On July 30, 2017, on my way from Juba, South Sudan to Mauritius via South Africa I wrote these thoughts based on the wonderful Psalm Twenty-three.
1. He is the Lord. (vs. 1) I have decided to make Him my Lord. He is not bossy, but He is the Boss; the Boss I choose.
2. He is a Shepherd, (vs. 1) but He is not only a Shepherd; I have made Him my Shepherd. A shepherd, guides, corrects, protects, comforts, rescues, stays with and always watches the sheep. I want all of that from Him. I need all of that from Him. He willingly provides all of that for any sheep willing to make Him their Shepherd.
3. Because I have such a good Shepherd (vs. 1), I lack nothing; I actually have everything I need. This would include material things (food, clothing and shelter) as well as nonmaterial needs, i.e., companionship, counsel, emotional support, assurance, confidence, courage, stability, friendship, forgiveness and eternal life. We do not know that He is all we need until He is all we have.
4. Personally, I would rather be busy than to rest (vs. 2), rather work than play; rather be productive than relax. This places unnecessary self-imposed pressures on me that God never intended for me to experience. This may not fit the situation of others, but, in my case, when my Shepherd makes me lie down, though it is against my instinctive desire to accomplish or do something, I obey. I don't want to trust in my ability to work, but rather rest in God's ability to do something through me.
5. The land of Israel is dessert except during January and February. There is not as much green pasture (vs. 2) there as in many parts of the world where there is more rain than in Israel, if not even rain year around. In Israel, one can see what first appears to be brown areas yet in which paths in parallels provide access to snatches of green grass here and there; not solid luscious green by any means. For David to refer to green pastures takes on a deeper meaning because green grass is not so common in Israel. David lived in Israel, but he wrote for the whole world which included many greener pastures than where he lived.
6. Sheep are afraid of turbulent waters. When their wooly bodies get wet, it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to swim. They need their water to be quiet and our Lord knows how to provide safe waters for us (vs. 2). Safe waters and/or green pastures may have a unique and different meaning for each of us, but the same good Shepherd who claims in John 10 to call His own sheep by name (see John 10:3) knows how to make us lie down in green pastures and to lead us by quiet waters. We are not always blessed with quiet waters, as even in this Psalm the "darkest valley" and "enemies" are mentioned, but we are here reminded that though those difficulties exist, they do not always exist—there are times when we are able to enjoy quiet waters.
7. How would you describe refreshment for your soul (vs. 3)? I find that emotional release often comes to me when I regularly pray in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit ministers to me as He prays through me. However, one very special time I asked the Lord to "restore" my soul after weeks of grief over the departure of four families from the church my wife and I founded and pastored. I feared that it was all my fault because one of the families let me know it was. I later learned that that was not the case, but, at any rate, in the fall of 1986 I wept and buried my face in the wet leaves on the floor of the wooded area near where we lived and in which I was walking and praying. I will never forget that the Lord graciously restored and refreshed my soul that morning. We moved on from that difficulty. Pastors, evangelists, missionaries and all human beings—God's children—need refreshment from time to time.
8. To be guided along right paths (vs. 3) is a confidence-building statement. Our good Shepherd provides the opportunity to remain in the right place at the right time doing the right things. It is inefficient and ineffective to be otherwise. If we want to be productive in this life and have a crown to lay at the Lord's feet, we had better make certain that we are always on the right path. This implies there are wrong paths. I don't want any of them.
9. My reason to want to be on the right path (vs.4) is not just for my own eventual reward or for my own reputation, but rather for the sake of the name of the Lord—His reputation. If I find myself seeking to do right for an inferior reason, I want to check it out and make certain that the stronger reason and greater motive is for His, not my, name's sake. Though I am not perfect in this regard, I still want to play for an audience of one—my Shepherd. His approval means far more to me than my own approval of myself or the approval of others. Now, with this motive understood, you and I are ready to transition from "right paths" to "dark valleys." The "right path" can indeed lead into "dark valleys," and when we remember that howsoever "dark" they are they are still "right," they don't seem quite so "dark."
10. It is normal to fear evil in dark valleys (vs. 4) and to fear evil in the darkest valley is even more understandable. Yet, difficult experiences are made exponentially more difficult when fear is added. So, if we could avoid fear, the darkness of the dark valley might not seem so intense. Jesus said that in the world we would have trouble. So avoiding trouble is not possible nor is it the goal, but avoiding fear—that is, choosing to believe in God's promises—is both practical and obtainable. We therefore have two important factors that can alleviate, or, at least, reduce the darkness of our dark valleys—remembering that it is still a "right" path, even if it is "dark," and contrasting fear with faith. Fear is based on belief; the wrong belief. Fear is based on the belief that whatever evil we are imagining will indeed occur. Fear is based on doubting the good promises of God. So if we could learn to correctly doubt our wrong doubts, we would find ourselves not fearing so much.
11. Another good reason we have for not fearing is that we know the Lord is with us (vs. 4). Notice that David has spoken to the reader thus far in this Psalm, but in verse 4 he addresses the Lord. He says that the reason he does not fear is because "you are with me," referring to the Lord. That is to say, that he talks to the Shepherd who is present as though he is present; he speaks to Him. I find this most interesting. He talks to us, then he talks to his Shepherd, then in verse 6 he talks again to us. How refreshing it is to read something written by someone who was so aware of the presence of his Shepherd that he could so easily and naturally switch back and forth between talking to us about Him and talking to Him. He practiced the presence of the Lord.
12. A rod for punishment and a staff for guidance (vs. 4). Are these not strange instruments of comfort? Yet David draws comfort from correction and guidance. If we stop and think about it, the beneficial consequences of the Lord using His rod and staff on us should bring comfort to everyone of us. Reflect on this. It is far better to be corrected and be on the "right path" than to be without corrective measures and find ourselves suffering loss on the wrong path. We earlier observed the advantages of being on the right path, so if being corrected and guided by the Shepherd's rod and staff are necessary to help us stay on the right path, then let me enjoy the benefits of the rod and staff. Rather, by far, the corrective effect of the rod and staff and remain on the right path than to be "free" from them and suffer the consequences of being on the wrong path. That would be a freedom I don't want. The consequences or results from the rod and staff are so valuable that it is well worth enduring the process of receiving their employment.
13. David continues to address his statements to the Shepherd and he now mentions the table the Shepherd prepares in the presence of David's enemies (vs. 5). Here is a clear and obvious contrast: food which is indicative of nourishment and enjoyment and enemies which could include either people or spirits (enemies seen or unseen) that are opposed to us. Usually, if we are free from enemies, we can enjoy a meal or if we are in the presence of enemies we are not inclined to relax and enjoy a meal. One or the other. But David combines these two opposite elements in speaking of eating though enemies are all around. What do we learn from this? If we focus on the presence of enemies, we won't eat, but if we focus on the presence of the Shepherd (whom David just said was "with Me"), then we can eat with enemies all around. What are you focused on? What am I focused on? Enemies or Shepherd? If enemies, then put away the knife and fork, but if the shepherd, then let Him spread His table.
14. You anoint my head with oil (vs.5). In the physical realm, if we want protection from the sunshine, we put some kind of oil on our skin. And in the spiritual realm, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. We can receive encouragement from either metaphor. Spiritually, obviously the anointing of the Holy Spirit makes us able to pray, preach, endure, persevere and succeed. Most of us want that anointing. The other metaphor is also useful for the Christian. The "oil" of the Holy Spirit can protect us from the harsh elements around us that would parch our soul and remove our flexibility, making us unyielded to the movement of God in our lives. Allowing Him to cover us with oil suggests that we can remain supple and therefore less likely to break; more able to bounce back after experiencing stress; we can bend (in the good sense) without breaking.
15. The overflowing cup suggests the plentitude of supply (vs. 5). Not only is our cup full; it is overflowing. If we learn how to control and guide the overflow, it can be preserved and channeled in useful ways. We can receive enough encouragement so that it not only keeps us motivated, but we can motivate, support and supply refreshment for others as well. I want my cup to overflow so that I can be a blessing to those nearby.
16. Continuing to address his Shepherd, David says that "your goodness and love" will be with him for the rest of his life (vs. 6). The benefits of following our Shepherd can easily be divided into some that are useful to us here and now in our physical earthly life as well as those that will extend into the afterlife. Which of these categories (now or the next life) most interests folks will depend on the unique circumstances of individual people. Those who have enough in this life, and particularly those who have plenty of surplus in this life, may not be so attracted to or interested in the earthly benefits of following our Shepherd—unless they loose their health. To them, what Jesus has to offer after earthly life is over would have greater value. They don't know what will happen to them when they die. On the other hand, for those who have need for food, clothing, medical attention or shelter in this life, they might be more interested in immediate benefits since the Shepherd provides us with our daily bread and care from day to day. Whichever category anyone values more, the Shepherd can readily provide.
17. I am not through trying to do all I can for the Kingdom of God in this life. I look forward to the next life, but I am still focused on what I can do for the Lord here and now. At age 76 I suspect that this will change and that as I grow older, I will be less focused on this life and more on the next. But in any event, I rejoice that I can confidently say with him that I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (vs. 6). Sheep in His flock can rely on this eternal truth through any circumstance. In this final sentence David once again addresses his readers. He tells us that he will dwell in the Lord's house forever. This is a message he communicates, not to his Shepherd, but to his readers. That includes all of us. David wants us to know that he will be there. It is his way of inviting us too to go there and enjoy eternal benefits along with him. David is inviting you and through him also God is inviting you.