The Twenty-Third Psalm

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1-3 God, my shepherd!
    I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
    you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
    you let me catch my breath
    and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
    Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
    when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
    makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

©2006 Eugene Peterson (from The Message)

I am certain many of you are familiar with Psalm 23. It is one of the most read and most quoted Bible passages. It is perhaps the best-loved psalm. It has delighted the child, rejoiced the faithful, emboldened the dying, and comforted the grieving. It has been read at countless funerals, most likely due to its reference to the Valley of Death. Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not by way of escape; its contentment is not complacency: there is readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack. And who can’t relate to that? The climax of this passage reveals a love which does not lead to material gain, but to a relationship with the LORD Himself.

This psalm is built on the metaphor of the shepherd, a common figure in Israel. Indispensable to the flock, he is its constant companion, its guide and source of provision, its physician, and its defender. Although the term “shepherd” was commonly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East, God is not often called Shepherd (see Genesis 48:15; 49:24). Psalm 23:1a is therefore especially striking in its claim: The LORD is my Shepherd. David has claimed an intimate relationship (He is my shepherd).

Shepherd and His Flock

The rest of 23:1 seems to flow naturally from the assertion that the LORD is our shepherd. God is, after all, the possessor of all things, and Himself has all things. Everything belongs to God. And with such a provider, we cannot lack materially. Whether feeding on fresh and tender grass (v. 2), drinking at quiet waters (v. 2), or feasting at the table of his host (v. 5), every material need is abundantly met. Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?” Of course, Psalm 23 also speaks of God’s ability to provide just what is needed. Sheep, who cannot drink from rushing waters, need to be led to those which are still. Perfect provision will continue, since it is given for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3). God’s giving is consistent with His character; since this does not change, neither will His habits of provision for His flock.

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With God as his shepherd, David can rest. He restores my soul (Psalm 23:3a) does not refer to God’s restoration of wayward sheep but to how He imparts new life to the sheep. It can rest in the shepherd’s protection, comforted by the rod (v. 4), a weapon used for defense of the flock. Restoration is also found at quiet waters (v. 2), literally translated as “waters of restfulness.” Although the metaphor changes from the pasture to God’s table, the emphasis on rest continues. There is no further need to fear enemies, for as God’s guest (v. 5), David’s protection is the concern of the LORD, his host. The foes, unable to harass, must look on as David feasts at God’s table.

Now, instead of being pursued by enemies, David is pursued by goodness and love (Psalm 23:6). Goodness is the steady and faithful kindness which is unending and undeserved. Follow is too mild; these things chase David. What is more, he has nothing else to fear, since surely could be rendered “only.” David knows the rest which comes from joy. His head is anointed with perfumed oils (v. 5b), an action that symbolizes festivity, honor, health, and blessing. His cup overflows, symbolizing a life “overblessed” in every way by God.

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With God as his shepherd, David knows he will always be led in the “right paths,” as paths of righteousness (Psalm 23:3) should be translated. He need not find his own paths but only follow the staff of the Shepherd, taking direction from its gentle guidance (v. 4). The Shepherd may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but this too is one of His right paths. In 23:1-3, David speaks about God; when he moves into this dark valley, he speaks to God (v. 4). When he needed God the most, God was there.

Of all that comes from having God as his Shepherd, David is most delighted with God’s presence. It seems that is what he lives for! The center of the psalm (23:4) resounds with this affirmation without which none of the good gifts would be possible. Without the shepherd, there is only a harassed and helpless flock (see Matthew 9:36). Without the host, there is no banquet. Of all the places where the psalmist might choose to be, he longs to stay in God’s presence all his days. From the first verse of this psalm to the last, the focus has been on God. The search which has occupied humanity—for provision, rest, guidance, and fellowship with the divine—ends in God.

Ephesians: Grace in Everyday Life

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The book of Ephesians allows us to take a closer look at the grace God extended to us by raising us to new life in Christ. God wants us to live our lives out of a rich experience of His grace on a daily basis. Interestingly, we forget that as believers we still need God’s mercy and grace just as much as we did before we knew Jesus as Lord and Savior. When we forget the grace of God, we can fall into two distinct errors. We can become filled with spiritual pride, or we can live with a complete sense of failure as we get a glimpse of what the human heart is really like. In fact, we read in Scripture that the heart is the seat of indwelling sin—the heart is the spiritual part of us where our emotions and desires reside. Nothing can ensnare us more than our natural instincts running wild.

DO YOU HAVE A HEART FOR GOD?

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The Bible mentions the heart almost 1,000 times. It is important to note that God also has a “heart.” Of course, we’re not speaking of the physical, beating, four-chamber organ that pumps blood throughout our corporeal bodies. God has emotions and desires, and it is His wish that we develop our heart—our emotions and our focus—after His heart. Acts 13:22 tells us David was a man “after God’s own heart.” This is not an easy undertaking. The human heart, in its natural condition, is evil, treacherous, and deceitful. I was able to take an uncomfortable but critical look at my own heart during a class at Colorado Christian University on Worldviews. My Christian “walk” did not match my Christian “talk” for nearly my entire life. I had a pastor tell me once, “I don’t think you have a heart for God.” It was like getting punched in the stomach!

“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis. 6:5, NIV).

Whether we know or understand our own heart or not, God does. Psalm 44:21 tells us, “Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart” (NASB). Jesus “knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Based on His intimate knowledge of the heart, God has the capacity to judge man righteously. Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (NIV). Jesus pointed out the fallen condition of our hearts in Mark 7:21-22: “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly” (NIV). All these come from within us and make us unclean.

Evil Within

In other words, we all have a heart problem. Since sin is lodged within our very hearts, and is in no way peripheral to our experience, it is indeed capable of exerting enormous influence over our heart. Naturally, this has an impact—good or bad—over our behavior and, ultimately, our character. Of greatest consequence is the fact that the human heart is both deceitful and unsearchable. No one understands the importance of knowing the heart more than an alcoholic working his or her way through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step Four strongly recommends making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This exercise is intended to bring the alcoholic to the real problem—character flaws.

THE REDEEMED HEART

It is important that we understand such indwelling deceitfulness requires constant watchfulness. The apostle Peter tells us, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV). Accordingly, it is important that in our struggle to guard our hearts we commit all things to Christ. In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Paul said, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. They have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretense that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV).

I Am Redeemed

The redeemed soul, by the grace of God and His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:13), must press on toward perfection. Does this mean we must get everything right and never make a mistake? No. That would be impossible. In Christian doctrine, perfection means maturity. Our role in this process is to cooperate with God. Allow our thoughts to be taken captive to obeying the commands and example of Jesus. It is through obedience that we can put to death the deeds of the body (Philippians 2:12-13). Furthermore, we need to do this daily for as long as we possess our physical bodies.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

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We must never think that our work of contending against sin—in crucifying, mortifying and subduing it—is at an end. Again, we are not literally to become perfect and without sin. We’ve all sinned and fall short of ever hoping to earn God’s glory. We are not save by good works. Frankly, we’re not capable of consistently practicing only good works. We are, however, saved onto good works. We are to avoid the practice of sin, which amounts to knowingly, willingly, repeatedly sinning without repenting. Remember, the word repent means to “turn away from.” It involves “doing a 180!” Again, I do not possess the innate capacity to do this. I can be absolutely adamant about not gossiping or judging, but five minutes later I’m doing it again.

True victory will come to those who die having fought the good fight day after day.

 

Where Is This God of Yours?

Whenever I am feeling lost or frustrated, or think God is not there, I remember the trials and tribulations of David, which prompts me to open my Bible to the Psalms. Today I opened my copy of “The Message//Remix” translation by Eugene H. Peterson and remarkably the ribbon bookmark was at Psalm 42. I decided to share it with you.

A white-tailed deer drinks
from the creek;
I want to drink God,
deep drafts of God.
I’m thirsty for God-alive.
I wonder, “Will I ever make it –
arrive and drink in God’s presence?”
I’m on a diet of tears –
tears for breakfast, tears for supper.
All day long
people knock at my door,
Pestering,
“Where is this God of yours?

These are the things I go over and over
emptying out the pockets of my life.
I was always at the head of the worshiping crowd,
right out front,
Leading them all,
eager to arrive and worship,
Shouting praises, singing thanksgiving –
celebrating, all of us, God’s feast.

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God –
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.

When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse
everything I know of you,
From Jordan depths to Hermon heights,
including Mount Mizar,
Chaos calls to chaos,
to the tune of whitewater rapids.
Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers
crash and crush me.
Then God promises to love me all day,
sing songs all through the night.
My life is God’s prayer.

Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God,
“Why did you let me down?
Why am I walking around in tears,
harassed by my enemies?”
They’re out for the kill, these
tormentors with their obscenities,
Taunting day after day,
“Where is this God of yours?”

Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Fix my eyes on God –
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.

©2006 Eugene H. Peterson. The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language

One Day – From the Journal of Katie Davis (September 2, 2008)

Until very recently, I had forgotten about God’s unconditional and undying love for mankind. For me specifically, and for every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth in general. I am reading a book I borrowed from an elder at my church called Kisses From Katie, written by a young woman who went from high school to Uganda at age 18 to care for and teach Ugandan children. The conditions in the villages are horrific and deplorable. Her love for the people blinded her to the filth and stench.

Katie Davis is a young woman who, at 18 years old, senior class president, and homecoming queen, left Nashville, Tennessee over Christmas break of her senior year for “a short mission trip” to Uganda. Her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people of Uganda and the needs she saw that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. And so she did after graduating from high school. Her book takes us on a journey that can only come from radical love. Katie chose to sleep on a tiny cot in an orphanage, delivering first aid to children who have lost their parents to HIV Aids, famine, and, too often, war and murder.

Katie stayed in Uganda for more than a year, where she moved off her cot and into a house large enough to start a small school and adopt nine orphaned children. Her ministry has grown into an NGO (non-government organization) that now operates a school program for hundreds of children.

In keeping with a promise she made to her parents, she returned to the United States in 2008 to start college. Almost immediately, she felt like a stranger in a strange land, longing to return to her adopted children and the ministry she started. The following is an entry from her journal, dated September 2, 2008, that brought me to tears and convicted me as to my life and my modicum of service to the Lord. It is a bit long, but well worth your time.

One Day – September 2, 2008

Ordinary people.

He chose Moses. He chose David. He chose Peter and Paul. He chose me. He chose you. Common people. Simple people. People with nothing special about them. Nothing special except they said “yes.” They obeyed. They took the task God assigned them and they did it. They didn’t always do it well, but they said “yes,” and with His help they did it anyway.

Extraordinary tasks.

Moses was a murderer, a shepherd just trying to mind his own business and move on with his life when he watched a bush catch fire and not burn up. God wanted to use him to lead His chosen people people out of Egypt. Moses was human and told God that He had the wrong guy. Moses wasn’t an eloquent speaker, and he was afraid. But he said “yes,” and God used him anyway. The Red Sea parted, bread fell from heaven, and people believed.

Jonah was an ordinary fisherman and God wanted to use him to set Nineveh free of its wicked ways. Jonah was human and quickly ran away, overwhelmed by the task God had given him. From the belly of a fish, he repented, he begged God for forgiveness. He said “yes,” and God used him anyway. The people of Nineveh believed in God, turned from their wicked ways, and were spared from destruction.

David was a shepherd boy, pretty much the runt of the litter, the very last thought in his father’s mind, and despised by his brothers. God wanted to use him to be the next great king of Israel. Though everyone doubted and watched in horror, David said “yes,” and God used him anyway. Little David used a stone to take down the giant Philistine. The Philistines  were defeated, and though David continued to make mistakes, God used him to make Israel a great nation and relay His words to many people.

Mary was a peasant girl, probably a teenager, getting ready to marry a local carpenter. God wanted to use her to carry His Son, hope for all mankind, into the world. She asked the angel, “Why me?” and “How?” Ultimately, though, she surrendered herself to His will. She said “yes,” and God used her anyway. A baby was born who transformed the world then, and still does today.

Paul was a young man who made it his goal to destroy Christianity, dragging believers to prison and even killing them. God wanted to use him to proclaim His name to Gentiles all over the world. Paul  had a violent history and initially other believers were afraid. But he said “yes,” he fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel, and God used him anyway. Paul performed and witnessed miracles, wrote close to half the Bible, and spread the Good News all over the world.

Sometimes, the everyday routine of my life feels so normal to me. At other times the idea of raising all these children seems like quite a daunting task. I realize that since I have chosen an unusual path it is easier for outsiders to look at my life and come to the conclusion that it is something extraordinary. That I am courageous. That I am strong. That I am special. But I am just a plain girl from Tennessee. Broken in many ways, sinful, and inadequate. Common and simple with nothing special about me. Nothing special except I choose to say “yes.” “Yes” to the things God asks of me and “yes” to the people He places in front of me. You can too. I am just an ordinary person. An ordinary person serving an extraordinary God.