God is with us — before, beside, and behind (Part 2)

Today we continue our meditation on Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”. We’ll walk through verses 4 to 6, exploring how steeped the Psalmist is in the knowledge of God as comforter and protector, as the Good Shepherd who continually surrounds us with his goodness and mercy.

(For the reflection on verses 1 to 3, see Part 1 of this two-part post.)

Verse 4

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.

I wonder if this is the most frequently quoted verse in Psalm 23? We hear it so often, referenced in so many different contexts, quoted in music both religious and secular. (Any 90’s hip-hop fans here?) Artists and authors alike have tried to imagine what this dark and fearful place might look like: the valley of the shadow of death.

Perhaps such a place does feel like a real location to you. For those who have walked the path of grieving for a loved one, or come face to face with mortality themselves, this poetic turn of phrase is wrenched out of the world of metaphor and instead becomes terrifyingly literal. But whatever imagery it conjures in your spirit, we are certainly all familiar with walking through a time of darkness — of fear, grief, confusion; not knowing quite where we’re headed, what dangers are on the way, or when the light will be visible again.

And the poet tells us, fear not. God is with you, whatever you’re walking through right now. The road may be a hard one, and the difficulties may be unavoidable, but the Comforter is right there beside you — he won’t ask you to go anywhere that he won’t go himself. God has walked right through those depths himself and God will not leave you to walk through this valley alone.

Verse 5

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.

God lays a table for us in the wilderness.

Don’t you love this image? A meal, a table laid out for us, in the most unlikely of places — in the midst of enemy territory! Here where we expected no good thing, here where we prepared ourselves to be attacked and beaten down, instead we’re given a feast. Not just the bare-bones necessity of what we need to survive, but an abundance of delight.

This feast, this “running over” of good things — it might not be in the form you expect. It might not be material possessions, or financial security, or career success. It might not be the kinds of things the world would hold up as worth much, even. Maybe it’ll be in the form of treasured friendships, of people coming into your life that you’re able to call family. Or maybe your feast will come in the form of the joy you receive from seeing another person’s life changed and renewed — the kind of lasting joy no one can ever take from you.

“I do not give as the world gives,” Jesus told his disciples once.1 But the kind of gifts that come from Him end up being better than what we expected, and better than what we thought we wanted. Let’s be present in the moment enough to receive these gifts. Let’s quieten our souls enough to recognise them for the blessings that they are.

Verse 6

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

What a promise this is! When you walk through those dark places, feeling as vulnerable as a lone sheep followed by a predator, know this: at your back are the dual blessings of God’s goodness and mercy.

You’re not alone. You’re covered by your Shepherd and your Protector. So go on: let that knowledge inspire you to take those risks you can feel the Spirit calling you towards! Let it give you the strength and the courage to step out in faith; to tread those hard roads of truth and justice and love. While the going may get rough, Goodness and Mercy are right there at your back, every step of the way. And know that when it’s all done and dusted, you have a place with God, safe in His house, for all eternity.

When we operate out of this kind of security and faith in our future, we can have the courage to let love motivate our actions in the here and now. We can live with the kind of freedom and fearlessness that sees the potential for God’s Kingdom to be built, and takes steps to make it happen.

Before, beside, and behind

The Lord is my shepherd. He goes ahead to lead me, walks beside as my comforter, and follows behind me with goodness and mercy. Before, beside, behind; guiding, comforting, protecting. God keeps on surrounding me with His love wherever I go. Nothing — neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation2 — can separate me from the love of God.

Let’s store these words in our hearts, as Psalm 119 says. Let these promises of God’s nearness carry you through this day and beyond.

The Lord is my shepherd. He goes ahead to lead me, walks beside as my comforter, and follows behind me with goodness and mercy. Click To Tweet

What’s your favorite part of Psalm 23?
What helps remind you of God’s nearness?

The Lord is my shepherd (Part 1)

I’ve written a fair bit about the Psalms on this blog. Many of them are are a go-to place for when I feel distant from God, or can’t figure out what to pray. One of the most well-known — in fact, probably the most well-known! — is Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd”.

I remember first learning this psalm in music form as a child, and internalising its simple message of God’s love and protection. Having heard it said many times since, it’s one of the few chapters of Scripture I can say from heart, without even thinking about it. I’m sure the same is true for many of you, as well.

But as many times as I may have heard these six verses, I never seem to get tired of hearing them again. There’s something about this poem; this earnest yet uncomplicated prayer. It has a rhythm to it of familiarity and comfort. Its simple language and soothing cadences somehow serve as a balm to our weary souls.

“The Lord Is My Shepherd” is still one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I know.

Will you walk through this Psalm one more time with me? I know you know it well. Let’s meditate on it, and remind ourselves of its simple, heartfelt beauty. Let’s take the time to sink deep into its peaceful imagery, and allow its eternal truths to weave themselves into our being.

Verse 1

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

What does it mean to be God’s “sheep”, and for Him to be our shepherd? The imagery here is of a relationship of utmost trust. There is a call to lay down our fears and our responsibilities; to let go of that constant anxiety of being in control, or at least of believing that we need to be.

With God as our shepherd, we have no need to worry. We are taken care of, as by a loving parent. Rest, now, this verse says. Time to get off the unceasing treadmill of this world’s relentless demands.

Take a breath. The Shepherd’s got you.

Verse 2

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.

Sometimes we need to be made to lie down, don’t we? We need someone to take us in hand, and say, it’s time to stop. It’s time to breathe, to slow down, to focus on this present moment and enjoy your surroundings, instead of rehashing the past and fretting about the future.

When was the last time you connected with nature? The other night I took a long walk at sunset. Now, normally when I go for a walk, it’s with my dog, which brings its own set of joys, as any dog-owner will attest! But on these walks, my focus is on my dog, who is the purpose for the walk. This walk the other night, however, was different: it was purposeless, just an aimless wandering.

Somehow that purposelessness changed everything. It meant that I noticed my surroundings more: I noticed the freshness of the air, and the birds making their evening noises. I noticed the stunning beauty of the sunset turning the sky pink and orange.

And I felt God’s presence, more tangibly than I had in a long time. I could sense God there with me, in the cool of the day, walking alongside me and enjoying His beautiful creation with me. Enjoying my enjoyment, and pleased that I was taking the time to experience it.

It’s an inescapable truth that God’s presence is so much more tangible when we allow ourselves to experience His creation. In a world that increasingly works to separate us from nature and all its uncontrollable messiness, sometimes we need to make a deliberate effort to seek it out again.

Verse 3

He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

When we make that conscious effort to just be in God’s creation, then God starts working His restoration in us. When we allow ourselves the time and space to be present, to notice our surroundings and let go for a little while of the dual anxieties of what happened and what’s next, then a strange thing starts to happen, as our souls are restored to be in line with God.

Things start to become clearer as a result. Decisions that seemed confusing and murky suddenly gain sharpness and clarity. Where problems in our lives seemed intractable, God’s direction suddenly becomes obvious, and the pathway forward is unambiguous.

It’s a natural instinct for many of us, when faced with stress and tough problems, to double our efforts in tackling them head on, racking our brains for a solution and a way forward. But when it seems like we’re banging our heads against a brick wall, the answer is often to do the opposite.

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Then let Him do the leading, so that you can say along with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Take a step back. Stop, rest, breathe. Let God quieten your soul enough that you can hear His voice piercing through the din of everyday life. Click To Tweet

Read part 2 of this post, walking through verses 4-6.

A psalm for restless nights

 Answer me when I call to you,
    my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
    have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 4:1

You know those nights where whatever you do, you just can’t get to sleep? We all have them sometimes, don’t we? Tossing and turning, throwing the blanket off you to cool down, pulling it back on because you’re too cold, mind whirling, anxieties weighing in, memories you’d rather forget replaying over and over in your mind…

You know, those nights.

I suspect the author of Psalm 4 was having one of those nights. One where all he wanted was relief from distress. One where his every problem seemed magnified, and nothing seemed to silence his mind.

But notice how this Psalm takes us on a journey. We start out hearing the author’s restlessness and anguish, but it doesn’t end there. Rather than trying to deal with the anxiety on their own, the author cries out in prayer, asking for mercy. He lays it all out before God, searching his heart, confessing that these troubles are beyond what he can deal with on his own.

 Tremble and do not sin;
    when you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent.

Psalm 4:4

We don’t find out if these particular troubles were solved. Taking the time to pray about it may not have changed the situation right away. But it did bring peace to the author. At the close of the Psalm, I will lie down and sleep, he writes — finally, sleep! — for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. There’s such a beautiful sense of calm about that final verse.

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

At 3am, when every problem seems insurmountable, and we’re at our least rational, sometimes we forget that God is still there, and still listening. But it’s worth remembering. Let him quieten your spirit on those restless nights.

Psalms: Poetry for the soul

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3 (NIV)

The Psalms have always been a part of the Bible that I find I can to return to again and again. Even during those times when I struggle to focus on Scripture and to let it sink in, the gentle poetry of the Psalms still manages to penetrate whatever anxieties and walls I have in place, and quieten my spirit.

I love the honesty of the Psalms. There’s so much emotional range in this book: from praise and adoration right through to grief, lament, confusion. There are those verses that trumpet the surety of God’s goodness, that resonate with us when we’re full of joy about everything that’s happening in our lives. But there’s also the brutal candour of those Psalms that cry out: Why, God, why? Where are you? in those moments that are not so certain. There’s no shying away from any part of the full experience that is life here on earth.

So I’ve gone back to the beginning of this favourite book of mine, starting at Psalm 1. Blessed am I, it tells me, when I turn away from those who mock and do evil, and instead delight in the law of the Lord.

The Psalms call us back home

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been delighting in the law of the Lord much in recent months. I’ve been in one of those periods I mentioned above, where it’s hard to open the Bible, where the words of Scripture don’t seem to sink in, don’t seem to be alive like they’re supposed to.

But reading this Psalm doesn’t feel like a judgement on my bad habits. Instead, it feels like a welcoming home. This gentle but powerful poetry assures me that no matter where I might have walked, sat, or stood in the past, I am still invited to come and be blessed, and to delight in that which is good.

Reading Psalm 1 is like a welcoming home. It invites us to come and be blessed, and delight in that which is good. Click To Tweet