Sunday, February 17, 2019

Psalm 23 — Shepherd and Friend

Since life has many delights, every one of them a gift from God, it is good that Psalm 23 should open on a note of pure contentment—for we can be too tense or restless to enjoy His green pastures and quiet waters.

Jesus, who was no escapist, reminded us to be carefree in the same breath as calling us to be committed (Matthew 6:24–34), for we have a Shepherd to lead us, not a tyrant to drive us or a hireling to desert us. This Shepherd—never forget—is as resourceful as He is faithful. If the expression “skillful hands” could be said of one of His under-shepherds (David in Psalm 78:72), it must belong still more to Him.

Yet we are men, not sheep; and even while the shepherd metaphor is kept in vv. 1–4, we can see at times a more searching meaning than appears on the surface of the picture. For example, He restores my soul may speak simply of vitality renewed, or at a deeper level, of the wanderer reclaimed. In Lamentations 1:11, 16, almost exactly the same phrase longs for “food to revive their strength” and “a comforter … to revive my courage”; but at the end of that book the same verb pleads for reclamation, as it often does elsewhere: “Restore us to Yourself, O LORD, that we may return” (5:21). In the psalm, we don’t have to choose between these levels: they enrich one another.

Again, paths of righteousness can speak at one level of the “right paths” which a shepherd seeks out for his flock (chosen, in our case, by a better mind than ours: more perceptive, more original, more farsighted). But more profoundly, it will imply the righteousness that Jesus looks for in Matthew 5:20ff., which exceeds, for His name’s sake, that of the scribes and Pharisees, in the adventurous ways which He went on to outline in that chapter. “Paths,” we may remember, invite progress!

As for the valley, it is deeper for us than for other creatures, whether in its full sense of “the shadow of death” or, as some take it, of any “deep darkness.” But His nearness is made vivid in the psalm, not only by the expression “with me” (almost as if the shepherd has dropped back from leading to being alongside) but also by the change from “He” to “Thou,” as David now speaks directly to Him. And He carries (no, You carry, Lord) both club and crook to reassure us—the one, for defense; the other, for control, restraining our impulse to break away in panic.

After this, as I see it, David drops the metaphor of sheep and shepherd for the more intimate terms of friendship and hospitality. “Stay with me, don’t be afraid,” he himself had once said to a refugee. “The man who is seeking your life is seeking mine also. You will be safe with me” (1 Samuel 22:23). 

Hospitality was like that: you would be defended to the death and entertained like a prince. So, with God as host, no threats of enemies are given the chance to disrupt the well-set meal, the oil of welcome, the flowing cup. And what this picture promised, David’s years of peril can confirm to us: not in the sense of cushioned ease, but in that of an unfailing providence. He would seldom know where his next meal or next deliverance would come from, but they came: and meanwhile, he had better human company and closer fellowship with God than perhaps at any other time. The very “presence of (his) enemies” sharpened his appetite and his awareness, as, for example. Psalm 63 makes clear.

In the context of pursuit and escape, the goodness and steadfast love that “follow me” are altogether apt—a rearguard which no enemy could penetrate, any more than the Egyptians could penetrate the pillar of cloud and fire which followed Israel through the Red Sea. Both in this sense, as divine protection and also as divine provision, we have the backing of the same total faithfulness. Catching up with us are not finally our fears of our past, but His promises. And ahead of us is His home and ours, for no brief visit but “to length of days,” as David put it.

That “length,” we now know, is ours forever; and, in George Herbert’s words, it will be “such a feast as mends in length”—growing better, that is. the longer it lasts. Need that surprise us, with such a friend?