Old Testament Psalms Psalm 23 I Shall Not Want

I Shall Not Want

Veruca Salt is the famous little girl in the novel by Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She is the spoilt child, she rarely hears the word no, and if she does then she kicks and screams until she gets what she finally wants. From her parents’ perspective, she is a darling princess who deserves anything and there is no price too high to pay for her. Now in a fictitious story, especially one written for children, and more so that it was written by Roald Dahl, the characters have a cartoonish nature to them. The traits are exaggerated and personalities are larger than life. We read the words of the Psalm “I shall not want,” and think we will be like Verruca Salt. However, this is the furthest from the truth. Today we will see three ways how the sheep of the good shepherd shall not want.

As we mentioned before that all of this Psalm hangs on the first line, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Only if the Lord is your shepherd then you can utter this phrase, “I shall not want.” This line in Hebrew is only two words, the first is the negation, “not” or “no”. This is the simple portion of the two words. The second word speaks of being cut short or lacking. Never having enough. However, the line says “I shall not want.” I shall lack nothing. Martin Luther expands on this line and says, “I shall assuredly want nothing. I shall eat and drink, and have an abundance of clothes, food, protection, peace, and necessaries of every kind, which contribute to the support of life.” [1] While I think Luther shows the fullness of this word, he might be focusing on the physical things of this world. I prefer Stevenson’s expansion on this line, “Whatever may be the troubles and difficulties, the straits and changes, of my future life, I know my heavenly Shepherd will not withdraw his watchful care, nor withhold any blessing that shall be really needful either for my body or for my soul!”[2] The sheep of the shepherd will not be lack. We need to stop here and think once more that sheep can often think of few things on their minds, the shepherd watches the surroundings, weather, and even plans. The sheep are sitting there eating their blades of grass. We need to think about this line not from a sheep’s perspective but from the shepherd, who knows better than the sheep. So as we unpack this line in the verse we need to focus not on the sheep but on the shepherd.

The Shepherd loves the best

If we need to consider the sheep’s needs we need to think of the shepherd’s love for the sheep. Verruca Salt’s parents thought the best way to love their child was to give her anything that she asked (demanded) for. You might even hear this thinking today, “I just want them to be happy.” Well, intentions do not mean they are good actions.  The shepherd loves the sheep. When we think of what we do not have often we come not with the attuite of assuming God’s love for us but the opposite, we assume God is withholding something from us. This is terrible theology, but sadly I think too common for us all. This is why Paul writes in Philippians 4:11, that contentment is something he learned. Contentment is not natural to the sinful man. As one needs to go to college to get a degree the Christian must learn contentment. This is far greater than a four-year degree. This is a lifetime of distant learning.

We see this discontentment since the fall of the serpent had instilled doubt into the minds of man. God had provided all that Adam and Eve needed in the garden, at the end of creation we were able to say it was very good. However, the serpent plants the seed of doubt into their minds. The serpent tells Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4–5). Notice that in this question the serpent tells the woman that they lack something. At the moment God knows something that you do not. God is withholding something good from you. Satan has not changed his ways, he still today plants this seed that there is something good that God is not giving you. We think contentment is found in getting things, however, contentment is found in trusting God, and his goodness. Jeremiah Burroughs in his classic work, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” says that contentment is found not in addition but in substruction,

“But now contentment doth not come in that way, it comes not in (I say) by the adding to what thou wantest, but by the substracting of thy desires; it is all one to a Christian, either that I may get up unto what I would have, or get my desires down to what I have; either that I may attain to what I do desire, or bring down my desires to what I have alreadie attained; my estate is the same, for it is as sutable to me to bring my desire down to my condition, as it is to raise up my condition to my desire.”[3]

The issue when it comes to contentment does not lie in God not giving us what we want, but what we want. We do not need more things; we need fewer thoughts. Again, what a next-to-impossible task in this world. Advertisements all are based on the idea that “we have something you need.” Your life would be better with this car, with this phone, with some form of experience, or the mouthwatering burger. The world says contentment is found in things and more things. But this is a never-ending cycle, there is always another advertisement. But Psalm 23 says that contentment is not found in things but in a person, the good shepherd. Because the sheep are close to the shepherd they will not be lacking anything. Before the Psalmist mentions green grass, water, or anything else he has made the bold statement he lacks nothing.

Once we understand more about the good shepherd we know of his goodness and love towards his sheep. Think of God’s provision of his people in the past. In Exodus chapter 16 when the Lord provides manna for his people in the wilderness, Moses explains that even the person who gathered a small amount had no lack (Ex 16:18). Throughout the forty years of walking through the wilderness the people of God lacked nothing (Deut 2:7). Now that does not mean that they were content. You want to consider something throughout the rest of this day think about what is it that makes the anger of the Lord be kindled against the Israelites in Numbers 11:1, “And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” The people complained, they questioned the shepherd’s love for the sheep.

The Shepherd knows the best

Underlying this is that we think we know better than the Lord. Think of the people of Israel’s complaint in Exodus chapter 16 against Moses and Arron, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” They think they are lacking. They are only thinking of that moment, like Esau who despised his birthright (Gen 25:34). They would rather stay enslaved in Egypt than cross the wilderness to the promised land. However, God knows best. He knows where his sheep need to be. You even see this in this Psalm it begins in green pastures and ends in the house of the Lord. Verses four and five are found in the middle. Jesus, the good shepherd, says “I know my sheep.” As his sheep are worried about what is for dinner that day, God is leading them to the place where they will never thirst or hunger. Psalm 78:52-54 says,

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. And he brought them to his holy land, to the mountain which his right hand had won.”

Iain Campbell put it this way, “God shepherded his people all the way to their destination. If we are in his flock, that will be our life story, too. He may take us down roads we never expected to travel or would never have chosen for ourselves.”[4] Not only we must trust in the shepherd’s goodness, but also his knowledge, he can see further than that patch of green grass in front of us. He knows ourselves and knows what we need, thus we will not have any lack. Again, the positive of this that often feels like a negative is that the best thing for us is what feels painful at the time.

The Shepherd gives the best

Finally, we will have no lack because the good shepherd gives the best. John 10:27-28, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” We lack for nothing when we are given everything that we need. We love passages like Jerimiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Or Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” However, God has never promised to us life with no suffering, actually the message of the Bible, I would say, is that believers never find comfort in the world, and only in Christ. Notice in the Jeremiah passage God says to his people through the prophet Jerimiah, “I know the plans I have for you.” Because of this Paul can then write, “we know…” But also notice how Paul says that all things work together for good. It is not that each thing is good in itself; suffering and persecution are never good, the author of Hebrews says that the discipline of God is painful rather than present (Heb 12:11), but the verse before we are told God disciplines us for our good (Heb 12:10). We will talk of this more later in the Psalm. The point I seek to make today is that The shepherd gives the best to his sheep. In this life, we receive the best from God, even if we do not think we need it. Veruca Salt did not need a golden goose. Her parents thought giving her everything is the way to show love, but Biblically those who normally have everything the world has to offer do not seek God, which is actually who they need.

When the Lord is our shepherd, we lack for nothing. He provides everything we need, not the wrongful desires of our hearts. He has given us the greatest gift of all, the glorious inheritance in all the saints (Eph 1:18). Once we ponder the foundation of “The Lord is my shepherd” and begin to understand more about the good shepherd then we know we will lack for nothing. That the shepherd loves the best, knows the best, and gives the best. Where else would we go? John Stevenson writes the end of his chapter on this under beautiful headings. He explains that “Happy and blessed is the true believer! He can look upward… downward to earth… inward… backward… forward… and onward forever… explaining “I shall not want.”[5] One of the greatest hymn writers is William Cowper, he translated a hymn entitled contentment that sadly does not get sung. This poem or hymn speaks to the great truth of this portion of the twenty-third Psalm.

O Lord, how full of sweet content
Our years of pilgrimage are spent!
Where’er we dwell, we dwell with thee,
In heaven, in earth, or on the sea.

To us remains nor place nor time:
Our country is in every clime:
We can be calm and free from care
On any shore, since God is there.

While place we seek, or place we shun,
The soul finds happiness in none;
But with our God to guide our way,
‘Tis equal joy to go or stay.

Could we be cast where thou art not,
That were indeed a dreadful lot;
But regions none remote we call,
Secure of finding God in all.


[1] William S. Plumer, Studies in the Book of Psalms: Being a Critical and Expository Commentary, with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks on the Entire Psalter (Philadelphia; Edinburgh: J. B. Lippincott Company; A & C Black, 1872), 309.

[2] John Stevenson, The Lord Our Shepherd: An Exposition of the Twenty-Third Psalm (New York; Pittsburg: Robert Carter, 1846), 44.

[3] Jeremiah Burroughs, “Sermon II,” in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (London: W. Bentley, 1651), 20.

[4] Iain D. Campbell, In the Care of the Good Shepherd: Meditations on Psalm 23, First Edition., Reflections (Leominster: Day One, 2009), 21.

[5] John Stevenson, The Lord Our Shepherd: An Exposition of the Twenty-Third Psalm (New York; Pittsburg: Robert Carter, 1846), 58–60.

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