This week’s message is part two of a two-part series on my prayer reflection on Psalm 23 while driving alone from Manchester, New Hampshire to Stowe, Vermont on Friday, October 2. It is a beautiful pastoral drive across the southern White Mountains, over the Connecticut River and through Vermont farms and woods to the Green Mountains. Last week, I talked about how I first learned about grace through memorizing this Psalm as a four-year old.
Verse 1-“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
The key to everything that follows in the Psalm and, indeed, the with-God life is acceptance of “The Lord is my shepherd.” This is a most personal confession and it requires submission to speak it. Equivocate on this point and the rest of the Psalm offers no more than spiritual platitudes.
Because “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This isn’t a mere hope of David’s. It is a fact. The declaratory “I shall not” tells us God is enough for us in every aspect. If our pride and fear should cause us to doubt that he is enough, no one and nothing else ever will satisfy our yearnings.
Verse 2a: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
“Make” is the verb describing the action of the Creator. “Makes me” describes the Creator’s action upon me. But what does he make me do?
This is not the daring “make me!” spat by an insolent child to an authority figure. This is the grateful phrase penned by a shepherd turned warrior-king who is amazed that what God most wants to do for us is give us rest and nourishment. The Creator knows his creatures and provides for their needs.
Pride keeps us busy –“What will happen if I stop?” Fear keeps us going — “What will happen if I stop?” Pride and fear are evil twins tormenting our souls. The Lord says, “Stop listening to them. They have nothing to offer you but a treadmill of anxiety. Come with me and take a rest. Trust me to take care of all your needs.”
Verse 2b: “He leads me beside still waters.”
Rapids with rushing white water may be spectacular to watch and the roar may inspire awe, but it masks the sound of approaching predators, the spray slicks the rocks and the sheep at the front of the line to drink may be pushed in and drown.
“I like to be busy,” is a mantra for many of us, and the noise and turmoil of our fast-paced existence mask many warning signals. Every so often one of our companions goes down to a lurking predator of competition or stress, or is pushed beyond their balance and strength and can’t recover. We worry it might happen to us.
Still waters are the antidote for all of this racket and hurry. They are a calm, deep place to drink. The shepherd’s voice can reach us in the quiet. Beauty is mirrored in the placid waters and we can glimpse the power and order of our Creator God and take new hope. Jesus still calls out to harried disciples, “Come away with me to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). It may be the least heeded of his invitations by us to our loss.
Verse 3a: ” He restores my soul.”
How many times a week, if not a day, are we asked, “How are you doing?” And we ask the same thing of others. The stock reply us is, “I’m doing OK, regardless of whatever we are really thinking or feeling.
I deal with conflicts and disputes in my job. Negotiations can be edgy as clients fear giving away too much or being deceived. Frictions can blow up into nasty lawsuits that take on lives of their own eating up money, time and energy the way cancer cells rob healthy cells of vitality.
Sometimes, tears well-up in me as a drive to work to face another day of the stressful heartache of misunderstandings and grievances. I can deploy my strategies, use my strength and lawyer cunning, but sometimes what is broken and estranged corrodes my soul, and as “All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again,” I cannot restore my own soul.
He (God) restores my soul and only God. Why do I go to anyone else hoping for a repair?
Who but the artist can restore the damaged canvas to her original vision? Who but the inventor can restore his invention to his original specifications? Who but God can make me whole?
Verse 3b: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”
I have climbed mountain trails with uneven rocky steps that make my knees ache and my body tense against stumbling, while my friend Kerry goes straight up with grace and energy. I have walked down a levee beside a river that gave me firm level footing and the ease to view and reflect upon the swirl of the water and the green verdure beyond.
We keep seeking for the one path that will be right for everyone, and complain about the roots and stones that plague the path we are on. We envy the smooth paths and swift passages of others.
David used the plural “paths of righteousness” instead of path. David is telling the truth. The right path for me may not be the right path for you. But so long as “He leads . . . for his name’s sake” and we each are following our particular path in obedience to his Word and the impulse of his love we are safe.
We will not do well on the walk until we accept God’s leading us for his purpose. Understanding this is the path to joy now and life in eternity.
Verse 4a: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
If you have not yet faced the abyss, you haven’t walked far enough. There are situations with sides so steep and passage so narrow that there is really no light to be found in them. Those who have lost a loved one with nothing they could do to stop or reverse death know what I am talking about. Those who have been despised and rejected with nothing they could say or do to change sneering opinions understand.
Our God is not a God who stands on the other side of the canyon and calls out, “I’ll see you when you make it across–if you make it across!” Jesus came to us as “Emmanuel” meaning God with us. He, who is fully Divine, took on our humanity and risked the common cold, skinned knee, cancer, and heart-break to be with us in our hour of need. Those are evil things. “Evil” means that God is not in those things either in their inception or result. But we do not have to fear evil, because Jesus Christ possesses us and we possess Jesus Christ who says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. . . In the world you face trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 14:27b; 16:33).
We will have to cross the abyss, but we never have to cross alone and on our own strength. He carries us if we let go of our proud denial that we are weak and helpless on our own against the obstacles we face.
Verse 4b: “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The rod is a kind of combination cudgel, throwing stick and measuring instrument. The staff gives the shepherd balance in rough terrain and when he has to plunge in to the milling flock or reach into a crevice to remove an injured sheep. The shepherd uses these devices to guide and discipline the sheep, to count and keep track of them, and to protect them. We are comforted when we know that someone who knows what they are doing is paying attention to us, keeping us on the right course, and protecting us from our enemies and our bad instincts.
The betrayals, disappointments, and hurts that we receive from others who are damaged and damaging because of sin, leaves us inclined to try to look out for ourselves, but when we put ourselves first like that we inevitably hurt someone else. Accepting that God knows, cares and loves us means trusting him where and when others have failed or injured us.
Reasons why we may not always feel comforted by him may be that he is strengthening us or we are judging God by our human expectations of what ought to happen. I have often found myself praying, “Lord, I can’t let go of my desire to defend and protect myself. Overpower me, overwhelm me, take over and do what I cannot do for either you or myself.” I find I don’t have to ask him a second time.
Verse 5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
I have ceased being surprised when a client who has been viciously attacked by an anonymous letter, defamatory email from an unidentified source, or sabotage of a business initiative says, “I have no idea who could have done this to me. I don’t have any enemies.” Believe me, we may not know their names, but we all have enemies.
Your ex may hate you. Your co-worker may want you out of the way, The person you disagreed with in Bible class may brand you a heretic. A business rival may want to destroy you. You may be dreading the critical in-laws at Thanksgiving. ISIS for sure wants you dead. But so what?
The Lord sets up a table and chairs, sets out fine china, crystal and silver, and says, “Take a load off your feet. Please sit down and enjoy the meal I am feeding you.”
I have read that we are at our most physically vulnerable when we are sitting down eating and when we are sleeping. Here is the test of our faith in the Lord’s love–will we stop watching for our enemies and obsessing over our vulnerability to trust him to serve us what we need?
Gratitude is the key. Gratitude expresses the truth that someone else is responsible and we are thankful. David had reached that point. I want to be there too.
Verse 5b: “You anoint my head with oil.”
The eyes noses and ear of sheep are attacked by flies that leave dangerous larvae, they pick up thorns and briars in their ears, and bruise and scrape their heads while feeding in the rocks and butting heads in the flock. The shepherd pours oil on the heads of the sheep to protect and heal.
Which of us does not receive hard knocks and scrapes. Head-butting hurts and the irritations of living can drive us to a kind of mad distraction. The soothing grace of my Savior brings me hope and healing and I keep going.
Verse 5c: “My cup overflows.”
An overflowing cup represents abundance and refreshment. This is a repeated theme in art and literature. However thirsty we are, with God there is always more. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6). I’ve always loved this promise of Jesus because it reflects an eternal cycle of thirst and satisfaction. We offer him our thirst and he gives us refreshment and more.
Verse 6a: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
David’s verb choice is revelatory–“shall follow.” In other words, the God who we choose to follow also follows us with goodness and mercy, picking up the checks we can’t pay, repairing the “bull in a china shop” damage we cause, cleaning up the messes we leave, and generally making sure the places we’ve been through are better for our visit there with him. I don’t know about you, but I need this following God with his goodness and mercy because I am capable on any given day of leaving a lot of wreckage. He has my back.
But there is another way to look at it. When He lives in us goodness and mercy is what results in the places where we go. It is the life of blessing he always intended for us and it is our reality when he is present in us. “Lord, forgive me for trying to live any other way.”
Verse 6b: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
To know the peace of the Prince of Peace and to know the love of the God who is love we must become as one with him. He must possess us. Far beyond the “house-flipping,” always looking for a better address, mortgaged existence we live here is the boundless, unconditional reality of God’s made ours when we pray at the beginning, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
May you be blessed by these musings of mine while driving through the fall colors of New England and recorded as I recalled them in my journal. They really constitute my traveling song, something to make the journey easier and the shadows less menacing. A summary of the truths by which I aspire to live and invite you to come along.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alaska to Zimbabwe.