Psalm 23 is probably most widely quoted and recognised of all the psalms and most people - church or otherwise - would be familiar with it. But how many of us really understand it? Or has familiarity bred a kind of blindness to what it is really saying or teaching?
The opening line introduces the theme for the whole psalm. It begins with an amazing promise:
"The Lord is my shepherd therefore can I lack nothing" Or in the less poetic Message translation: "God, my shepherd! I don't need a thing."
Which ever way you look at it it's quite a promise, that if we trust God to be our/or my shepherd,
there is nothing that we will lack. But is that what the opening line is really promising? Will God our shepherd really give us that second home in the South of France we have always wanted—welcome to my dreams—or a lottery win next weekend? Will God our shepherd really solve all our personal problems and give us trouble free lives until its time to leave our home here on earth?
If we look at it more closely I don't think that that is what it means. It starts with that opening statement but then continues to unpack what it means as the psalm progresses. What does it mean that we will lack nothing?
First it means that God will provide for us what we need to eat and drink—green pastures and still waters. If we trust God as our shepherd—David is saying—we will have enough to eat and drink - our physical needs will be met.
Second, it means that alongside physical nourishment God will also provide for our spiritual needs. He will restore our souls. The word means "to repair, renovate or return to former condition".
What was our “former condition” as a people? If we go back to Genesis chapter 2 we will see that it is an unbroken relationship with God. Adam and Eve there represent what it means to be in close friendship with the one who created us. But then they disobeyed and death became a reality. The question the psalm is asking is this. What condition is your soul?
When you and I die it doesn't matter how well we have looked after our bodies. It's the condition of our souls that really matters. Are they dirty or clean? Are they healthy or unhealthy? What is our relationship
with God like? Are we close or distant? Are we friends or strangers? If we know God as our or my shepherd that's a question that is already in the process of being resolved as we walk with him or alongside him. That is the place of restoration and renewal as he “brings us forth in the right way for his name’s sake.”
Next, because of that relationship we will have no fear of death. How? We will know and trust that when we walk through the darkest valley - the Hebrew actually means ravine which is narrower and more constricting - he will be with us protecting us with two things.
First his rod - a short club to beat off our attackers namely the roaring lion which is the devil or the wolves
which are the false prophets and teachers; And second his staff or crook which hooks round the neck of the sheep to haul them and us back onto safe ground and the right path.
Fourth, whoever our enemies are - whether people, or circumstances or illness and disability - with God as our shepherd we know that we will triumph over them. And here the psalmist pictures a victory meal which takes place "in the presence of them that trouble me".
Here we will be cleansed with oil and full with celebratory wine, not dirty and empty - signs of happiness, contentment and ultimate triumph.
Lastly, having known the loving-kindness or grace and mercy of the shepherd all the days of our lives we will then live in his presence - the house of the Lord - forever.
All those things - physical needs, spiritual needs, protection through death and the overcoming of our enemies as well as assurance of our eternal destination - all these things are what it really means to "lack nothing" because they are what in the end really and ultimately matter.
Just one final and very important point. And it's a challenge. Do you know God like that? Is He your shepherd? Are you aware of his guidance and provision for you? Do you trust him? That's the condition for promise that is made. If the condition is not met - the promises are null and void. Do you really know God as your shepherd?