Saturday, January 28, 2017

Goodness and Mercy Shall Follow

Photo by Ggia 2010

Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm, was familiar to me from hearing it in Sunday school, church and grade school long before I was saved. Even then it brought to mind peace-filled, pastoral scenes of bucolic, green valleys dotted with snowy sheep, lapping water from azure ponds, and the iconic image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11,14), with the helpless lamb slung across His shoulders or carried gently in His arms.

But after I became saved and began to study the Bible, I began to interpret this beautiful Psalm from a different perspective. Once I was born again (John 3:3-8) by placing my faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way to Heaven (John 14:6), the Lord now truly is my Shepherd. He is my Sustainer and Provider Who will meet all my needs (Matthew 6:8), so that now I lack, or want for, nothing (Psalm 23.1).

Green pastures, which sheep need to graze, feed, and live, are a metaphor describing all we need for our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. But it was only recently that it struck me: God does not just give us access to these; He makes us lie down there (v. 2).

Sometimes we are so busy rushing around, putting out fires, and taking on all the world has to offer that we forget to be still and know that He is God, that He will be exalted in all the earth (Psalm 46:10), and that He alone deserves to be first in our lives (Colossians 1:18).

If we ignore, fail to acknowledge, or run away from Him, sometimes He allows illness, burnout or other trials into our life so we can once again lie down in His arms and rest (1 Peter 5:7), content in His love (1 John 4:8), grace (Ephesians 2:8-9) and mercy (Deuteronomy 7:9). 

He did this with Elijah after his great spiritual victory (1 Kings 19:4-8), and even with Jesus Himself (although He had remained in constant fellowship with the Father) as He fasted in the desert for forty days (Mark 1:13) after the Trinity had been revealed in His baptism (Matthew 3:13-17).

Once we are nourished in His presence, God may lead us beside the still waters (Psalm 23.2). At first this sounds like a time of refreshment, but notice that the Psalm describes being “beside,” rather than “in” or “drinking from,” the waters. It is also curious that the waters are “still,” because Jesus is referred to as the Living Water (John 4:10-11; 7:38) or as a Fountain of living waters (Revelation 7:17), both of which imply movement, sparkling abundance, and energy. Healing at the pool of Bethesda required the angel of God to trouble the waters, for just lying beside the quiet basin had no benefit (John 5:2-7).   

In the Psalm, God leads the weary pilgrim beside the still waters (Psalm 23:2), which is conventionally interpreted as a quiet place where sheep can drink. But it may also be the stagnant pond of our realization that we have come to the end of ourselves and whatever limited resources, tainted supply, and unfulfilling diversions the world has to offer (Psalm 62:5; 72:18; Ephesians 2:8-9).

Only then can He restore our soul and lead us in the paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:3; Romans 3:22), not because there is anything we can do to merit our own holiness, but only because we have trusted in His Name (Psalm 9:10; 20:7; Isaiah 50:10; Romans 10:13).

Like the Good Shepherd Who never abandons His sheep, Jesus Christ will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He is with His children always (Matthew 28:20), in all places, and in all trials (Psalm 139:8). Even as we approach physical death, He will not leave us there, but will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. We need not fear any evil (Psalm 23:4), for nothing, no one, no power can separate us from God’s love (John 10:27-29; Romans 8:39).

This Psalm promises us comfort, from the unlikely source of the Shepherd’s rod and staff (Psalm 23:4). Both are instruments of chastening and correction, to keep us on the right path when we go astray. As children, none of us liked our parents’ rod of discipline, and as adults, we may not appreciate God’s protective staff encircling us, restraining us from places where we think we want to go (Hebrews 12:6-11).

But like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), may we come to realize that only God loves us perfectly and completely, that His path and way are right, and that His chastening is proof that we are children of our loving Father, and not bastards (Hebrews 12:6-11). Only by His loving discipline can we be restored to His righteousness when we fail to listen to His still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12).

Like the Father rejoicing over the Prodigal Son, God then celebrates our restoration with a great feast of joy (Zephaniah 3:17), even in the presence of those who disapprove or would do us harm, like the self-righteous son in the parable of two sons. Nothing, no one, no power can prevent the Father from blessing us by anointing us with the oil of His Holy Spirit and filling our cup till it runs over (Psalm 23:5), now with freely flowing Living Water and not with the muddy dregs from a stagnant swamp.

The Psalm ends with great hope: surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever (v. 6). Until just this week I had a mental image of goodness and mercy running after me to tend to my every need, as in the joke of the child whose mother regularly read him Psalm 23 and who thought that the ladies who followed him to school every day were Shirley Goodnest and Marcy!  

Certainly that is true – the believer can daily trust in God’s unfailing goodness and mercy. But in addition, goodness and mercy should follow in the path of every believer. He enables us to show goodness and mercy to others as a result of our following after the Lord, Who shows us how to live and to love.

Jesus, the Good, Great (Hebrews 13:20), and Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), said that His sheep hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27), and He will give us eternal life (John 10:28), as we shall see next week. May we follow Christ, Who laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:15), and lead others to follow Him! 

© 2017 Laurie Collett
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