Maybe the concept of a shepherd reaches her understanding, and she knows that Jesus is called the Good Shepherd and is interested in us. But I’m quite sure that she doesn’t grasp the full meaning of the path that’s outlined in that passage. And, right then, I’m quite sure that I don’t either.
But one day much later, it dawns on me that Psalm 23 is actually a roadmap to life when you follow the Shepherd. It is a cycle that repeats itself over and over again, one grade after another. The stops along it are so predictable that they easily correspond to reality as we know it. And I find that, in the middle of the circumstances of life, dizzying as they might be, one can almost pinpoint exactly where one is on this pathway, and what comes next.
There is comfort in knowing that the Good Shepherd knows where we’ve come from, and where we’re going, and He’s led along this path thousands of times, with thousands of our fellow-sheep.
So I find myself lisping the words like a spiritual 3-year-old as I sort through the course I’m on, seeking to press on after the Shepherd I follow.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul”.
The Lord proves His faithfulness and care to us in the day-to-day of our ordinary lives, and this teaches us that He is a loving and trustworthy, caring and guiding, loyal and protective Provider presiding over our journey through life.
But once we are sure of this, “He leads [us] in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake”.
Though this sounds pleasant enough, the paths of righteousness are narrower and lonelier and more unnerving than the green pastures and the still waters. These paths require real faith and obedience that challenge the status quo. And since He asks us to travel these paths for His name’s sake, they require loyalty and devotion to Him rather than the approval of those around us. Though the paths of righteousness are narrower, more solitary, and include significant risk (more than likely disturbing the peace), He asks us to be faithful to his name . . . to count the cost and follow Him, even here.
And it is often the backlash that comes from keeping to the paths of righteousness that lands us squarely in the valley of the shadow of death.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
Standing on the brink of this valley, knowing that a testing experience, even if it is not death itself, awaits us, is a terrifying thing. The threatening darkness, the prospect of much loss, the assaults on our spiritual fortitude, the interminable waiting for the light at the end . . . these seek to overwhelm us with fear so that we will shrink back and relinquish the presence of the Shepherd for the comfort and safety (or so we think) of life elsewhere without Him. But we must remember that it is in this valley that His presence with us is best proved. And it is here we grow, while we depend on His rod and staff, rather than our own wits. When we are overwhelmed with our inadequacies and inabilities, His adequacy and His abilities on our behalf shine brighter and are more comforting than we have ever known them before.
So we hold on to the Shepherd as He leads us through the valley. Or rather, He holds on to us. And one day, to our surprise, we find ourselves sitting at “a table” He has prepared for us “in the presence of [our] enemies”.
Here, the Shepherd cares for us in full view of the hostile and antagonistic. For some, this table is prepared in His eternal presence, in His eternal home, where they are safe from threats and opposition forever. But for those of us who are asked to continue on, we find that it is as though He has put the pillar and the cloud between us and our enemies, and He is strengthening us after a traumatic ordeal at their hands. There is protection here and we feel it. There is provision and we accept it hungrily. And there is that same presence, that has seen us through the journey to this point, and that we have come to see as the most essential thing in every place, no matter where we find ourselves.
He anoints “[our] head with oil”
and we know ourselves chosen and loved and blessed by a most faithful Shepherd.
In this place, he continues to care for us until
“[Our] cup runs over”.
And we say and believe that,
“surely goodness and mercy shall follow [us] all the days of [our] life and [we] will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.
We are sure of His love. We are sure this is the Shepherd we want forever. And we are sure, now that we have been through this journey, that goodness and mercy accompany us even when we are battered by the circumstances of life; that His presence with us is enough for us, even when all else seems lost; that His house is where we want to be, no matter the cost.
And so the ordeal is over. Time to wipe the brow and breathe easy while we go back to life as we knew it? No more of this valley stuff. Done with the enemies. Glad that’s over and let’s just stay in the green pastures and beside the still waters from now on. Time to retire from this travelling life following the Shepherd’s lead, no?
No. The Shepherd is pleased to have seen us through first grade, but graduation means the start of Grade 2. We find we can never go back to kindergarten once we are through first grade. And so it goes on. We may be back around to the pastures and waters learning the faithfulness of our caring Provider again, but we can be certain that He will again lead us along a narrow path of righteousness, that takes us to the harrowing experience of the valley, where He will direct us to the table in full view of the enemy, and once again fill our cup to the brim and beyond.
Does the prospect of doing this over and over again seem daunting? It is the well-worn path of our Shepherd. He also travelled this road. He knows it is the way to growth and blessing. He assures us that it is for our best and He knows the experience so intimately that He is able to lead us along this route, even when we can’t see a way through for the darkness and the obstacles. He doesn’t ask us to sprint ahead and eagerly jump over the next cliff. He is just looking for us to trust Him and follow His lead. He knows that this is how we grow. And He also knows that this is the only sure path to usefulness in His kingdom.
Are you willing to follow Him wherever He leads?