Commentary on Psalm 23
The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favorite.1
And yet for all its familiarity, there may be some nuances to the Psalm we have missed, some reflections scholars might share to deepen our sense of the most comforting words ever composed.
Consider one four letter word in verse four: thou. The second-person pronoun “thou” is old English, a relic from the 1611 King James Version. The vast majority of the time we prefer modern translations of the Bible — but Christians cling to a 400-year-old translation of Psalm 23. Why is this? Could it be that elevated language, words with some lineage and dignity, are appropriate to the grandeur, the majesty, the immeasurable grace of God who is indeed our shepherd?
And here is a fascinating item: James Limburg points out that in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, “Thou art with me.”2 Perhaps the poet was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.
God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.
This marvelous news draws our attention again to the Thou. For the first three verses of the Psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd … he leads me … he restores my soul.” But with the Thou, the third person shifts to second person: “for Thou art with me, thy rod … thou preparest a table …” Instead of talking about God, the Psalmist begins to talk to God; instead of God in the head, God is a friend in the heart. A conversation happens, a relationship grows. This is faith, the only true comfort.
If we genuinely and in the marrow of our being believe that God is with us, then the only logical consequence would be, “I shall not want.”
We’ve read it, uttered it, delighted in it: but have we thought about it? Or lived it out in reality? I shall not want? Our whole life is about wanting: I want, I shop, I look, and when I have it, I want new stuff. In our consumer culture, I shall want, I shall always want. I shall never stop all my wanting because the mall entices me with ever new, shiny, unnecessary objects, and I am instructed from childhood on to want — and not merely to want, but to have.
I shall not want? “The Lord is my shepherd.” If the Lord is the shepherd, then I am a sheep, and the reason sheep need a shepherd is simple: sheep nibble themselves lost.
Sheep are not brilliant creatures, and we cannot be flattered that the Psalm thinks of us as sheep. Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.
The Hebrew original is perhaps better translated, “I shall lack nothing,” or “I shall lack no good thing.” What do I lack? Well, I lack an iPhone or a house on the coast. I lack a fully-funded pension and I lack _____. We can fill in the blank endlessly.
But it is more to ask “What do I lack?” in the sense of “What really matters that I do not have?” What, at the hour of death, would I dare not lack? The answers aren’t iPhones or vacation houses. Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), who claimed to be good and had plenty of stuff. What did Jesus say? “One thing you still lack.”
We don’t lack lots of things: we lack just one. The one thing we lack is intimacy with God. The one and only thing that can cause us to say, “I shall not want,” or “I lack no good thing,” is God. Nothing else. Just the Lord who is a good shepherd to his sheep.
God is our satisfaction. God is good enough. Or, to be truer, God exceeds whatever we may think we desire.
If “Thou art with me” is the focal point of the Psalm, and if “I shall not want” is the beginning of a new life of being satisfied with God, then the end of our life with God is this: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Why do we want stuff like iPhones and vacation homes? Is it sheer coveting? I don’t think so. We want communication devices because we long to connect. We want a house, or a better house, because no matter how far we travel, no matter how happy or sad our nuclear family might have been, we carry inside a yearning for home. In our mobile society, we may be clueless about where that might be, or if it really exists. But we still want, above all else, to go home.
Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”3 Or consider this: if you are lucky, you have fond memories of summertime junkets to the home of your grandparents. For me, it was a house that is factually small, but as a child it was large in love, in special treats, in cousins and fun. It was another home, one without problems or homework or chores, a special place of a more unconditional kind of love.
Does God give us such places in our memory so that we will learn to desire the home for which God destines us when this life is over?
Isaac Watts often recast Psalms into slightly different language. His metric version of the 23rd Psalm is eloquent, elegant, and moving: “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may Your House be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”4
Like a child at home. Yes, some children bear the misfortune of a home that is more warfare than peace, more division than love. But the fact that we recoil at the idea of any child anywhere not enjoying peace and love at home is evidence that God has wired into our hearts a keen sense of a proper destiny, which looks like me as a boy at my grandmother’s table or on my grandfather’s lap.
Various happenings in our life strike us as urgent. They make us anxious, or perhaps we have some fun or face trials. But it is all a preparation for a grand homecoming, when we will “find a settled rest … no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” Or as the Psalmist sang, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23:6).
1 Commentary by James Howell first published on this site May 3, 2009.
2 James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
3 T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, 1943.
4 Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” 1719.