Archive for Psalm 23
I think the most common biblical metaphor for life is the story of the exodus. The stages of the exodus are bondage, then deliverance, followed by growth through the wilderness wandering, concluding with their entry into the land of promise. We see this metaphor expressed again and again in the New Testament. David does something a little different in his shepherd–sheep metaphor. Stepping back a bit from the Psalm, you will notice how David describes his journey with the Shepherd.
In the beginning of the Psalm, the Shepherd is before him, leading, guiding, and providing. But when he enters the valley of the shadow of shadows, the Shepherd is beside him, making his presence and protection more readily known. The next scene is a celebration of blessings, marked by a sumptuous banquet and an overflowing cup. But the Psalm concludes with goodness and faithful love behind him pursuing him to his eternal home.
Such is life. God satisfies our souls, providing for our needs. Even though God is faithful in his provision, by no means are we exempt from the challenges we find in the valleys. But it takes two mountains to make a valley. We have been blessed with many benefits that we can celebrate even on the heels of trial and tribulation. But life does not end with death. There’s more in store in eternity. His goodness and unfailing love pursue us like sheep dogs nipping at our heels all the way home.
Since the dawn of time, people have searched for a meaningful metaphor for life. Here are some samples that I stumbled upon this week:
Life is like a seed. It will never grow unless it is planted and nourished.
Life is like a river. With all its bends and rapid falls, one must follow the right path or else you’ll lose your way to the sea.
Life is like a bagel. It’s delicious when its fresh and warm, but often its just hard. The hole in the middle is a mystery, but it wouldn’t be a bagel without it.
Life is like a jigsaw puzzle, except without the picture on the box to know what its supposed to look like. Sometimes you’re not even sure you have all of the pieces.
Life is like a novel. You are the author and everyday is a new page.
And my favorite…
Life is like an elevator ride. It has a lot of ups and downs and someone is always pushing your buttons. Sometimes you get the shaft, but what really bothers you are the jerks.
David has used the metaphor of shepherd and sheep to convey what life means to him. Over the past several weeks I’ve posted about the constituent parts of the 23rd Psalm, but this week I’ll take a step back and take more of a big picture approach to this magnificent Psalm. Thanks for checking in!
The final word of Psalm 23:5 I focused on was the word CUP. When shepherds had to carry water to the flock they would fill the bucket or trough to the brim. A full bucket was easier than a nearly empty bucket to drink from. In mid-eastern culture the full cup is a sign of hospitality. To keep a guest’s cup “topped off” conveyed the message, “you are welcome, feel free to stay longer.” We can sense the same thing in modern culture in restaurants. If a server keeps your glass full, it’s a sign that your presence is welcome. When they stop filling up your glass, well, it may mean that its time to pay your check and leave in order to make room for some other hungry customer.
Here, the full cup is a picture of God’s abundant blessings. God is not stingy with his blessings. He’s not a tight wad. He’s generous to his children. So what do we do with these blessings? What is our response to the generosity of God?
Our first response to God’s blessings should be gratitude. Gratitude is important because it cultivates humility. When we thank God, or anyone else for that matter, we acknowledge that the blessings do not come from ourselves. We didn’t earn them, and we certainly don’t deserve them. God’s blessings are an act of grace. Gratitude and humility are never far apart. This is an important reminder for those of us in western civilization. I read a statistic last week that reported that if a person earns $22.00 per day they are wealthier than 75% of the world’s population. That staggering statistic alone should be reason enough to pause and express thanks to God for all he has provided.
Our second response should be to share the blessings with others. The theological significance of the nation Israel in the Old Testament illustrates this principle to perfection. God’s people were blessed, not so they could have and hoard, but so they could be a blessing to the world. Whatever blessing you have received from God is to be shared with others. Those blessings are not for you to stockpile and keep in reserve.
Our third response is to ask God for a bigger cup. In other words, ask God to increase your capacity so you can increase your Kingdom influence in the world. Jesus said it this way: “Give and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back” (Luke 6:38, NLT). Some understand this to mean that Jesus is saying, “Give so you can get.” That’s not totally accurate. I believe Jesus is saying, “give so you can increase your capacity to give even more.” You’ve heard it before. You’re life is a river, not a reservoir. God’s gives his blessings to you so he can get his blessings through you. If God can’t get his blessings through you, why should he give you more?
The second word in the passage I dealt with was OIL. The word oil, like many biblical words, has layers of meaning and interpretation. Shepherds would use oil to anoint the heads of each individual sheep. This heavy oil could be used as an insect repellant, providing relief from flies and other insects. Oil was also administered on the heads of sheep who were aggressive. If two rams, for example, were vying for a particular ewe, they might “slug it out” by ramming each other. The oil would lessen the impact of the blows as the oily rams would glace off of each other. Another use was for medicinal purposes. Scrapes, scratches, and cuts would be treated with the application of oil.
Oil in the Bible was also used as a sign of hospitality. If a guest entered your home, you would welcome them by anointing their heads and feet with oil. This practice of hospitality is chronicled in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
My favorite use of oil in the Bible, however, is its use as it related to the consecration of a person for special service. Prophets would anoint kings and priests with oil as a symbol of the sacred nature of their calling. Those persons were dedicated to God for some special task, and oil represented the presence of the Holy Spirit who would energize their work.
I believe that its important for each follower of Christ to see himself or herself as called by God for some special service. For too long we’ve made much about those who are called to vocational ministry and not enough about the calling and gifting of everyone else in the church. Being called by God has nothing to do with paychecks, ordination credentials, and seminary diplomas. It has everything to do with understanding the fact that as a believer God has gifted and empowered you to serve him in some important way. If you’re a Christian, you’ve been called by God to serve in his kingdom. If you’re not sure what that calling entails, begin to ask God to reveal his special plan for your life.
“You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies. You honor me by anointing my head with oil. My cup overflows with blessings” (Psalm 23:5, NLT).
In the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm, threats are turned into triumphs. Leaving the dismal valley of the shadow of shadows, several transitions are evident. The scene moves from out of doors to indoors. The imagery changes from a sheep in a flock to a guest at a banquet. And the shepherd? He becomes the host of the feast.
There are three words in this verse that I focused on this weekend in worship. The first word was the word TABLE. In Bible times, shepherds would go to new pastures ahead of the flock to do advance preparation work. Before the flock could safely graze, the shepherd would need to eliminate any poisonous weeds that could provide health concerns for the sheep. Some scholars suggest that the shepherd would also survey the pasture for snake holes, and pour oil in and around the holes, making the serpents prisoners in their homes. When all of the safety concerns were settled, the flock would be introduced to its new feeding grounds.
David cited that God prepares a table for his sheep in the presence of enemies. So what does that mean? One obvious take is that God’s love for us is public and demonstrative. His love for his children is not secretive. When I was in high school our principal would often make announcements to the student body discouraging P.D.A.—Public Displays of Affection. God is not like that. He lavishes his love on his children for the entire world to see.
An alternative rendering of this phrase merits mention. The Hebrew word translated “enemies” can also be translated “opposites.” A person who is my enemy is certainly “opposite” of me. But it could also be taken in reference to the word table. If taken this way, David could be suggesting that the table that God provides is opposite to the tables where he formerly sought fulfillment, only to walk away dissatisfied. The loving faithfulness of God led David to “trade tables,” walking away from the tables that left him empty to God’s table that provided meaning and satisfaction.
Either way is not a bad way to think about this phrase.
The 23rd Psalm begins with warm tones and rich images. David has taken a brush and palette and painted a beautiful scene including green meadows and calm pools of water. It is pastoral and tranquil; the kind of place one would desire as a respite. But the landscape changes in verse four, where the contour shifts from peaceful to ominous.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
This is an interesting selection of words that merits a brief description. In Bible times, shepherds would move their flocks from pasture to pasture to keep them from over taxing a particular field. This transition was not just part and parcel to the daily feeding of the flock. It also involved seasonal shifts. Flocks were moved to adjacent fields in season. They were also moved to higher or lower altitudes to accommodate the change of seasons. During these season changes, a shepherd may have to lead his sheep through a valley. The valleys of Palestine that David references are not like the valleys of the Midwest. The paths leading down into those valleys would be steep and rocky. The base of the valley would be bordered by steep, rocky cliffs. Those rock formations could possibly contain wild animals, bandits, snakes, or poisonous weeds. Danger lurked behind every cleft and boulder. Because of the steep walls, little direct sunlight would touch the valley floor. Even in daylight, vision was less than optimal. Shadows would appear, shifting with the movement of the sun. Because the Hebrew language has no device for superlatives (e.g. good, better, best), the words have a poetic ring. In English we would say that the valley was filled with the darkest shadows. But David could only write of “the shadow of shadows.” Or, as we know it in English, “the shadow of death.”
What can we take away from this verse regarding the valleys that are dark and filled with frightening shadows?
First, I believe its important to note that adversity, regardless of the size or scope, is temporary. I love David’s hopeful optimism as he declares that he’s passing THROUGH the valley. He doesn’t believe his experience will be permanent. Sometimes when we face adversity, or even the mere threat of loss or pain, we feel as though there is no end and that we have little if any hope. Our adversity, whatever it may be, is temporary. How can David be so confident that there is a limit to his suffering? After all, each of us knows of someone who faced a challenge that lasted up to the point of death. I believe David viewed his adversity as a temporary condition versus a permanent state because he viewed it through the lens of eternity. Paul would agree with such sentiment. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul described his suffering as a “light and momentary affliction compare to the surpassing weight of God’s glory.” In other words, Paul knew that death was not the final experience of life. What ever he faced was temporary because he had all of eternity beyond the end of his physical existence. So do we. Our adversity is temporary. Remember, it takes two mountains to make a valley!
Second, Psalm 23:4 reminds us of God’s comforting presence with us during our moments of adversity. I think its important to observe the change of pronouns in this verse. Up to verse 4, David spoke about God. “He makes me lie down.” “He leads.” “He guides.” But in verse 4 David spoke directly to God. “You are with me.” God’s position has also changed from one who goes before as a guide to one who walks beside as an escort.
I recently read about a psychologist from a major university who did a study on pain tolerance. He discovered that a person could keep their bare foot in a bucket of ice twice as long with a person in the room as the person who had their foot in the bucket of ice in isolation.
So what valley are you facing?
A valley of death?
A valley of disease?
A valley of debt?
A valley of divorce?
A valley of doubt?
A valley of discouragement?
A valley of depression?
No matter what your valley is, you do not walk through it alone. God is with you. Our challenge as persons of faith is not to find the courage to face our adversity. Our challenge is to find the courage to trust God.
Trusting God always does more to eliminate fear that trumped up courage. I’ve said in previous posts that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). And when the fear of God is absent from our lives we become enslaved to lesser fears. David’s reverential respect for God was greater than his concern for his adversity.
Finally, when walking through your valley escorted by God, remember that he is in charge. He is in control. God is not only present, He’s armed. “His rod and his staff” bring comfort to our struggling hearts.
In Bible times, the rod was the shepherd’s weapon. It was a club carved from wood that was approximately 24” long that was carried on the shepherd’s belt. Like a mace, it had a head on one end with bits of metal or rock embedded in it. The shepherd could use it as a club or could throw it at any threat out of arm’s reach.
There is a play on words here in the Hebrew language. The same word used for rod is the same word that is also used in the Old Testament for scepter. I believe the message here is that God is not only in control, he’s also just in his rule. Our lives are not spiraling our of control as we a prone to think. God is in control.
All of this discussion about adversity begs one obvious question. If God is in control, why does he lead us to the valley to begin with? Couldn’t God just keep us up on the mountain top?
The first real vacation my wife and I took was to Colorado. A friend who had a cabin near Steamboat Springs graciously allowed us to spend a week there. During our stay we spent an afternoon riding 4-wheelers up a mountain. As we drove along the path our guide pointed out various aspects of the landscape and periodically stopped so we could take snapshots of scenic views. We came to one particular stopping point and the guide explained that we had reached timberline. Timberline is the place that marks the highest altitude that vegetation can grow. As we sat there we could look down the mountain and see the trees and greenery. As we looked up the mountain all we saw was rock. The scene was beyond description. And the lesson was this: the growth is in the valley. Mountain tops are beautiful The air is crisp and clean, and you can see with great clarity. We love mountain tops, literally and figuratively. But at the end of the day, the growth is in the valley. Valleys are important because that’s where we develop character. And, that’s where we learn to truly trust God.
“He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to His name” (Psalm 23:3)
According to David, the final element of God’s guidance and direction is that it honors Him. So a valid question to consider with each step we take in life is to ask “What honors God?” God leads us in ways that preserve his character and reputation. His leadership will always be consistent with Scripture and consistent with God’s nature.
Think of it this way. Suppose a child comes to his parent and asks if its ok to only candy at each meal. The sensible parent will deny the request for two reasons. First, the parent will consider his or her reputation and character as a parent. The parent might reflect on the request and think, “What kind of parent would I be if I granted this request?” or even “What would others think of me as a parent if I permitted my child to only eat candy?” Second, the parent will take into consideration what is best for the child. Because the parent has wisdom and experience, the parent will realize that in theory eating nothing but candy sounds good, but it will carry some negative effects over the course of time. Over time, the child may become sick, malnourished, experience tooth decay, or more dramatically, diabetes. Having evaluated these things, the parent provides guidance to the child based on his or her own nature and character as well as consideration for the health and well being of the child.
God guides us “for His name’s sake.” He will behave in ways that are consistent with his character and that glorify himself. But the glory of God brings with it the joy and benefit of his children. Its not either-or. God’s guidance is both-and! God’s glory = our good!
“He guides me along right paths…” (Psalm 23:3)
God’s guidance in and for our lives is based on our relationship with Him. As our relationship grows we learn to trust Him and to identify his voice by experience. But the challenge in receiving guidance is not just one of identifying the right voice. It includes finding the right path.
In Bible times paths could be created one of three ways. One way a path could be created was by normal foot traffic. As people used the path over and over, the terrain would be trodden down in a way that could be identified. Other paths weren’t paths at all. They appeared to be paths but were nothing more than patterns etched in the sand by wind. Following those etchings could lead one to dead ends or walking about in circles. The final kind of path was the false path created by robbers who attempted to lead the flock into an ambush where they could steal the sheep. It took a wise and experienced shepherd to guide the sheep along right path so they could safely reach their destination.
Finding the right path was not merely a matter of direction. When David described “paths of righteousness,” he was adding a moral value to God’s guidance. God is not just concerned about us being in the right place, He’s also concerned with right living. Not every decision in life is about “where will I be?” or “how much will I have?” Yes, we are primarily concerned about matters of location and vocation. That’s important, but not ultimately important. God is more concerned about the kind of persons we are becoming. What we are is always more important than where we are and what we have.
“He guides me” (Psalm 23:3)
Are you a creature of habit? I would guess that each of us have some form of routine that we cling to on a daily basis. Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. When they are left to their own devices, green pastures become wastelands and foot paths become deep ruts. Because of that, shepherds know they need to keep their sheep on the move.
Notice the relationship that the Psalmist described: “He guides me.” When describing God’s guidance, David points to the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. That relationship becomes the knowledge base for trust. This single most important value in any relationship is trust. That principle is true whether we’re talking about human relationships or our spiritual relationship with God.
There are many competing voices vying for our attention. Daily we are bombarded with messages from the media and from other people that demand our attention. Many of these messages promise a better life or a happier existence. They offer solutions to problems we may not even realize we have. Somehow we have to learn to pick the voice of God out from all the static in the signal. We want F.M. clarity, but often feel like we’re stuck in A.M. Admittedly, it can become quite confusing. As Henry Blackaby would say, “We learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice through experience.”
Learning to identify the voice of God is important, for He has the 30,000’ view of your life. He is transcendent, above time and space. He sees your yesterday, today, and tomorrow simultaneously. God doesn’t promise you a crystal ball, but He does promise to be a lamp for your feet and a light for your path.
On six different occasions, Jesus said, “Let him who has ears to hear, hear.” We can learn two things from that simple phrase. First, we’ve been created to hear. God has created us with the ability to hear his voice and receive divine guidance. Second, God has something to say to his children. If we are not hearing the voice of God, it could be that we are either not listening or can’t identify his voice through the din of noise that distracts our attention. When we struggle to hear from God, the first and best thing we can do is to become still. Sit down and relax. Turn off the media and get quiet. Shut the door and get alone. Then we can meditate and focus on the God who is not silent.
“He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3).
Shepherds claim that one of the challenges with tending sheep is that they can easily become cast, meaning that when a sheep rolls over on its back it is incapable of righting itself and getting back on its feet. The scenario goes something like this. A sheep will lie down in the grass, then roll over on its side to become more comfortable. If a sheep is particularly fat or has a heavy coat of wool, it can gradually turn over on its back with its four spindly legs sticking straight in the air. And then its stuck, completely dependent upon a shepherd to come to its rescue and help it stand up on its feet again.
Like sheep, we can become cast. Usually the culprit is some sin or sin pattern that overwhelms us. Spiritually we become “cast” and find ourselves in desperate need of restoration. Over the years I’ve observed in myself and others some typical responses to sin.
First is denial. “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. I did nothing wrong.”
Second is justification. “I did it but had a good reason to do it.”
Third is minimization. “It’s not that big of a deal, why are we making a big deal out of nothing? We all make mistakes.”
Fourth is the plea of ignorance. “I didn’t know that was wrong. Was that wrong? How was I supposed to know?”
Fifth is blame. “I did it and it’s your fault or someone else’s fault. You made me do it.”
Sometimes we’ll even run through the entire list of excuses and responses, all the while waving our spindly legs in the air unable to right ourselves.
The Bible is clear with regards on how to get right side up: “If we confess our sin He (God) is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Or as a friend of mine would say, “Admit it and quit it.” It sounds simple, but its the truth. If we admit our sin and own it, God’s grace comes in and flips us right side up so we can move forward again.