Thursday, May 11, 2017

Psalm 23 (continued)

Yesterday, we worked our way through this psalm right up to the heart of the valley of the shadow of death, where the psalmist can be seen making a distinct turn toward the Lord (as evidenced by a shift in pronouns between the first part of this chapter and the second). So having turned to the Lord, what does he find?

Your rod and your staff give me courage. Is this the biblical version of "walk softly and carry a big stick"? We often think of the rod and the staff as being disciplinary in nature, but that's not at all what the Old Testament shepherd would have used them for. The rod was used for protection - it often had a pointy barb on the end of it that was used for injuring and deterring predators. You'll remember that David once bragged about the way that he defended his flock from an approaching bear - it's the same idea here. The Lord's rod protects us from approaching danger.

The staff was used not to correct the sheep, but to contain them. Whenever shearing season rolled around, the shepherd would gently place his staff around the sheep's neck to hold it near enough for shearing, providing a comfort that his hands could not when he needed both of them for the work. He would also use the staff to hold the sheep closer when it was tempted to stray a bit too far. 

Imagine a life where you are protected and held. Where you don't have to worry about approaching danger because the Lord stands ready to defend you. Where you feel His gentle hold on you and know that even though you are free to wander a bit and to explore this pasture, He will not let you go too far. He holds you close enough that not only are you safe, but you're secure. That's the kind of security that gives you courage, and it's exactly what Psalm 23 promises.

You prepare a banquet for me while my enemies watch. Most of us might say that if the Lord was truly a good God, we wouldn't have any enemies to watch us feast at His table. He'd just vanquish them all. But most of us also know that that's not how the Lord works. We have enemies in this world. Some are human, but far many of them are not. So try to imagine this Psalmic scene. You're in battle. You're engaged with your enemies. You're fighting tooth and nail. And God spreads a tablecloth and starts laying out a magnificent feast. He pulls out a chair and invites you to sit, ties a bib around your neck and hands you a knife and fork while arrows continue to fly all around you. That's the kind of confidence the Lord wants us to have in Him - the confidence to sit and feast while the war wages on. And there's nothing your enemies can do about it. They can hurl all the stones and arrows they want, fire all the bullets they've got, but you're sitting at the Lord's table, feasting, and they're powerless to ruin the meal. Imagine that for a minute, just imagine it. That's the kind of confidence that Psalm 23 promises.

You anoint my head with oil. Anointing is a practice that most of us don't have a lot of experience with in our modern world. We've kind of gotten away from it. But what it is, at its core, is a pretty big investment. It takes a lot of time and a lot of resources to anoint someone. Look at everything that went into Aaron's anointing in Exodus 29. Or look at the woman in John's gospel that Jesus says was anointing Him (preparing Him for the tomb). The disciples balked at the lavishness of her action, at the expense of the perfume poured out, at the extravagance of the display that she made. Anointing isn't cheap, and it's not easy. And it's always connected to a call - for Aaron, to the priesthood; for Jesus, to the Cross. Imagine what it means, then, for the Lord to anoint you. For Him to stand face-to-face with you and pour out an expensive gift upon your head. It's not just oil; it's purpose. It's calling. That's the promise of Psalm 23.

This is the incredible beauty of Psalm 23. Not only does it tell us that we have everything we need, but it tells us exactly what it is that we have. We have a shepherd. We have a place. We have rest. We have confidence. We have shadows, but we walk right through them and turn to Him. We have protection. We have security. We have enemies, but we have a table right in the midst of them. We have purpose, a call and an anointing. 

Why should we want?

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