We shall not want: On Psalm 23

by David H. Petersen

The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)  

This familiar sentence is more than poetry. It is a confession of faith.

Christ, our Good Shepherd, lacked everything so that we, His sheep, would want for nothing. He had no earthly home, no place to lay His head. He was hungry in the wilderness, thirsty upon the cross and stripped naked for His execution. He let go of life, breath. He died. Everything we need, He went without.

Yet out of His lack comes our abundance. His righteousness covers our iniquity. His innocence removes our guilt. His thirsting slakes our thirst. His hunger satisfies our hunger. His death gives us life.

With Christ as our Shepherd, we want for nothing, even though, in fact, we often do want — for now. We endure terrible lack. We suffer evil. We know hunger and thirst. We die. And yet we confess that we shall not and do not want. We stand on the edge of the grave and say what we know is true even though it is not our experience: “O grave, where is thy sting?” We confess no lack or want because in Christ, even now, we have a place to lay our head, a home and a bed. We have the Church, a family, a place where we belong, a choir in which to sing. We have food, drink and clothing — and more than this, we have the spiritual goodness that Christ provides for us in the Church, goodness that does not fail. We are nourished with His body and blood. We are clothed with His holiness.

This is more than poetry. It is a confession of reality, a reality that supersedes our sight and experience. In Christ, even in our want, we want for nothing. He is our Shepherd. We shall not want.

He makes us lie down in green pastures. In the still, comforting waters of Holy Baptism, our Good Shepherd, the prince of Peace, who laid down His life for ours, provides rest, safety, and health. He restores our souls. Once, in those still waters, He named us as His own. Even now, He makes those waters a restoration and abundance. They well up within us. They define us: We are baptized. We belong to Jesus the Good Shepherd, Provider and Giver who does not fail. He has claimed us. He has put His name upon us. Our souls are restored and we are set again upon the paths of righteousness.

Those paths wind through the valley of the shadow of death, filled with lack, abundant with want. We must all pass through this valley. There is no other way through it. We cannot go under or over or around. No one gets out of the Church Militant alive. No Christian can avoid the cross, because no Christian is above his Master. The sorrow and suffering we and others face may be horrific, but thanks be to God, it is fleeting, temporary. It is real, but only a shadow. We do not abide in the valley of the shadow, but only pass through.

The shadow is fleeting and temporary, and we do not face it on our own. Our lives belong to Christ and to one another. We do not walk through the valley alone. The Lord places the solitary into families. Look up. There is the Pillar of cloud. Look around. There are your brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Look up again. The Pillar is not stationary. He is moving. He is leading us through and out of the valley. Death itself has become a passage to life. This isn’t a tunnel. It is a grave. But the angel has rolled away the stone. The Light is the dawn of the resurrection. This world is not our home. It is a shadow of want and lack and death. We are all only passing through.

We could not make this journey if our Lord Himself had not made the way before us. He walked through this valley. He set a pavement for our feet, a path of righteousness right through the enemy camp. He is not only one of us who suffered in justice, betrayal, want. He is one of us who died. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, God immortal made mortal to bring captivity captive.

Baptized into Him, we do not suffer as those without hope, as though the valley was the destination or had no end, as though we did not have an Advocate who knows our pain and pleads our cause. We suffer as those who walk, not only with each other, but also with Jesus. We walk in the hope of passing through this valley, of coming to the city not built with hands, to the rooms He has prepared for us, and to our people who have gone before us.

Already now, we know and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. We shall not want. Our souls are restoredHis rod and His staff, His Law and His Gospel, His cross, they comfort us. The goodness and mercy of the Good Shepherd chases us, pursues us, hounds us if He must, so that we stay on the paths of righteousness and make it to the blessed end of His promise.

As we walk, the Good Shepherd is on every side. He is on the right and the left, before and behind. There is no sin He has not forgiven, no accusation He has not deflected, no hair He has not counted. He is guiding and protecting by forgiving and loving. It is His goodness and His mercy that follow us, that spares us, that keeps us safe from every attack from every direction, even those that come from within.

The end of the tale is not yet told. Our suffering will not abide forever. While our joy is not yet full, it will be. It will be! And it will not end when we abide in the house of the Lord forever. That joy is without end. Jesus lives. He keeps on living. He will not stop. He lives to abide with and comfort us.

The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This is not just poetry. It is more even than a confession. It is a promise and a song of praise. The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The Rev. David H. Petersen is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind.

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