Bible Study

4. I Shall Not Want

"It is easy to feel that we don't measure up." by Lt. Colonel Dan Jennings

This compelling statement by David in Psalm 23 has an interesting background. Some translators of the Old Testament have chosen to translate the original Hebrew verb haser as “want.” This made sense for early English translations of the Bible. As the use of the word “want” drastically changed over time, it became more problematic as a translation for haser. Of the 23 times that the word is used in the Old Testament, more than half are translated as the verb “to lack.” Because Psalm 23 had become such a familiar passage, many translators have hesitated to replace “want” with “lack” for nostalgic reasons. More recent paraphrases try to articulate the concept of not lacking by saying things like “I don’t need a thing” (The Message) or “I have all that I need” (NLT).

Our understanding of the concept of wanting is heavily influenced by modern culture. Now the word has much more to do with desire rather than with the notion of lacking. Much of 21st century marketing in the west is designed to appeal to our desires rather than the basic necessities of life. 

To help us gain a sense of the Hebrew concept of lacking, it is helpful to see how the verb is employed elsewhere in the Old Testament. In the book of Daniel, we read about King Belshazzar. While King Belshazzar hosted an opulent dinner, an anthropomorphic hand scratches out a message on the palace wall. This graffiti was more than just an entertaining party trick. It was a serious indictment of the King’s character. The king was desperate to know its meaning. After exhausting all of the intellect of the Babylonian brain-trust, it fell to Daniel to provide the king with a translation of the mysterious writing: “…you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting (5:27, ESV). It was an indication that King Belshazzar was being figuratively weighed against God’s standard of leadership and couldn’t balance the scales. He lacked what was necessary to lead. As the Bible Knowledge Commentary explains, “Belshazzar’s moral and spiritual character did not measure up to the standard of God’s righteousness, so he was rejected.”

David’s proclamation in Psalm 23 that “There is nothing that I lack” stands in sharp contrast. Because the Lord is David’s Shepherd, he is not found to be lacking. The contrast between the two kings could not be any more remarkable. King Belshazzar, at the height of his popularity, is found by the Lord to be wanting. David, during a low point of his reign, recognizes that he has been found in the Lord’s sight to not lack anything. 

Character and Provision

David conveys two important themes in proclaiming that he is not in a state of want. First, because the Lord is David’s Shepherd, there is nothing lacking in his character. Even with all of David’s faults and missteps, he is who God created him to be. It is the God-influenced spirit of David which prompted the prophet Samuel to refer to him as a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:13, ESV). Despite his many shortfalls, David affirms that he lacks nothing and is not in a state of want. His character is intact and has withstood the Lord’s measurement—due to his relationship with the Shepherd. It is because of this relationship that he can confidently say that he is not in a state of spiritual depravity and want.

Second, in affirming that he is not in want, David is confessing the Lord’s provision. He describes himself as being completely content with his circumstances. There is nothing that David lacks or must have to sustain himself beyond what the Lord his Shepherd supplies. A great many of us wish we could make such a bold and remarkable affirmation—to be completely content and at peace, not lacking that which is necessary for our basic happiness. What makes this statement even more remarkable is to understand its context. It is broadly accepted that Psalm 23 was written and “belongs to the time of the rebellion under [David’s son] Absolom.” 

David had to run for his life into the Judean desert after being exiled from his palace. David and a few of his loyal followers certainly wanted for a more hospitable place. This desert lacked enough water to properly sustain life. It lacked shade from the overwhelming heat. It lacked all the comforts of home, including the prestige of the palace in Jerusalem. Still, it was here that David made this great affirmation of God’s provision. 

We often tie our temporary circumstances to our worth and ignore the worth that is ours owing to our relationship to the Shepherd. When we face hard situations and resources seem to fall short, we can question God’s care for us. We are tempted to measure ourselves in the unbalanced scales of this world. This is expressed in three primary ways: 

  1. We measure ourselves by other people. This is an old and fruitless exercise. It is a shell game that lures us in and takes advantage of our nature. The outcome is fixed. We can’t ever win when we play the game of comparison. 
  2. We measure ourselves by our own unrealistic expectations. We can be our own worst critics and judge ourselves harshly when we fail to achieve our over-ambitious goals. 
  3. We measure ourselves against inventions of culture. The Apostle Paul gives us good advice. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2, NIV). 

It is easy to feel that we don’t measure up, but even in the darkest and most desperate moments, we can come to realize just how complete and real God’s provision is. Because the Lord is our Shepherd, we are not lacking. We measure up. We are loved, and have no need to compare ourselves to others.