Psalm 23:1 and Contentment: The sheep under the shepherd's care

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on March, 04, 2021

Psalm 23:1 and Contentment

By contemplating on David’s contentment, we can better appreciate his growing dependence on the Lord.

“The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want”

(Psalm 23:1 NASB).

Psalm 23:1 is probably the most frequented Bible verse, even more than John 3:16, which has received such popularity only in the last decades. Psalm 23:1 has spoken peace to millions of people over thousands of years, even by mourners standing by a newly dug grave.

What did David mean by “I shall not want?” How does this phrase relate to genuine contentedness, and how can we find it true for our lives?

Different Expressions of Psalm 23:1

There are many different versions of Psalm 23:1.
A couple of translations narrowed down this verse’s interpretation when they rephrased it, “I have everything I need” for Psalm 23:1 literally states, “I shall not want.”

  • The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (NIV)
  • The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (NET)
  • The Lord is my Shepherd. I will have everything I need. (NLV)
  • The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. (NLT)
  • The Lord governeth me, and there is nothing that I shall lack. (Wycliff)
  • Jehovah [is] my shepherd, I do not lack. (Young’s Literal)

These many translations attempt to squeeze the most juice from these few powerful words. You, I, and millions of others have greatly profited from how David personified himself as a sheep. David knew well how sheep responded to different circumstances because he was once a shepherd (1 Samuel 16).

Shepherds and Sheep

God’s special care for him somehow triggered David’s memory of his former shepherding days along with their vivid scenes.

When thinking of a contented lamb, he discovered a wonderful release from the pressing world’s anxieties. Even as a king, prophet, general, and father, he found that he didn’t need to get consumed by life’s stressful circumstances. Perhaps, while strolling past a field, he got a glance of a few sheep wandering about—they didn’t seem to have any need in the world. They were quite unaware of the world’s events swirling about them.

This peace of God produces extravagant contentment, being deeply assured that someone carefully watches over my concerns. The rest of the Psalm describes David’s ambling through all sorts of pleasant and pernicious places, but Yahweh, the Shepherd, cares for him. David concludes that he will never miss out on what he genuinely needs, “I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).

“I have need for nothing” or positively put, “I have everything I need.” Or if we want to play with the sense of time, “I have and will have all that need.” The inclusiveness of all sorts of places and times, even distant future scenes, ushers in the peace that passeth all understanding.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).

David verifies this lesson in Psalm 28.

7 The Lord is my strength and my shield;

My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped;

Therefore my heart exults,

And with my song I shall thank Him.

8 The Lord is their strength,

And He is a saving defense to His anointed.

9 Save Your people and bless Your inheritance;

Be their shepherd also, and carry them forever.

Extreme Sufficiency

To broaden our image of this extreme sufficiency, I’d like to contrast this approach to our concerns with our typical life frustrations when we seek the full purpose for our lives in Christ. Our lives end up focusing on life’s many pursuits, some good, others bad.

Our appreciation of God’s grace develops as we humble our hearts and find abounding contentment.

I don’t think we can rightly understand these verses’ power until we put them in the full context of life’s complex setting. Whether it be a bus driver caught in another urban traffic jam or a nomad traveling on the windy plateau, life is never simple. Our desires thrust us into what seems endless paths of seeking the life’s fullness.

It’s here that David speaks. He is not telling us to put aside our concerns; Psalm 23 directs us to many of them. (Pause here and pick out David’s many life situations found in Psalm 23.)

Psalm 23 is not for the retired who have no remaining ambitions (though it’s a delusion to think the elderly have no life concerns!) but for those who face life’s challenges. It’s here that David found the Lord’s presence so precious, just as a lamb might glance up to make sure his shepherd is within sight.

David spoke of ease and contentment not because he did not face many challenging situations, but also because he did! Similarly, the believer who seeks to grow and gain all that God has for his life will face ongoing problems. Think of the young person seeking a spouse, a mom caring for her infant, or the father wanting to keep his job in a gloomy economy. They seek fulfillment of these desires (let’s consider them wholly wholesome) while seeking the Lord. So I would like us to focus on what “I shall not want” might mean in light of our stressful circumstances.

To find Christ’s all-sufficiency as our Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), we need to consciously step through two stages: the stage of humility and contentment. David, here, leads us to the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd who cares for us when facing life’s difficulties.

#1 Humility: Capturing the Joy of Dependence

Genuine humility occurs when one sees himself apart from God’s grace—broken, sinful, weak, impoverished, and spiritually dead. He discovers that the welfare of his life wholly rests upon the Lord. Any good found in his life assuredly stems from the Lord’s “goodness and lovingkindness” (Psalm 23:6).

Before discovering God’s mercy, one must view one’s naked, shameful, and sinful life. Without God’s purpose, life, and Spirit stirring within Him, he is nothing. Without the cross and salvation’s powerful redeeming work, man would be like a dead branch, waiting its turn for the fire (John 15:6).

We increase our appreciation of God’s mercy and goodness, when we see our lives apart from God and with God. With and without God become two extreme contrasting points of experience, the prior being the one, which becomes the source of true contentment.

#2 Contentment—“I shall not want.”

True contentment arises when thinking of God’s care for one’s life. It’s here in the presence of Yahweh that the believer finds an abundant stream of flowing mercy (e.g., “my cup overflows” Psalm 23:5).

This stage of contentment trails the first stage of humility, becoming its blessed result. God’s Spirit animates the vulnerable and weak by making them know and do God’s delightful will.

Contentment flows from the humbling of one’s heart like a spring from the ground. Or like flinging a shade wide open, exposing our vulnerabilities allows light to shine upon one’s needy state, reminding him of the need and beauty of God’s grace.

Psalm 23:1 provides the key to understanding David’s contentment, which is found in his confidence that he doesn’t lack anything that he truly needs.

Some versions adapt the “I will not lack” to say, “I have everything that I need.” Although it is a poor translation, it captures a wonderful truth.

Godly contentment, like Paul says, is a treasure chest of grace. There are no worries or troubles in the world that can disturb one’s confidence in God’s care for him or others. This doesn’t mean that we don’t face frustrations, hindrances, or downright evil in one’s life—we do, but that they cannot displace or threaten the Good Shepherd’s constant care and peace.

“But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6).

We delight in our immediate opportunities, knowing all will work out fine (Rom 8:28). This is true for catastrophes, upsets, losses, etc. The sheep contentedly grazes upon what is before him. He posses all he needs. If he needed more, God would provide that.

The Lord, Yahweh, redirects our paths and even intervenes as necessary. Our trust in the Lord exudes such confidence that one can truly focus on Him and make Him our chief delight and enjoyment. This is where Paul’s confidence to say, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” comes from (Phil 4:4).

There are no worries or troubles in the world that can disturb my confidence in God’s care for me.

Once we have given up the quest to show off our strength, wealth, and smarts, we find the freedom to explore and experience God’s blessings in this and that corner of our lives.

Trust in Action

Our recent move from our snug Pennsylvania home to an unknown destination took us through an eight-month unsettling period, requiring an enormous amount of physical moving and emotional adjustments. Our eight children were now grown up and moved out. Before that big move, I often easily strained my back, not allowing me to move hardly anything. But somehow, during this time, this potential problem never troubled me. Only recently, after the “big” move, while lugging a futon mattress, did my back trouble me a bit—but this snapshot enabled me to look back to observe how God amazingly provided for my wife and me this last year.

My troubled back, fractured foot, empty bank account, etc., unmistakably point out my weaknesses. Still, through this honest assessment of my frailties, I’m able to see how God’s presence keeps me and enables me to carry out His will. These memories pile up through the years, one after another. They not only call us to give thanks to such an awesome God but to desire to be with Him forever: “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).

As that confidence in the Lord increases, a person is more willing for God to show him his weaknesses and welcome His help to cope with his vulnerabilities. David appeared to hold this perspective when writing Psalm 23. He was not strong and powerful, but a sheep under the care of His good Shepherd (John 10:11).

Maturity is not a stage of perfection but a progressive stage wherein a believer welcomes the Spirit to uncover and fill the hidden dark places of his life, which Satan subtly attempts to use for his sinister purposes.

The Awakening of our Souls

The preparation work often takes longer than the nice-looking final coat of paint. We must do the dirty scraping and patching before applying the bright coat of paint. We first discover humility by thinking about ourselves without the Lord, allowing us to take an honest look at ourselves.

The perfection of the final job depends on the thoroughness of the preparation. The Holy Spirit assures us that He patiently works with us, but His work is conditional on how well we prepare our hearts. Contentment with His presence is a highly sought attainment.

The Old Testament openly points out David’s very dark times. David writes Psalm 23:1 while viewing his frailties, being constantly criticized if not by the establishment (with King Saul), then his family (Absalom), and many enemies.

Conclusion

Perhaps David wrote Psalm 23:1, remembering that he was not the Promised One of old. “Yahweh is my Shepherd.” Yes, God did much through David’s life, but God appointed one of David’s descendants to be the Promised One (1 Sam 7:12-13). We get to look back at how Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, became and is now our Good Shepherd too (John 10:11).

Psalm 23:1 reminds believers from all ages to cast themselves upon the Lord who cares for them (Ez 34:12). By viewing the sending of His only Son to shepherd us and lay His life down for us, our hearts are flung open, grateful to have found eternal life in Christ.

David has redeemed his many bad choices by refocusing on the Lord who saved him. Like David, we have the opportunity to look up from our sins and frailties and gloriously behold our glorious Shepherd, who never fails us. The Lord is our Shepherd!

Extravagant contentment

Discussion Bible Questions on Psalm 23:1

  1. Memorize Psalm 23:1 and share your favorite thought from this verse—just one.
  2. Pick out your two favorite translations of Psalm 23:1 and share why they are your favorite.
  3. Who is the shepherd? What one experience from David’s life helps you know that David trusted the Lord (lit. Yahweh)?
  4. How does David describe himself in Psalm 23? Why do you think he was comfortable doing this?
  5. Pick out the many life situations David spoke of in Psalm 23.
  6. What are the two stages to fully appreciate God’s grace.
  7. Share an experience that helped you think of being broken and gain an honest understanding of your weaknesses.
  8. Have you ever entered the point of being aware of one’s helplessness and guilt?
  9. Why does the author state that contentment follows genuine humility?
  10. Describe any periods of peace and joy in your life that issue from the comforting presence of Yahweh, your Lord.

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