I love words. They are like small windows that open up onto huge realities. Even grammatical words can hold large truths in them. There are times when our language is simply not capable of expressing what we need it to, but many times words contain a great deal more than we ever think about. This is especially true with the Bible, where a lot of meaning can be packed into only a few words. I feel sometimes that if we could fully understand a single verse of the Bible fully, we would be wiser than any person in the world.
Take Psalm 23 for example. It’s probably the most famous chapter in the Old Testament. Many people have it memorized (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”) especially in the King James Version. The problem is that the more we know something, the less we think about it. Do you actually think about what every word means when you sing the national anthem or Happy Birthday? Probably not. Those don’t matter much, but when it comes to the Bible, there can be a lot of truth hidden in every syllable. Let’s look at the first verse of Psalm 23 in closer detail:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1 (KJV)
The — This means something that is unique and definitive. This excludes any others from the same plane, letting it stand alone in our minds as we invoke it.
Lord — A king and a ruler. The monarchical term is a metaphor for God’s relationship not only with us, but with all of creation. He is above all, ruling and overseeing everything. (Here, of course, we see a limitation in human language: the English word Lord indicates male even though God is neither male nor female.)
Is — Even though it’s small, this is one of the most significant word in the whole language, a statement that something exists. It is in the present tense, which indicates not only existence in the present moment, but for an unspecified amount of time, stretching into the past and on into the future.
My — This shows there is a personal relationship on some kind, a connection to myself. We are not talking abstracts here: this is something that affects each and every one of us intimately.
Shepherd — This is a metaphor that shows the nature of the relationship. There is a lot packed into these two syllables. It contains the image of a flock of sheep ranging around the countryside, seemingly on their own, but always under the watchful eye of the shepherd. When they wander away, he finds them. When they get stuck in a bush or fall down a hole, the shepherd gets them out. A sheep has nothing to be boastful of. It is constantly and totally dependent upon the shepherd for safety, food and water.
I — Like “my”, this makes it personal. However, “I” is the subject, the one who must do something. The first sentence was a statement of fact. This is where we come in to do our part.
Shall — This word isn’t used much anymore, but is similar to “will”. “Shall” is a word of definiteness. If words like “might” and “maybe” are sand, “shall” is a granite boulder, something that can be depended on. We can rest in peace within the promise of this future certainty.
Not — This word is a solid wall that divides the existent and non-existent. “Not” nullifies of what comes after it. We can have faith that God will keep us always on the right side of “not”.
Want — In this situation, this mean being insufficient, or lacking in some way. It brings up the image of hunger, loneliness, parched throats and empty spirits. In God, we will not lack for what we need, because God does not know insufficiency. He is completeness itself and joined with him, no part of us can remain incomplete, any more than a submerged cup can remain empty.
And that is just one verse. Behind all words, especially ones that hold such great truths, there is a whole universe waiting.
This piece is an updated version of one I posted on Facebook in 2011.