Sunday, June 25, 2017

Psalm 23: Powerful Imagery and Beautiful Symbolism

Each verse of the 23rd Psalm is full of rich symbolism and beautiful illustrations to help us deepen in our understanding and relationship with God.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures.

God cares for our daily needs and has promised to provide us with food, clothing, safety and shelter. In contrast with the many desolate and desert areas of the Ancient Near East, Green pastures provide food for sheep to eat and represent a place which has received plenty of rainfall and temperate weather. To lie down means to rest and the word pasture also refers to a habitation or place to live. In the same way that a Shepherd takes sheep to safe places where they can live and rest, God will provide us with a safe place to live and the means to take care of our basic needs. He is our provider and protector. He also provides us with spiritual food, His word, and peace in our hearts. We should never forget that God often provides for people through His church and that we have a responsibility as His agents to provide for others.

He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.

Jesus is like living water to our soul. He heals our wounded hearts and darkened minds. The Psalmist also wrote: As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God. Jesus is the water of life that renews and refreshes souls that are wearied and worn with the cares of this world. He has promised to give us a sound mind and to make our hearts like new through His Spirit which invigorates our soul, the way that fresh, living water revitalizes our bodies.

He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.

Jesus is the Way (the path), the Truth and the Life. He has promised to believers that His Spirit will be our Counselor and Guide to lead us through this life. Shepherd's would often sleep in the entranceway to the sheepfold or to a canyon where they had led their sheep for shelter and safety. The only way in or out was through the Shepherd. His body was the Gate. When we see references to Jesus as the way or the path, this can also be translated as gateway. It is important to remember that no one enters in among His sheep except by coming through the gate, meaning no one will be saved and enjoy a relationship with God in this life, or enter into God's rest in heaven except through Jesus.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.

The phrase shadow of death was first used by Job to describe a state very near to dying. We could picture the valley of dry bones which Ezekiel saw brought to life, or we could envision the valley of Hinom off the southern slope of Jerusalem which was a smoldering ash heap and full of centuries worth of the bones of animals and perhaps even pagan human sacrifices. Though today this area houses a beautiful resort, in the Psalmists day it would have been a ruined and desolate place. This valley separates Mount Zion, representing God's Kingdom, from the Mountain of Evil Counsel, representing the dominion of Satan. When I read this passage, I think of us as the dry bones being brought to life because we were all once dead in our sins and transgressions and have been given new life in Christ. I think of passing through the valley as being led out of darkness and into the light, leaving our old life of sin behind and heading toward our new home in God's Kingdom. There is true evil in this world but we do not have to fear because God is our guide, leading us down the right path, watching over us like a shepherd and always right beside us. We do not even have to fear death itself.

Your rod and your staff they comfort me.

The rod is a symbol of authority. It is sometimes translated as scepter or club and usually translated as "tribe" because it was a symbol of leadership and unity. Last week I viewed a sculpture from this time period of Pharoah Amenhotep II, later altered to look like Ramses II, of Egypt which portrayed him with a long, straight whip with tails on the end and also with a staff with a crook on the end like that of a Shepherd, though the curved end had broken off. These were the symbols of the Pharoah's authority. They were used to enslave and enforce his power. The rod and staff in this psalm are reminiscent of these Egyptian symbols of power, but with an important contrast. The Shepherd's crook was used to gently guide and direct sheep, even to pull them near, but never to strike them. Shepherd's might also carry a club which could be used to fight off wolves and protect the sheep. The symbolism here is that God guides us, draws us near and protects us by fighting off wolves and lions which represent both physical and spiritual enemies. I envision David with his shepherd's staff in one hand holding the sheep back under his protection while he fends off the wolves with the implement in his other hand. Or, to individualize it, Picture David hooking his crook around the neck of a sheep, pulling it toward himself and away from a wolf, while simultaneously beating the wolf back with the rod. HIs rod and staff comfort us because they represent his protection and care for us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

The table here can refer to the King's very own table. I picture Jesus sitting down for His last supper together with his disciples and how He earnestly desired to share it together with them. God wants to have communion with us. He desires a relationship with us right here in the middle of our journey through this life. Even in the middle of battles and difficult times when we are hard pressed all around, we have the privilege of sweet communion with our Lord. There is also an aspect of this word "table" that describes being sent out as the King's men. We are God's representatives and His children and we get to eat at His table. Each time we partake in The Lord's Supper, or Communion, we should remember the relationship with enjoy with our King.

You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over.

Anointing with oil represents being chosen by God, the way that David was anointed as King. Like living water, oil also represents being filled with the Holy Spirit. Under the New Covenant, we, as believers, are all anointed. Our bodies are described in the New Testament as being vessels. Our vessel, or cup, running over, represents the unlimited access we have to God's Presence, His work in our lives and His Spirit being poured into us so that we overflow into the lives of others.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

God will pursue us the way a Shepherd pursues a lost sheep. Once we are his own, he will follow after us, watch over us, draw us back to Himself and mercifully forgive us as long as we live.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.

Once we are His, He will never leave us or abandon us. We are His and nothing and no one will ever snatch us away from Him.  He has promised us eternity in Heaven. Whatever difficulties this life may hold, we will ultimately see every promise fulfilled and will enter into God's rest. We are part of His household, forever.

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