Of all the 150 Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 23 is the most well-known. It speaks of our Lord as a Shepherd who takes care of us, leading us to green pastures and calming our fears even in the valley of the shadow of death. But these four words in the very first verse, though comforting to many, have also been a source of grief to others. If the Lord is my Shepherd, I should have no reason to want. But what if I still have wants? Unanswered prayers? Struggles and trials and lacks?
Let’s look at the phrase carefully. “I shall not want” is the wording in the King James (English) version of scripture. More modern translations render the phrase as “I lack nothing (NIV),” “I have what I need (CSB),” or other variations of “I shall not want.” Let’s stick with “I shall not want,” and look at it word by word.
This Psalm is very personal. The Lord is MY Shepherd– I shall not want. This is between me and my Shepherd. I may be tempted to look around and compare, to want what someone else has, even if I don’t need it; even if it isn’t good for me. But when I depend on my Shepherd to provide, I can trust that whatever comes, He knows what I want and what I need. He knows what is best. Therefore, I shall not worry or wonder or want.
I am a former English teacher, so the verb “shall” interests me here. “Shall” and “will” are sometimes used interchangeably in English, but they are not exactly the same. “Shall” is not used much, but it indicates a future condition, or a condition that is ongoing into the future. It is not the active verb in this phrase, but rather the indicator of when that action (wanting, lacking, needing) will take place and how. The difference between “shall” and “will” in this case is not one of action, or time, but of volition. “Will” indicates a conscious decision– I “Will not want” means I will determine the action and outcome–without a Shepherd’s guidance or provision. I “Shall not want” means the outcome is determined by my Shepherd (in this case), not by my own volition or actions. There may be things I “will” still want– if I’m trying to go my own way and depend on my own wisdom and abilities, but that doesn’t change my condition–God has provided. God has given. God WILL continue to provide.
“I shall NOT want”– I may desire something else; I may not have what others have; I may be poor or sick or sad. I may respond to my circumstances with grumbling, doubt, anger, envy, greed, or disbelief. But I can also respond with trust, gratitude, wonder and worship, knowing that God sees me, knows me, and cares for my always. God doesn’t force me to respond positively to hard times– the Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall be grateful,” or “I shall never complain.” He doesn’t say, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall have whatever gives me pleasure or makes my life easier.” Rather, he gives us a true picture life– I will NOT have everything I wish for; I will NOT understand or take pleasure in all the circumstances of my life, but I shall NOT be abandoned, left alone and without help or resources, lacking any source of hope, joy, peace, or love.
Finally, we come to the word “want.” In this context, it is meant to signify lack– I shall lack for nothing; I shall not be without (God who provides). And this is where many people struggle with the verse; with the Psalm; with the Shepherd Himself. We DO lack– many things. We lack money to pay the bills, we lack in our relationships, we lack perfect health, we lack patience…the list is endless. We “want” for many things. And we read Psalm 23, and it seems to mock us. If God is our Shepherd, why do we lose loved ones to disease? Why do we have to declare bankruptcy? Why did our spouse file for divorce? Why can’t we break that bad habit or addiction? Why do we see “good” people suffering? Doesn’t God see or care? God doesn’t give us easy answers. He doesn’t promise ease and comfort in this fallen world. But He is with us, not matter where, no matter what, no matter how we got there. And He promises to renew, restore, and redeem all that we lack in the present– perfectly and forever after.
I shall not WANT. I shall suffer in the present– loss, pain, confusion, heartbreak, disappointment, failure. But I am not without– not without God’s presence in this world, and not without His promise of justice, mercy, hope, and love now and in the world to come. I am still a sheep–I have needs, I make unwise decisions, and I don’t have the ability to see or defend against the dangers of this world. But I have a Shepherd– all-knowing, all-powerful, and extravagant in Love and Grace. I will depend on Him. I will call out to Him. I will follow Him. And I shall not want!