This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.—Psalm 23:1
God as Shepherd
If you had a blank canvas to sketch a single picture of Israel’s exodus from slavery, what would you draw? The picture in your mind’s eye is possibly not the one the Bible depicts.
Psalm 77 portrays God’s redemption of his people from Egypt in this way:
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. —Ps. 77:19–2
Observe the imagery in Psalm 78 as well:
He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
The firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.—Ps 78:51–53
So when the Bible puts the exodus, the great event of Israel’s redemption, on Instagram what do we see? A divine shepherd leading his flock of under-shepherds and sheep through terrible danger to complete safety. God is a shepherd.
What kind of shepherd is he?
God’s rescue of his people in the book of Exodus is preceded by his revelation of his name to Moses at the burning bush. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14). This unusual rendering of the Hebrew verb “to be” points to “One who remains constant because he is independent.”1 God is who he is without us. He is who is from before we were until after we have been. God’s existence is from himself and for himself, and there is nothing about him derived from anyone or anything else. He is absolutely self-sufficient self-existence.
This is illustrated by the burning bush where Moses encounters God. As Sinclair Ferguson says, “The fire that was in the bush was not dependent on the bush for its energy to burn. It was a most pure fire, a fire that was nothing but fire, a fire that was not a compound of other energy sources but had its energy source in itself.”2There is such wonderful beauty here that it is worth just lingering over this. Consider these words of Alexander Maclaren:
The fire that burns and does not burn out, which has no tendency to destruction in its very energy, and is not consumed by its own activity, is surely a symbol of the One Being, whose being derives its law and its source from itself, who can only say—“I am that I am” —the law of his nature, the foundation of his being, the only conditions of his existence being, as it were, enclosed within the limits of his own nature. You and I have to say, “I am that which I have become,” or “I am that which I was born,” or “I am that which circumstances have made me.” He said, “I am that I am.” All other creatures are links; this is the staple from which they all hang. All other being is derived, and therefore limited and changeful; this being is underived, absolute, self-dependent, and therefore unalterable forevermore. Because we live, we die. In living, the process is going on of which death is the end. But God lives forevermore. A flame that does not burn out; therefore his resources are inexhaustible, his power unwearied. He needs no rest for the recuperation of wasted energy. His gifts diminish not the store which he has to bestow. He gives and is none the poorer. He works and is never weary. He operates unspent; he loves and he loves forever. And through the ages, the fire burns on, unconsumed and undecayed.3
Doesn’t this help us see how incredible it is that the Lord should be our shepherd? I believe the point of this revelation of who God is to Moses was precisely to assure him that the impossible was about to happen for God’s people in Egypt, because the infinite, eternal God had come to lead them home. It is because of who God is that the exodus happens at all and why it succeeds. He is the all-powerful One.
A Loaded Metaphor
It is interesting to observe in the narrative of Exodus 3 that when God calls Moses, he “was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian” (Ex. 3:1). Much like how the Lord Jesus takes men catching literal fish and makes them fishers of metaphorical fish (Matt. 4:18), so God takes a man tending literal sheep and makes him a shepherd of metaphorical sheep, his people, with the Lord himself as their chief shepherd guiding them safely from slavery to freedom and to his dwelling place. Moses is being educated at the start of his mission that, because the Lord is with him, it cannot and will not fail. God himself is the ultimate shepherd, the one who can be utterly relied on to rescue and redeem his people because he needs nothing from anyone. You cannot help this God in any way, and so you cannot harm him either. He is able to provide for you in all the ways that you need.
This means that when David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1), sings “The Lord is my shepherd,” he is using what Peter Craigie calls “a loaded metaphor.”4 This phrase is not simply loaded with David’s own experience as a shepherd boy; even more so, it is back-loaded with the great saving event in Israel which so identified the Lord as the saving, all-sufficient shepherd of his people. It is a metaphor that, of course, receives its clearest expression in the saving, shepherding work of the Lord Jesus. He declared himself to be not only the good shepherd (John 10:11); he also said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The Lord Jesus, our good shepherd, is the Lord himself, which means he is our sufficient shepherd.
The beauty of Psalm 23 is that it is so simple and clear that it almost needs no interpretation or exposition. It is short, easily memorized, and it has poetic images and a lyrical tilt which has lodged this song in the collective consciousness of every believer through the ages. But when you unload the metaphor of the Lord as our shepherd within the psalm, then the riches of all its verses shine all the brighter.
Before you were, I was, and after you are no more, I will be. I am the first, I am the last, I am a God outside time before time began.
Look how needy David is in Psalm 23. He requires food, rest, water, guidance, shelter, comfort, housing, helping. You name it, David needs it. And look who it is that gives to David what he needs: the God who needs nothing and no one. The One who says to his people, “I am who I am.” Before you were, I was, and after you are no more, I will be. I am the first, I am the last, I am a God outside time before time began. David is telling you that the God of heaven can meet your every need precisely because he is the One who has no need of anything himself. He shepherds you from his eternally undiminishing fullness, and he is never the poorer for it. And more than this, precisely in saying that the God of the burning bush is a shepherd, David is saying that the self-sufficient God is not the self-absorbed God. The self-existent God is not the self-interested God. Rather—wonder of wonders—the God who is so strong clothes himself in a picture of the closest tender care for those who are so weak. It is a way of saying that he puts all the resources of his infinite fullness at the disposal of finite creatures. He is a shepherd. As Martin Luther says,
The other names sound somewhat too gloriously and majestically, and bring, as it were, an awe and fear with them, when we hear them uttered. This is the case when Scripture calls God our Lord, King, Creator. This, however, is not the case with the sweet word shepherd. It brings to the godly, when they read it or hear it, as it were, a confidence, a consolation, or security like the word father.
It is this first clause in Psalm 23:1 that gives all the meaning to the second clause: ‘I shall not want.’ Although made up of only four words in Hebrew, Psalm 23:1 contains an implicit logical flow: “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore I shall not want.” Because the Lord is my shepherd, I lack for nothing. If I have him, I have everything. He is mine; so I have all I need. Harold Kushner argues for a translation like, “I shall lack for nothing.” The meaning is that God will provide me with everything I need. Or as a colleague of mine beautifully rendered it, “The Lord is my shepherd, what more do I need?” The issue of whether I desire things beyond that is beside the point.5 Kushner adds the anecdote of a sign he once saw in a shop window: “If we don’t have it, you’re better off without it.” “The message of the psalm would seem to be that, if you don’t have something, no matter how much you crave it, you don’t really need it. If you needed it, God would have provided you with it.”6
This is a profoundly God-centered view of life, the universe, and everything in it. This psalm is a tool in God’s hand that he uses to recalibrate our desires. It is an oasis in our materialistic wasteland. It invites us to stop and rest awhile and consider afresh who God is for us in the simple plenitude of his being and the endless riches of his covenant love. David, it seems, knew in advance what the apostle Paul would later describe as the ability to live “having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10).
If Psalm 23 says so much in only six verses, then even more amazing is the fact that, in a sense, Psalm 23:2–6 are merely an expansion on verse 1. The whole of Psalm 23 is there in one verse. Each of the other verses simply fills full what it means to belong to a God like this. Martin Luther said that “The Psalter is a little Bible, and the summary of the Old Testament.”7 That’s a lovely phrase, for it shows how it’s possible to see the whole of the story of the Bible encapsulated within smaller parts of the Bible. And if Luther was right to say this about the psalms, then I suggest that Psalm 23, with its exodus themes of rescue, companionship in the valley, and hosting in the wilderness—all the way to the shepherd’s house—is itself a little Bible within the little Bible of the Psalms.
- Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Revelation and God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 554.
- Sinclair Ferguson, sermon excerpt in Timothy Brindle, “Self-Sufficiency,” (bonus) track 14 on Shai Linne, The Attributes of God, Lamp Mode Recordings, 2011.
- Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952-1959), 23-24; cited in Philip G. Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, Preach the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 87-88.
- Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan: 2004), 206.
- Kushner, The Lord is My Shepherd, 30.
- Cited in William S. Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 7.
David Gibson is the author of The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion, and Host.
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