I am going to the Central African Preaching Academy to teach pastors how to use Hebrew when preaching God’s Word from the Old Testament. How does that work? Let me see if I can illustrate it for you. Let’s look at Psalm 23:1 in a couple English translations.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. KJV
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. NASB
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. ESV
There is no difference in these translations. Let’s look at Psalm 23:1 in Hebrew. Keep in mind that Hebrew reads from right-to-left rather than left-to-right.
מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד יְהוָ֥ה רֹ֝עִ֗י לֹ֣א אֶחְסָֽר׃
The first thing to note is that מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד is actually what our English Bibles record as the title of the Psalm. The title is actually part of the text; it’s Scripture! Your English Bible might put the title in the same text formatting as the rest of the psalm. A good rendering of מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִ֑ד would be, “A Psalm by David.” Notice I said by instead of of because the לְ in front of David’s name functions to denote authorship. It is an inscripturated fact that David wrote Psalm 23.
Next, all the English translations I quoted above refer to God as “The Lord.” Why is Lord in all capitals? Because it is God’s personal, covenant name that is being used. In the Hebrew text it is יְהוָ֥ה. At some point after the Old Testament was written, Jews began reading the Hebrew equivalent to Lord (master) instead of pronouncing God’s covenant name for fear of taking the Lord’s name in vain, breaking the third commandment (Exodus 20:7). However, this is a hyper-reverencing of God’s name. Taking the Lord’s name in vain means invoking it for worthless things that do not honor Him. His name is Yahweh.
It is important that David is using God’s covenant name in Psalm 23:1. First, God’s name is connected with His absolute being. This is seen when God talks with Moses from the burning bush.
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Exodus 3:13-15
We can see here that God is relating His name Yahweh to His eternal self-existence and independence. The Hebrew root for being/”I am” is connected to the root word of God’s name in Hebrew. You could basically understand God’s name as meaning “He is.” Yahweh has always existed and relies on no one and nothing else for His existence. He doesn’t need anything outside of Himself for His existence.
There’s more to David using God’s covenant name in Psalm 23 though. God not only made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai through Moses. He made a covenant with David Himself.
Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ ”2 Samuel 7:8-16
Here, the promise to David is that his kingdom shall exist forever. God had taken the shepherd David to be king over Israel and ultimately to produce a king in the Davidic line to rule forever. Shepherding was a common metaphor for kingship among the regions surrounding Israel. So, when we read “Yahweh is my shepherd,” we have to see the rich backdrop of God’s covenant with David. David is recognizing as Israel’s king that Yahweh is David’s king Who cares for David and has established an amazing covenant impacting the whole world.
What about the last part of Psalm 23:1? The KJV, ESV, and NASB share the same rendering because the 1611 version of the KJV used the wording, “I shall not want.” It has become engrained into English-speaking Christian culture. I grew up reading and memorizing this text. Often I would think that this was my response to God being my shepherd. I shouldn’t be discontent ever, I shouldn’t want anything, because Yahweh is my shepherd. While that is a valid application of the text, that isn’t quite what the text means.
The Hebrew verb has a root idea of lacking or having need. Some of the noun forms of the word have to do with poverty. Older English used “want” in the sense of need more often than we do today. That is why the KJV (and subsequently the NASB and ESV) rendered the verb this way. With the particular conjugation of the verb and the particular negation used, a good rendering would be “I shall never become needful.” The focus is not on David’s contentment per se, but on Yahweh’s supply so that David should never, ever enter into a state of need. It’s not just that David is not needful as he writes this psalm but that he will never even enter into the state of need.
I know what you’re thinking. How in the world can David claim this? In his life, whether fleeing from Saul or dealing with the Philistines or fleeing from his own son Absalom, he always seemed like he was in need. Let’s ramp up the tension even more. This psalm follows on the heals of Psalm 22 in which a king in David’s line suffers the most intense agony and persecution. How can a Davidic king claim to never become needful even in the midst of such suffering and deprivation? Because Yahweh is the everlasting God Who doesn’t need anything Who has made a covenant with David. Yahweh defines what David’s needs are, not David. David is expressing his faith in Yahweh even in the face of suffering and death (Psalm 22).
How does this apply to me as a Christian? Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate Davidic King Whom the Davidic Covenant promises. God in His grace gives new covenant relationships to not only Israelites but also Gentiles like me through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel writers intentionally interact with this psalm.
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass [Psalm 23:2]. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. Mark 6:34-44, emphasis added.
Jesus is casting Himself as the shepherd of Psalm 23. This means Jesus was claiming to be Yahweh in the feeding of the five thousand. He does it again in John 10.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
Jesus has laid down His life for me, and I am one of His sheep. He is Yahweh, the great I AM. I am in covenant relationship with Him. I will experience times of hardship, suffering, and persecution as a Christian. I am promised that, but I will never truly enter a state of need because Yahweh is my Shepherd. Even death is not a state of need because my Shepherd conquered death itself.
I hope this look at Psalm 23:1 has given you a taste of why knowing Hebrew is so helpful for a preacher of God’s Word! God’s word is so rich and knowing how to use the original language properly can help a preacher give those riches to God’s flock.
As we prepare to leave for Malawi to seek to participate in one component of my Shepherd’s great commission, do we have real physical needs? Absolutely! Do I know that all of those physical needs will be met or that there won’t be hardship or suffering? No. But I do know that I will never lack anything that Yahweh says that I truly need for continued faith and to be able to do glorify Him with my life. There is such an opportunity here to bless the church in Malawi! Will you partner with us by prayer or financially?