It was many years before I could say, “I love Psalm 23.” I can still see the cover of my child’s storybook version. There stands David, ruby cheeks and curly hair, shepherd’s crook beside him, spotless sheep nearby. He was the model child—everything I was not. This perfect boy condemned me.
It took more than twenty years and some major sorrows before the key turned in the lock. That boy did not write this psalm. The David of Psalm 23 needed soul restoration (v. 3): he had visited “the valley of the shadow of death”; he faced “evil” (v. 4); he had enemies (v. 5). This was a well-tested believer speaking from long experience with God. His confidence about the future was based on experiences in the past.
But David was not staking everything simply on his own experience. He is not the first person in the Bible to say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” He was simply applying to himself something he had learned from Jacob.
Genesis 48:15–16 records the moving scene at the end of Jacob’s life when he blesses Joseph and his two sons:
The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys.
Jacob had not been the easiest of sheep. Even after his encounter with the angel at Jabbok, he needed more untwisting. His sad repetition of his parents’ folly of having favorite children led to family dysfunction, jealousy, sin, and sorrow. But now he looked back with clear vision and marveled at the way the Shepherd had pursued and preserved him, hurt him only to protect him, and brought about so much good. His son Joseph had already seen that (45:5–8), and he would later confirm it: what others meant for evil, God meant for good (50:20)—the Old Testament version of Romans 8:28.
What Jacob and David saw only dimly, Jesus saw clearly. The Shepherd must suffer for His sheep.
David had learned that what was true for Jacob was also true for him. And without mentioning any specific situations in his own life, he describes the Lord’s shepherding in a way that shows how applicable it is to every situation in our lives as well.
When you know that the Lord is your Shepherd, you can be confident you will lack nothing. Elsewhere, David records that even in old age he had never “seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread” (Ps. 37:25).
The verb David uses (“not want”/“lack nothing”) occurs elsewhere. During the wilderness wanderings, the people “had no lack” (Ex. 16:18). Moses could say: “These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing” (Deut. 2:7). God promised the same would be true in the land He was giving to them (8:9). He had made provision for this in the law concerning gleaning (Lev. 19:9–10).
Thus, David was probably also thinking of how Yahweh had led the multitude through the wilderness (Pss. 77:20; 78:32) and had proved Himself to be the “Shepherd of Israel” (80:1). If Yahweh could sustain that enormous flock, David concluded, then surely He could provide for one sheep. And now the Lord had vindicated his faith by meeting all his needs.
What looks at first like a shepherd’s lessons from shepherding turns out to be the confidence of a believer based on the truth of the Word of God and the revelation of His character. Perhaps this is less David the pastor thinking of caring for sheep and more David the expositor applying God’s Word to himself. He thus came to share the faith of Jacob and to experience the sovereign provision of the God of the exodus.
Jesus saw depths of meaning in these words; He must have sung them with joy. He looked back to His fathers Jacob and David and like them trusted His Father to provide all His needs. Indeed, as He explained to His puzzled disciples, His Father provided His nourishment: “I have food to eat that you do not know about. . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:32, 34).
But Jesus must also have read Psalm 23 with a deep sense of burden. For He knew that, ultimately, He Himself was “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11, 14). What Jacob and David saw only dimly, Jesus saw clearly. The Shepherd must suffer for His sheep.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus would take the place of His sheep and be led to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7). For them He would be smitten (Zech. 13:7; see Matt. 26:31). He would give everything of Himself to provide everything for us. The implication? Since He was not spared but delivered up for us all, we can be sure He will give us everything we need (Rom. 8:32).
This is what a Christian means by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson is a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously served as senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and he has written more than two dozen books, including The Whole Christ.