scars and Stories
It’s important to talk about this because when some things become overfamiliar, they lose their significance. I’ll give you an illustration.
When I was around 11 months old, I had open-heart surgery. As a result, I have a big scar down my chest. I don’t think about it much, it has caused me almost no complications, and it never affected me while playing sports. I have become so familiar with it that I don’t think about it much at all.
Sometimes when I go to the pool during the summer someone will stop me and point to my chest, and say, “What happened?” And I think, “Huh? What do you mean?” And then I look down and remember – there’s a scar there! I proceed to tell them what happened and why it’s there. Usually, the person who asked also has a scar of some sort.
The point is that I have become so familiar with the scar that I tend to overlook its significance.
The same is true with famous Bible stories.
We tend to read about the stories of Jesus feeding the 5,000 or Jesus walking on water and think, “Yeah, save that for the kids; let’s talk about something on parenting or marriage or work.” For those of you who have been in church your whole life, when a famous Bible passage is being preached, you can roll your eyes and overlook its significance. But if we stop to dive deeply into the passage and not just overlook it because we’ve heard it so many times, we’ll find deep edification.
The Lord is My Shepherd
The 23rd Psalm is one of those passages. The Psalms are songs. They’re not just meant to be read; they’re meant to be sung. The songs have been sung by God’s people for thousands of years. There are various kinds of Psalms, and Psalm 23 is called a Psalm of Trust or a Psalm of Confidence.
The Psalmist starts by saying, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” When the Psalmist refers to the Lord as a shepherd, he is using a metaphor. This is metaphorical language. It’s not a surprise that the Psalmist speaks of the Lord as a shepherd. Kind David, who wrote this psalm, spent a lot of time around sheep, and no wonder he uses the metaphorical language of a shepherd to describe the Lord. By referring to the Lord as a shepherd, David is showing the intimacy of what a personal relationship with the Lord looks like.
In other places in Scripture, the Lord is referred to as King, Judge, and Deliverer. Here he is referred to something more gentle and tender: a shepherd. In the Bible, the shepherd-sheep metaphor is common. God is the shepherd, and his people are the sheep. What do shepherds do, exactly?
The Responsibility of a Shepherd
A shepherd is a leader of the sheep. He takes care of and tends the sheep. A shepherd feeds the sheep. He ensures their basic needs are met. The shepherd also protects the sheep from wolves, and the shepherd leads and guides the sheep where he wants them to go. So a shepherd protects, provides for, and leads his sheep. David is saying that’s what the Lord does for his people.
But this is not just any shepherd. No, he says my shepherd. Not their shepherd. Not our shepherd. My shepherd. Yes, it’s true that the Lord is the shepherd for all of God’s people, but here we see the personal and intimate relationship between one of God’s people and him. In fact, “My” “Me” “I” are saturated in this one Psalm. While strictly an individualistic way of relating to the Lord should be avoided, we cannot help but see the intimate relationship that God here has with one of his people. We sometimes refer to Jesus as my Lord and my Savior. And that’s appropriate; he is intimately involved in each of his children’s lives.
And then David says, “I shall not want.” Here is one connection to notice. As one commentary notes, “the Lord is” is connected to “I shall.” Because the Lord is X, I shall Y. They go together. And here it’s because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. David is not literally saying that he gets all that he wants. Nobody gets all that they want. Our hearts are sinful and sometimes we want the wrong thing. When David says, “I shall not want,” what he’s getting at is all his needs are provided for. David is revealing his satisfied and content soul. Since all of his needs are provided for from the Great Shepherd, he is content and does not feel needy.
Where the Shepherd Leads
Where does the shepherd lead his people? Verse two answers this question: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”
The metaphorical language continues. “Green pastures” and “still waters” is metaphorical language that portrays the security the good shepherd provides. They show God’s care and refreshment for his people. Green pastures and still waters are a place for refreshment.
But the Psalmist and the shepherd are honest. Life is often filled with trials, and this is affirmed when we read, “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” (Psalm 23:4).
We now get to verse four and we see a switch in the language. In verses two and three, we learn about the “green pastures” and “still waters” and the “path of righteousness” that the Psalmist takes. Here in verse four, there is a switch. Suddenly, there is danger. The Psalmist says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
This is a scary image. And this is an extremely popular biblical saying. What’s going on?
The Lord is With You in the Valley
A “Valley” is a very low area usually between a hill or a mountain. In David’s day, being around a valley could be dangerous and deadly, and were often characterized by floods, attacks from animals, and attacks from outlaws (NIV Zondervan Study Bible, p. 1005). David is saying that the path in life he is currently walking is potentially dangerous. And yet he is not afraid. He says, “I will fear no evil.” Floods, dangerous animals, and outlaws. What? He’s not afraid? Why?
Notice David says, “I will fear no evil.” He does not say, “I have not experienced evil or will never experience evil.” He has. Over and over again in his life, David faces trials and tribulations of many kinds. The Bible never promises that if you believe and trust in Christ your life will be spared from danger or hurt. But here, David seems to not be worried about the potential danger he could face in the valley. The reason? The next line says it well: “For you are with me.”
“For you are with me” is something to highlight. This is why David is not afraid. This is how you can get through any tribulation in life — by remembering that the shepherd is with you.
And while you won’t always know why you suffer as you do, you know that, in part, the reason is for your protection.
That’s what David means when he says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” A rod is a bar of metal or wood. Think of a fishing rod. It’s a tool for defense. A stick is for discipline. In that day, Palestinian shepherds usually carried a rod to fend off wild beasts. A staff is meant to guide and control the sheep. The blow might be painful, but it’s for your good.
How the Israelites Would Have Heard This
As soon as an Israelite would have heard the first line of this Psalm, or song, his or her mind would reflect on how God recused the Israelites from Egypt. As one commentator pointed out, the first few verses are meant to remind the reader or the singer of God’s provision and protection for his people escaping Israel. All those years in the wilderness, all those trials the Israelites faced, and all those wandering years and yet the Lord cared for and provided for them every step of the way.
The Israelites to whom this was written often feared not having water and food provided for them, but for you, that may not be your struggle. For some, you might be struggling with the Lord’s provision and care in other areas. This Psalm is a reminder that the Lord will lead and guide and protect and provide for his people in every situation.
The 23 Psalm Points to Jesus
Psalm 23 points you to Jesus. Here’s a quick look at how:
• David used to risk his life for the sheep; Jesus laid down his life for the sheep.
• David and Moses are referred to as shepherds; Jesus is the greater shepherd.
• A traditional shepherd lays down his life to protect the sheep; Jesus lays down his life to provide salvation for his sheep.
The New Testament pictures Jesus as our great shepherd. In John 10:11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for you. He took upon himself the wrath of God so you wouldn’t have to. If he was willing to die for you to purchase salvation and give you the gift of eternal life, isn’t he powerful enough to continue to provide for you and take care of you all the days of your life? He went up high on the cross so that he can be down low with you in the valley of the shadow of death to help you with whatever you are going through. He does not promise to spare you from trouble, but he does promise to be with you in your trouble.
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- This article is an edited excerpt from a sermon I preached on the 23 Psalm. In addition to the ESV Study Bible and the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, there were a number of biblical commentaries that helped me in putting this material together. ↩