Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. When we become familiar with someone or something, we can miss the incredibly wonderful and unique things that person or thing has to offer. Psalm 23 is a case in point.
This is without a doubt the most beloved of all the psalms and one of the best-known passages in all of Scripture. But our familiarity with it can cause us to overlook its incredible message.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want” (v. 1). Those words are so familiar that modern translations often choose to retain the slightly older language (“I shall not want” [ESV]) rather than a more contemporary equivalent, such as “I have everything I need” (CSB) or, as Dallas Willard put it, “He gives me life without lack.”
Willard had first-hand experience raising sheep and observed that the psalm highlights this message of contentment in the Lord. “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” This is not typical of what we would expect of sheep, notes Willard. Sheep graze in green pastures and drink from still waters. The imagery here, however, is that the sheep are so satisfied—their stomachs so full and their thirst so thoroughly quenched—that their favourite meals hold no interest for them. Instead of grazing, they lie down in green pastures; instead of drinking, they walk contentedly beside the still waters. They are content with the shepherd. As the CSB translates it, in him they have everything they need.
Significantly, this does not mean that they are free from threats or difficulties. The valley of the shadow of death still lies in their path (v. 4). They still face the reality of enemies (v. 5). But in the face of these dangers, they do not find their peace in the abundance of their supply but in the person and the character of their shepherd.
How we need to be reminded of this truth! Are we not too often guilty of finding our satisfaction in God’s good gifts to us rather than in God himself? We should, of course, be thankful for God’s supply and the many good gifts that he gives to us. But we must find our ultimate satisfaction in the giver, not in the gifts that he gives. Ultimately, we enjoy a life without lack not because we have sufficient green pastures or still waters but because we have a good shepherd in whom we find our satisfaction.
In our journey through life we may enjoy green pastures and still waters. We will also most surely walk through the valley of the shadow of death—facing loss, hunger, disease, aging, and death—but even when God’s good gifts are stripped from us, we must remember that our contentment comes from our shepherd, not from the things he gives. When we learn this, we can sing with Helen Lemmel,
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in his wonderful face,
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim
in the light of his glory and grace.
Take some time this morning to reflect on the wonderful promise of this psalm that, in your good shepherd, you have everything you need. Then go into your day knowing that whatever you face, good or ill, does not change the promise that, in Christ, you can live a life without lack.