“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Even if you haven’t read the Bible very much, you are probably familiar with that line from Psalm 23. Also known as “The Shepherd Psalm,” Psalm 23 is probably the most commonly read and quoted chapter in the entire Bible. We recite it at funerals, and we read it when we feel afraid or sad. It even shows up in movies like Titanic and pop songs like Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio. A couple of years ago, Bible Gateway published a list of the 10 most searched-for Bible verses on its website. Five of the top 10 verses were from Psalm 23. I am certain that many people around the world have turned to Psalm 23 during this past month, as we’ve faced a terrifying global crisis and deep uncertainty about the future.
For centuries, Bible scholars have pondered the question of why this particular psalm is so deeply loved. Why do we return to it time and time again in the midst of crisis? After all, there are many Bible passages in which God is referred to as a shepherd. The Bible is full of reminders about how God provides for his people in the midst of uncertainty and fear. So what makes Psalm 23 so special?
I think Psalm 23 is powerful for a simple but surprising reason: the first-person singular pronouns. In case you’ve forgotten your middle-school grammar class, the first-person singular pronouns in English are “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine.” In other words, King David didn’t write, “The Lord is a shepherd,” or “The Lord is the shepherd,” or even, “The Lord is our shepherd.” Instead, the first verse of Psalm 23 begins with the powerful affirmation, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Psalm 23 personalizes the metaphor of God as our shepherd to a degree that no other biblical passage really does. Most of us know that shepherds provide for and protect their sheep. They lead their sheep to food and water. They fight off wild animals and bandits that threaten their sheep. The Scripture is full of imagery describing God as a good shepherd for the nation of Israel and for the world as a whole.
But it’s one thing to know that God is a good shepherd in general, and another thing entirely to know that he is my good shepherd. It’s not just that God cares about Israel, or the world in general. It’s that God knows and cares about me specifically.
Think of it this way: When I am sad or scared, I can trust that God is taking care of the world. He’s leading the world to a good place. The Bible is clear about that — he has a perfect plan for our world that cannot be defeated by sin, sickness or death. But Psalm 23 tells me that God is also taking care of me. Yes, he has the whole world in his hands, as the first verse of that old song tells us. But he also has you and me individually in his hands, as the third verse tells us.
If God is your shepherd, then you can trust that he sees you and cares about you right now. He knows your name and knows what you need. If you’re locked in your home, afraid of what tomorrow holds, he sees you and he cares about you. If you’re sick and in pain, he sees you and he cares about you. He wants to lead you to a good place, where your future is secure and where you have all that you need and more. The Scripture makes clear that we will find that place of perfection when Jesus returns one day. He will remake the world into a kingdom where pandemics, war and natural disaster will no longer wreak havoc and destruction.
So allow me to ask you this question: Is God your shepherd? Do you believe he knows you and knows what you need today? Do you believe he wants to lead you to a place of hope and of life? Will you follow him there?
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, God’s only Son, claimed to be the good shepherd of Psalm 23. In doing so, Jesus was claiming to be God in human flesh. In doing so, Jesus was making a bold statement: if you want God to be your shepherd, you must follow Jesus. If you do follow him, he will lead you to a place of abundant and eternal life. Jesus said that nothing could ever separate him from his sheep. Not even a global pandemic can snatch God’s people out of the hands of the shepherd. Jesus died for his sheep, and then he rose again. As a result, not even the horrifying shadow of death can destroy the relationship between the savior and his sheep.
Wherever you are right now, and whatever you’re feeling, you can trust that God sees you and he cares about you individually. He knows your every need. He is not only the good shepherd. He also wants to be your good shepherd. In the midst of so much uncertainty, grief and fear, the most important question we can ask ourselves is whether we will trust and follow the good shepherd as he leads us to a place of hope and eternal life.
Matt Morton is the teaching pastor at the Creekside Campus of Grace Bible Church in College Station.