Reflections on Psalm 23: Part 1 of 4 (vv.1-2) To download pdf click here
A psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
Thus begins the most well-known and popular psalm, in the first book of psalms (1-41) which are almost all ‘of David’ and use God’s name, Yahweh. Exactly half of the 150 psalms in the Bible are attributed to King David. Here he compares himself with a sheep. ‘Why a sheep?’, we might ask. Right at the start here we have a vivid picture, typical of Hebrew thought then and now. Sheep are not exactly the brightest of animals. A valuable source of wool and milk then, they live in a perpetual state of anxiety, always nervous; they rarely lie down. They had reason in David’s day. Lions and wolves roamed then, now extinct in the Near East, and they even feared birds who would peck at lambs’ eyes. They needed the protection of a shepherd who knew them individually by name, and who would lie across the sheepfold door at night to protect them. ‘Shepherd’ is also an allusion to kingship in the OT (a king was seen as the shepherd of his people, for example Ezekiel 34:1-16, v.15, ‘I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.’), but here David the king pictures himself as a sheep under God’s kingship and shepherding care and protection.
Anxiety is the commonest reported psychological illness today and, without exception, we are all anxious from time to time, such is the pace of modern life and its pressures on us. Even advertising is designed to cause anxiety – ‘you must have this latest device’ – and we become anxious because we ‘lack’ it (fear of missing out!). ‘Fear not’ is the commonest command in the Bible. But this is not new. David the king did not exactly ‘lack’ much. He could have what he pleased, even seducing another man’s wife, and causing her husband’s death. After all, he was the anointed king. But a state of anxiety plagued him, too. Thus, he perceived his need for protection and guidance. Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, was his Shepherd, and so he ‘lacked nothing’. This last phrase in the Hebrew is a continuous state in the present and into the future. ‘I want nothing’ or ‘I shall not want’ are equally good translations, but both are true. The ‘nothing’ cannot refer to his worldly needs, rather he is expressing his dependence on his God, his Saviour. Remember, Lord (spelt with small capitals in our bibles) translates God’s name, Yahweh, which means our Saviour God.
He [Yahweh] makes me [causes me to] lie down in green [grassy] pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters [Hebrew, waters of rest]. The picture language is sustained. The verb ‘… makes me …’ does not imply coercion; rather, David is confident that God causes him to rest without fear under His protection. The word translated ‘quiet’ or ‘still’ is essentially Noah’s name, and implies rest, comfort, relief and even salvation (see Genesis 5:29, ‘… and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief …”.’). And even the word ‘lead’ implies ‘to waters of rest’. That’s what shepherds do. And that’s what David’s and our Shepherd does for us, if we trust in Him. This word translated ‘rest’ implies far more than just ‘take a short break’, a much deeper and lasting rest is meant, for example Deuteronomy 12:9 ‘… you have not as yet come to the rest ….’ Ruth 1:8-9 ‘The Lord grant that you may find rest …’, 1 Kings 8:56 ‘Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people ….’ Psalm 116:5-7 ‘The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord protects the unwary; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.’ Notice the words gracious, righteous, saved and soul in this last reference. We shall encounter them later.
The Hebrew ‘waters’ (always plural) is closely linked with ‘seas’ (See Genesis 1:10, ‘…and the gathered waters he called seas.’). In the OT these words frequently connote chaos (Genesis 1:2, ‘…and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’), destruction and death (for example Ezekiel 27:34, ‘Now you are shattered by the sea in the depths of the waters …’). God, not Man, is sovereign over the raging of the seas (for example Psalm 93:3-4, ‘… the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea; the Lord on high is mighty.’; Job 9:8, ‘He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.’). ‘Waters’ evokes fear, but not here, in Psalm 23, in God’s presence, where David finds rest and comfort.