"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want" - Psalm 23:1
What a lovely sentiment. I have seen this psalm invoked many times by people attempting to comfort themselves or others. It may not be too much to say that this entire psalm is devoted to reassuring God's people in times of fear. So it is an appropriate psalm for us to examine.
The 23rd Psalm and Real Life
This verse tells us that those who have the LORD as their shepherd need not fear need. Yahweh's people are not subject to want or lack in the same way that those who do not have him as shepherd are. At the same time, it is possible for God's people to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. The presence of Yahweh as shepherd does not preclude exposure to danger; it only limits the nature and extent of that exposure. This limiting of the nature and extent of the exposure is a key to which we must pay close attention.
The message of psalm 23 is, in part, that God's people can live free of fear of want. And yet, rather incredibly, God's people can and do suffer want. God's people have been persecuted, martyred, and subject to famine and drought just like other people. And while we tend to enjoy focusing on the victories in King David's life as a young shepherd boy or as a persevering and faithful king elect, it is much harder to reconcile this psalm's message with the character and events of David's life following his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. From that point on, and by the decree of God no less, relatively few good things happen to David in the last half or so of his life. He loses a child, one son rapes his half-sister, more than one rebellion occurs, David is forced to flee Jerusalem, and one of David's sins brings a plague on the people.
In fact, we have a terrible penchant for overlooking the morally gory and sinfully grisly details of the lives of saints whom we love to eulogize. We read Psalm 23 as a pastoral psalm with the same escapist desires as someone who might take up and read Far From the Madding Crowd. Psalm 23 must be able to be read for real life with all its mundane dangers and fears. We need God to be our shepherd for real life and not just for those times we wistfully wish for another kind of existence. The Lord is our shepherd for this existence, and this existence is hard. So what is Psalm 23 saying?
It cannot be saying that bad things will never happen to God's people. It must be saying that having Yahweh as shepherd guarantees provision of something else that cannot be taken away. But it must not refer to hunger, thirst, pain, persecution, or even death. And if the verse doesn't guarantee those things, does it guarantee anything? These are the kinds of things we fear after all.
If this verse does not denote any actual protection from want, this is mere sentiment and can only be appreciated for its poetic beauty. But I take it as axiomatic that this psalm's message can't be meaningless for real life.
What Psalm 23 Offers
The key, I believe, is in the safety and security that having Yahweh as shepherd does supply. The kinds of things that we fear almost all focus on needs and wants related to the wellbeing of our bodies. We fear hunger, thirst, pain, death. And yet, these unpleasant and even mortal experiences are limited in their reach. They do not reach to the level of our souls. With Yahweh as our shepherd, the outward tent can be harmed only, not the inner being (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1).
The apostle Paul's writing in 2 Corinthians and Philippians are a master class in understanding how one can be subject to great privation and yet suffer no want. Paul can be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down without being crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed (2 Cor. 4:9). Paul claimed to have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. He learned to be content in whatever situation he was in (Phil. 4:11-13). Paul learned, in other words, not to fear want. Paul could say by faith and with experience, "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want." And this emphatically did not mean that Paul did not face hunger, thirst, pain, danger, and death (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
Surely, then, we must begin to appreciate the importance of separating the wellbeing of our souls from the wellbeing of our bodies. They are not interdependent. A soul can be content while the body is suffering, and the soul can suffer while the body is enjoying pleasure and security. Paul's body wanted much while his soul wanted nothing, and with that Paul was content.
Psalm 23, then, ought not to be taken as a promise of personal bodily protection. Instead, it ought to be interpreted in terms of the wellbeing and satisfaction of our souls, which have needs that are even more fundamental than the needs of our bodies.
How then can this psalm help us with the fears we have regarding want, need, or lack regarding our bodily needs? It seems to me that the power is precisely in properly distinguishing and weighing the needs of our bodies relative to those of our souls. The mistake we make is that we conflate them. We tend to functionally live as though if I do not have my bodily needs covered, I die and that is the end. But that is not the end.
Perhaps the main correction which Scripture offers to us in our fear of lacking something necessary for our bodies is the reorientation of our priorities. If we tend to over-value physical safety, it stands to reason that we under-value the well-being and flourishing of our souls.
It is striking to me even as I write this how unfulfilling and disappointing this point will probably seem to many. We are people who ignore our souls' wellbeing to the point of functionally denying the existence of anything more basic to our essence than our bodies. And when we read Psalm 23 in the light of this wrongheaded perspective, we tend to distort the scriptural message by forcing it to give us comfort for which it is not intended. And then we are disappointed or confused when it seems that we do suffer want, and we either go on confused or we chalk up Psalm 23 to mere sentimentalism.
The brute fact is that Yahweh's sheep do suffer want. Nevertheless, David can pen Psalm 23 in sincerity and integrity because want from which he is safe is not bodily want at all but the want of his soul. David's soul, and therefore his life, and therefore his hope, is secure with Yahweh as his shepherd. David is content with that, and we can be too.