Psalm 23:6– And I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
Forever is a concept we acknowledge, but we don’t fully understand. We talk about difficult circumstances, like the current pandemic, lasting “forever.” But they won’t. Such circumstances may last longer than we would like; they may be more difficult than anticipate; they may bring more pain and grief than we think we can bear, but they will pass. Even if they last throughout our lifetime, they will not continue indefinitely.
But God IS forever– He is eternal. And He has created US to be eternal– to live with Him (or apart from Him) FOREVER! Our experience does not prepare us fully for this reality– we only know an existence that is limited by time and space. But deep within, we have an awareness that there is MORE– more than our brief time here; more than the difficulty and disappointment we experience. God has planted this awareness in each of us; this desire to know what comes “after” death; what “forever” really means.
David reminds us that forever is not just a desire for those who follow our Good Shepherd– it is the reality He has planned for all of us.
And that should give us abundant hope and comfort in times like these. What we face today is temporary. This is the “valley of the shadow of death.” We cannot see what is directly in front of us. It continues to bring anxiety and pain, and even death. But, death is not the end. It is only a shadow hiding the light of Eternity. And “Forever” cannot terrify us; it cannot hold terror for those who belong to the one who holds forever in His hands!
Someday, we will not need calendars. We will not need to worry about next week, or our 5-year plan, or deadlines. We will have unlimited opportunities, unlimited possibilities, unlimited life with the source of all good things!
When I was just over a year old, I became very ill. Several doctors were consulted, but no one seemed to know what was wrong. I was losing weight, growing weaker, lost the strength to walk (something I had just started doing), and losing the will to thrive. I cried and moaned throughout the day, and had trouble falling asleep normally– demanding constant attention and comforting, but not showing any signs of fever or infection.
Our minister at church anointed my head with oil for healing. Everyone prayed fervently. Mom and Dad took turns staying with me at the hospital, trying to calm my fears and hope that I would get better. Finally, one of the doctors (a third- or fourth-opinion at that point) suggested that I might have a protein deficiency–that my body was not processing proteins correctly, as I had just started eating meat and more complex dairy. He suggested a course of booster shots that lasted well into my fifth year; it was one part nightmare, and three parts miracle– daily, then weekly, monthly, and quarterly trips to get the dozens of booster shots, but I lived, grew, and was able to live a normal life. My childhood was filled with nightmares and many sleepless nights, even after my health began to improve. But I learned to love meat and dairy, trust the doctor and nurses who administered the dreaded shots, and embrace life.
I tell this story in relation to Psalm 23:5, not to make a plug for anointing as a miracle “cure” or magical ritual. I realize that healing comes in God’s time and will, and that not everyone who prays for (or anoints for) healing receives it in this life. But I DO believe in the power of prayer, and I do believe in the act of anointing. It is not the oil, or the ritual involved that brings about powerful healing, however. It is a representation of God’s power to heal– and it brings with it an awareness of His presence and sovereignty.
When David talks of anointing, he speaks from multiple layers of experience. As a shepherd, David would pour oil over the heads of his sheep. This served two purposes– it would keep insects from burrowing in and around the eyes, nose, ears, and necks of the sheep, where they could do untold damage, and where sheep could not dislodge them; and it would help them as they grazed among briers and rocks where they might get snagged, cut, or scraped. Oil brought protection and healing.
But David was also a King. He had been anointed by Samuel to be the next King of Israel as a young man. Even though he had to wait through years of danger, war, and exile, he had been chosen and set aside by God. God had seen him through and raised him to prominence, and He had signaled all that through anointing.
God is our Good Shepherd. He anoints our heads with oil– for protection, for healing, for service, and for ordination. Our Shepherd cares deeply for our physical and spiritual needs. And He appoints us to His service–He has a purpose and a position for each of us in His kingdom.
In days of confusion and suffering, we can forget to look for the Shepherd’s presence and His provision. We may lose strength, and even the will to thrive. But God can and will strengthen us with “spiritual protein” in His word and through fellowship. He will provide us with “booster shots” of blessings– friends who pray for us and with us; scripture that inspires and convicts; hymns and songs that remind us of His amazing grace and love; moments of prayer and meditation that carry us through the day. God will provide the daily anointing we need– and when we turn our face toward His, we will see eyes of love and feel His gentle hands of grace as He gives us all we need.
For more on Biblical anointing– it uses, meanings, and symbolism, check out these resources:
I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.
And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.
God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.
During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.
One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.
God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!
Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.
3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Many phones, tablets, even vehicles, come with a GPS– Global Positioning System–which uses satellite technology to tell you where you are. Combined with a satellite navigation system, the GPS helps tell you how to get from point A to point B– mapping out various routes, including estimated travel times, and information about road construction, detours, and traffic patterns. Applications like Google Maps or MapQuest can show you details and even images of the roads on which you are traveling. Such systems and apps can be very helpful, but they are not perfect. A GPS may be a few yards “off,” leading you close to your destination, but leaving you slightly lost and confused. If you type the wrong coordinates or address into a navigation system, you may end up far from where you expected to be!
As Christians, we have a GPS– God’s Provision and Sovereignty. God promises to lead us in the paths of righteousness. God’s direction and leadership are sure and good. We still have the responsibility of listening and adjusting our course, however. We can still miss a turn, go off in the wrong direction, or set the wrong coordinates for our destination.
But, unlike a satellite navigator, God’s provision is eternal and supernatural. God knows all the roads we can take, could take, should take, (or shouldn’t take), and will take– He knows every curve, every bump in the road, every traffic jam, and every scenic lookout and rest stop along the way! God’s MapQuest sets us on a course of righteousness– paths that will not only bring us safely to our ultimate destination of eternal life with Him, but do so in a way that brings honor and glory to Him. After all, it’s His reputation at stake as our Shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd– He won’t lead us down the wrong path; He WANTS us to reach our destination. And our full potential!
When we travel these paths, with our Shepherd leading the way, we will become familiar with the best roads; able to help others navigate the sharp turns and steep grades we have already traveled. We can share the glory of that sweet stretch of road beside the cool stream, or the view from the hidden rise. And we can share the blessings of being on the road with the one who owns it!
Sometimes, we pray for a different path– a short cut, or a road with more adventure (or less!)–God hears our prayers, and He knows where the road leads. When we look back, we may be amazed– not only at the road God laid out for us to follow, but the roads we didn’t take. We see a short-cut; God sees missed opportunities for growth. We see a detour; God sees the dangerous wash-out we were spared. But if we walk by faith, and not by sight (or intuition, or emotion), we will begin to see the goodness of the path we are on, no matter how difficult or how different from our expectation. And we will begin to pray, not for the path to change, but for wisdom to follow where our Shepherd leads.
The best part of God’s GPS is that no matter how lost we are; no matter which path we have chosen against His good will– God can get us back on course and to the right destination. He can turn our dead-end roads around, help us make the right turns, and help us reconnect with the paths of righteousness.
Whatever path you and I find ourselves on today, I pray that we will turn on our GPS, and follow God’s directions for the road ahead.
3 Acknowledge that the Lord is God. He made us, and we are his— his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Psalm 23 New King James Version (NKJV) The Lord the Shepherd of His People A Psalm of David. 23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not [a]want. 2 He makes me to lie down in [b]green pastures; He leads me beside the [c]still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will [d]dwell in the house of the Lord [e]Forever. Footnotes: Psalm 23:1lack Psalm 23:2 Lit. pastures of tender grass Psalm 23:2 Lit. waters of rest Psalm 23:6 So with LXX, Syr., Tg., Vg.; MT return Psalm 23:6 Or To the end of my days, lit. For length of days
The Bible is filled with imagery of sheep and shepherds. Growing up, I lived in the countryside, but we never raised sheep, and I had little experience with livestock of any kind. We had one neighbor who had sheep, however, and he shared a lot of insight into why we should pay attention to what sheep can teach us about ourselves, and our God.
Not only does God use the imagery of sheep and shepherds, He uses examples throughout the Bible of actual sheep and shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the sons of Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos– all were shepherds. When the Messiah was born, the first announcement went to shepherds in the fields, keeping night-watch over their flocks!
Jesus used stories of sheep and shepherds in his parables, as well. There is a lot to understand, and I am not qualified to teach anyone about shepherding, but there are several wonderful principles that don’t require a lot of in-depth knowledge:
Sheep NEED a shepherd. There are breeds of mountain sheep that live independently, but the Bible stories speak of domesticated sheep…they are “high maintenance” animals– they need food and water, shelter, protection, and a lot of guidance and supervision! We NEED God–He understands our situations, our weaknesses, and our strengths, far better than we do. He knows the future; He has a plan, and He provides all that we need. We may not see the road ahead–we may not see the green pasture or the still waters where He wants to lead us–but He IS the WAY, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and we can trust Him to get us there.
Sheep need to be sheared. Left unsheared, the sheep’s wool will become matted, filthy, and a potential source of danger and disease. The sheep cannot get rid of its wool on its own. However, once the old wool is sheared off, the sheep is clean, and new wool can grow. Not only does God provide for our immediate needs, He provides for our renewal and growth–physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Sometimes, that means we need to be “sheared” of habits, people, or situations that have become “matted”, and filthy. We haven’t even noticed the change, and we don’t see the danger. God wants to free us from the “baggage” we accumulate, and help us experience new growth.
Sheep depend on others to stay safe, healthy, and fed–there may be “lone wolves”, but there are no “lone sheep”. God will bring us into “flocks”. We learn to eat together, travel together, rest together, live together, and follow our shepherd’s voice together. Trying to be a “lone sheep” makes for a lot of trouble!
Shepherds make great sacrifices to care for their sheep– they provide, protect, rescue, heal, guide, and clean their sheep. A good shepherd is watchful, faithful, caring, and gentle, even as s/he must be strong, brave, and fiercely protective, risking their lives (or even giving their lives) for their flocks. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows each one of us intimately– He knows how to heal and guide us. He wants us to recognize His voice above all others, and to stay close to Him. He died to redeem you and me!
May we trust our Good Shepherd today, and every day. May we spend time acknowledging Him as our loving and faithful Shepherd, and call out to Him– in praise, in adoration, in supplication, and in loving gratitude.
While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around. “Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread Had seized their troubled mind; “Glad tidings of great joy I bring To you and all mankind. “To you, in David’s town, this day Is born of David’s line A Savior, who is Christ the Lord, And this shall be the sign: “The heav’nly Babe you there shall find To human view displayed, All meanly wrapped in swathing bands, And in a manger laid.” Thus spake the seraph and forthwith Appeared a shining throng Of angels praising God on high, Who thus addressed their song: “All glory be to God on high, And to the Earth be peace; Good will henceforth from heav’n to men Begin and never cease!”
Words by Nahum Tate
Why the shepherds? Angels might have appeared to the rulers and priests of Israel, announcing the birth of their long-awaited Messiah, but they did not. Nor did they appear to the common citizens (and other visitors) in Bethlehem. We make much of the shepherds being lowly and humble, and that is true enough. But there were other poor and humble people throughout the land. And there were “important” people who waited to hear the news.
There is something about shepherds that is close to the heart of God. All the way back in Genesis– Abel was a shepherd. The early patriarchs– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob– were all shepherds. Moses, when God called him, was working as a shepherd. King David started as a shepherd, tending his father’s sheep, while his older brothers were serving in the army. The prophet Amos was a shepherd. Jesus used several parables about and allusions to shepherds and sheep as well. (See Matthew 18:10-14; John 10 among others.)
Shepherds are humble, yes, but there are other traits that I think are at work in the story of the Nativity– some important, and others incidental:
Shepherds watch. That seems pretty self-evident from songs and passages, but it’s also important. The shepherds weren’t watching for angels that night, but they were alert, combing the area for dangers, pitfalls, straying sheep, wandering predators…There is nothing in the Bible that says that the angels were invisible to anyone else in the neighborhood; only that the angel appeared to the shepherds and was joined by the hosts of heaven.
Shepherds must focus on others. Much is made of the “lowly” station of shepherds. But that is the nature of the job. A “Good” shepherd is one whose focus and efforts are directed at the sheep. He doesn’t “climb the ladder of success”, “toot his own horn”, “keep banker’s hours”– in fact the shepherds of the Nativity story were the “night shift”, tending the flocks when it was cold, dark, dangerous, and thankless!
Shepherds were familiar with “unconventional” birth. An announcement that Messiah was born in a stable and could be found wrapped in strips of cloth would come as a surprise to shepherds, but not as an impossibility or a cruel joke. Shepherds (anyone whose livelihood depends on the safe delivery of livestock) would understand and rejoice over new life, even in unexpectedly humble or unconventional circumstances.
Shepherds were often “left out” of ceremonies and celebrations, because of their frequent contact with blood and death. The angel’s announcement had special meaning in the inclusion of shepherds, which was to show that even those who had been deemed ritually unclean were to be included in the “Good news of Great Joy!”
The shepherds were “abiding” in the fields. These were not the temporary visitors thronging to Bethlehem for the census. They were not the patriarchs of great families living in walled compounds or great estates; neither were they awake in the middle of the night plotting, scheming, or creating havoc. They were humble, but they were faithfully doing their work.
This Advent season, may we consider the shepherds and learn to be watchful, other-focused, joyful, ready to accept the Good News, and faithful in all that we do and say in response to our Good Shepherd!