One of the most famous lines in the whole world is “The LORD is my shepherd,” found in Psalm 23:1 in the Old Testament’s Psalter. Five words in the English language, two in the Hebrew, the simple statement has captivated and encouraged the souls of millions for ages.
Tucked generally into the middle of the first book of the Psalms (there are five books within the entire Psalter—Book I is Psalms 1-41, Book II is Psalms 42-72, Book III is Psalms 73-89, Book IV is Psalms 90-106, and Book V is Psalms 107-150), Psalm 23 aptly captures the spirit not only of Book I but perhaps the whole of the 150 psalms. What we know of it is that it is a psalm of David the king of Israel, likely penned by him on the heels of a difficult season, thus the allusions to the “valley of death” (see Psalm 23:4) common in our English translations.
But the first few words are the most memorable. Let us consider some important features of that most notable phrase.
First, an assumption is made regarding the existence and preeminence of God. Without explanation regarding where he is or how he enters into the scene, God is simply there. In the Hebrew language the word is the famous Yahweh (sometimes pronounced Jehovah). With that unique word God is presented to us as the self-existing “Great I AM” (cp. Exodus 3:14 and Hosea 12:5), the all-powerful and majestic covenant God who is at once self-contented and yet engaging in relationship beyond himself. At least some of the things he does and ways he relates are detailed in the remainder of Psalm 23. Those points alone speak to his sovereign rule and guiding hand upon this life and beyond.
Secondly, action is assigned to this unique God, particularly the action of “shepherding.” While the English language commonly translates the passage “The LORD is my shepherd,” the Hebrew more accurately suggests “The LORD is shepherding me.” The word for “shepherd” is actually an active participle, giving it a verbal thrust that is quite important to the overall idea. The word essentially means to feed or nurture, and has metaphorically taken upon itself the tone of governing or ruling. It is a word ascribing some authority for care and guidance to a shepherd, and in this case in particular, to Yahweh. It is Yahweh’s job and desire to nurture and guide the recipient, like a shepherd takes care of a little lamb. The participle enables us to see this as happening in real-time, right now—an action that reminds us of God’s intentional, tender and even aggressive care for the one he loves. It is a present reality. He is all-powerful, and he is all-loving.
And the one he loves is “me.” This third detail worth noticing is very important, primarily that “me” is better than “my.” The English says “The LORD is my shepherd,” and in so doing it subtly implies that whoever is represented by “my” is the owner of the shepherd, the one having some priority. And yet the Hebrew has it as “me” at the tail end of the two-word Hebrew phrase (the “i” at the end of Yahweh roi), highlighting some semblance of subordination to Yahweh as well as to the activity of the shepherding. In a sense the great God is my shepherd, and yours, but only in that we are dependent recipients of his intentional tender nurture and guidance.
It is these three items that perhaps more than anything else give life to the whole of the Psalter, and which define reality for every man and woman who has ever lived. How we respond to the statement “The LORD is shepherding me” speaks volumes about how we view life and our role within it.
It effectively sets the stage for . . . everything.
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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding summary is from the message “Book I: Psalms 1-41”, the first message from a brief series entitled “Verses to the King: A Survey of the Psalms,” a study through the Psalms, presented on the weekend of May 26, 2013, at Bethel Church.