Scholars generally divide the 23rd Psalm, the so-called Shepherd’s Psalm, into two parts. The first half employs the image of the shepherd—My shepherd is the Lord, there is nothing that I want; the second half engages the image of host—You have set a table before me in front of my enemies. This distinction offers a possible way to organize one’s thoughts on the psalm.
My preferred interpretation rends this prayer of Israel into five parts.
The assertion of the first verse receives confirmation in the other verses. The Psalmist states with confidence: “My shepherd is the Lord, there is nothing I shall want.” Everything follows from opening. We might wonder with what confidence we can pray this verse. Do I really feel that I want nothing? Many of us could make a list of the things that we want. The psalmist, however, will insist that the Lord supplies all these wants.
First of all, one seeks the Lord as comforter. He brings me to green pastures where I can lie down, where still water can refresh me, and where my soul can rest. In the midst of all the circumstances that can trouble me, I know the relief of that context. I want what the Lord offers. The Lord comforts me.
Secondly, the psalmist recognizes that the Lord guides and protects him. God leads me along right paths on which he stays with me and directs me with his rod and staff. The Lord will not allow me to get lost or abused. The Lord is my Guide and Protection. I want to journey with that confidence.
Thirdly, the Lord takes care of me. In this part of the psalm, we recognize how the Holy One provides for the psalmist. He sets a table for him, anoints his head with oil, and fills his cup to overflowing. The Lord nourishes and provides for his own. I want to trust in this truth.
Finally, the Lord is faithful. Our God will stay with us all the days of our lives and afterwards. We will dwell with him for endless days. I want the Lord as my Faithful Companion.
When the Psalm insists that the Lord is his shepherd. I hear that, and from that truth, I know that I want nothing because the Lord is Comfort, Guide and Protection, Provider and Faithful Companion. I want nothing, because the Lord is everything to me.
Jesus prayed this Psalm with his family and with his coreligionists. What might it have meant for him; how could Jesus have used it? Could it have given force to his insistence of being the good shepherd or the sheep gate? Could it have suggested the desire of the shepherd to track down the one lost sheep? Perhaps other things? The psalms constituted a part of the prayer life of the Jews for many centuries before the first. Jesus certainly prayed them with Mary, Joseph, and his compatriots. We should expect that these lessons of shepherd and sheep would find their way into his preaching and imagery. And they do. Knowing the context of some of the psalm can give particular meaning and focus to the ministry of Jesus.