If you know five passages of the Bible, chances are that Psalm 23 is one of them.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…
That’s how this iconic praise poem begins in the King James Version of the Holy Tome, before going on to talk about green pastures, quiet waters and a cup that runneth over.
Normally, I’m a firm believer in contemporary-language Bible translations, prayers and liturgy, but there’s something about Psalm 23 in the KJV that restoreth my soul, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
I encourage you to spend some time in this Psalm in its entirety – soak in it, memorize it (it’s both short and memorable, so this is not a tall order), read it – early and often. In any translation.
Or better yet, in multiple translations. The various English versions of the Bible approach the text from a few slightly different angles, rendering Psalm 23:1b as:
- I shall not want
- I shall not lack
- I lack nothing
- I will never be in need
- I will always have everything I need
- I am never in need
- There is nothing I lack
- I will not lack for anything
- He gives me everything I need
- He cares for me always
- I shall lack nothing
- There is nothing that I shall lack
- I do not lack
But today, I want to focus on an obscure, and maybe obsolete, rendering of the text that used to be on that list, but isn’t anymore.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want…
For a time, this is how Psalm 23:1 was translated in the New International Version of the Bible. These days, the NIV says ‘I lack nothing’, but at some point in the past, it said ‘I shall not be in want’.
Presumably, the current version is truer to the original Hebrew, or the NIV editors wouldn’t have changed it. I’m happy to defer to them on that point, but I think there’s some wisdom and some value in exploring the way they translated it previously. After all, it drifted (seemingly) randomly into my consciousness the other day, and struck me as interesting. I’ve learned to follow little white rabbits like this, because some of the time, they turn out to have been sent by God.
So here goes:
What a curious phrase.
Somehow, to say someone is in need of something seems to carry more urgency and weight than to say someone simply needs something.
If you need food, you simply go buy some food. But if you’re described as being in need of food, it implies that you don’t have money to buy food, or that food isn’t readily available to you.
If you are in need, you can’t get out of need without help. And the lack of the thing you need prevents you from enjoying life and fulfilling your purpose. Therefore, your need limits and, to some extent, defines you.
In this context, need is something like a prison.
Maybe that’s why we don’t use the phrase ‘in want’ as much as the phrase ‘in need’. We know that wants are nice-to-haves, not must-haves – so it would be ridiculous to describe ourselves as being imprisoned in, and defined by, the luxuries we merely want.
… but accurate…?
Don’t we live as though we are in want, a lot of the time?
- In want of a bigger house.
- In want of a better car.
- In want of a bigger TV.
- In want of the latest video game system.
- In want of a travel trailer (or a bigger travel trailer).
- In want of more leisure time.
- In want of more guitars.
- In want of more money.
- In want of a better career.
- In want of better vacations.
- In want of better friends.
- In want of better relationships with our loved ones.
- In want of better health.
We know these things are luxuries; that it is entirely possible to live a full and happy life without a 2016 Nissan Juke and a red Gibson ES-335. We know that our 2000 Hyundai Elantra is 100% effective at getting us from Point A to Point B, that we already have a couple of really good guitars and we can only play one guitar at a time anyway.
And yet there are times that life just doesn’t seem complete without these shiny trinkets.
It’s not that there’s something wrong with wanting any of the things listed above. In many cases, we should want them – and I think it’s safe to say that in some cases (but probably not all), God wants these things for us.
The trick is knowing how to want them, without being in want of them. To live into the reality that having these things would neither save me, nor make me worth saving.
I’m neither a linguist nor a scholar, but when I consider what it means to be in want of something, it feels to me like we’re entering the territory warned against in the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet.
This is a tricky commandment, because coveting is not so much a behavior – like killing, lying, adultery or stealing – as it is a state of the heart. And coveting isn’t something we consciously choose to do, it’s more like it’s something we fail to choose not to do.
As Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) asked Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in the 1991 classic chiller The Silence of the Lambs, ‘Do we seek out things to covet? … No. … We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes move over the things you want?’
Coveting just sort of happens to us, doesn’t it? We don’t want to covet. We know that it feels terrible to covet. But we see things other people have, and think, ‘Why them? Why not me?’ We covet without even realizing it.
So how do we un-covet? How do we extricate ourselves from our desires, so we have them, rather than them having us? How do we stop being in want?
A few years back, Steven Furtick, pastor at Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, suggested it can be helpful to treat the Ten Commandments as one long admonition, but substitute ‘that you may‘ instead of ‘Thou shalt not‘ at the beginning of the Tenth Commandment:
I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make any graven image. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Honor thy father and mother. Thall shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness against thy neighbor, that you may not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals or anything else.
Furtick suggested that faithful obedience to the first nine commandments is what enables you to live out the 10th. It helps you become the kind of person who is content with, and grateful for, what he has – and therefore does not covet other people’s stuff.
Therefore, I shall not be in want.
Peace be with you.