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!
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, churches are being asked to suspend meetings– worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings–all must be conducted via internet, or some other remote broadcasting option. This will be the first Easter in modern memory when millions of people will be unable to celebrate in church.
I miss going to church. I miss seeing and talking to my friends. I miss singing as a congregation, and praying together. I miss my weekly Bible study group, my Sunday School group, and I miss seeing the kids jumping and twirling and full of energy. I miss visiting the “house of the Lord.”
But there are three very important things this time is teaching me:
I miss “visiting” the house of the Lord, not “dwelling” there. There is a huge difference. As a member of the “body” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28) IN Him. I do not “visit” the body– I AM part of the body– which brings me to..
The building is NOT the “Church.” Our church is still operating– just in different ways for the different circumstances. Members are making phone calls, sending e-mails, greeting cards, and creating web content to help share resources, provide encouragement and prayer support, and inspire others. We’ve been praying for those who are battling COVID-19— some are suffering from the disease; others are on the front lines– doctors, nurses, emergency workers, “essential” services workers in groceries, post offices, truckers, and more; some are suffering financially from lay-offs and losses. We are sharing specific names and needs as they arise–church members, neighbors, extended family, needs close to home or around the globe. Even if we are not meeting face-to-face in a particular building, we are still The Church, and I am “dwelling” there.
We have been asked to “shelter in place”– to stay in our dwellings. And that is precisely what God asks of us, as well. We need to dwell in the House of the Lord through this crisis. He is our shelter, our place of safety, and our rest. Instead of seeing this as a negative, or a set-back, we can use this time to celebrate the safety of our eternal dwelling place– safe in the arms of our Savior!
Finally, I WILL dwell in the House of the Lord– I already am a member of the body; I already dwell in unity with the Church; I already live in the presence of God and with His Spirit– someday I will dwell with Him face-to-face in the same kind of intimacy I am missing now with my fellow believers. What I am missing now should cause me to be joyful! This is temporary– what will be is eternal and will never be interrupted by disease, distance, or the imperfections of our current fallen world.
COVID-19 is the visitor– unwelcome, scary, dangerous, yes, but as a child of God, I dwell in the House of the Lord– and COVID-19 can’t change that for me or for anyone else who calls on the name of Jesus! Ever!
“Surely you can’t be serious, doctor.” “I’m very serious. And stop calling me Shirley.”
Classic comedy makes use of the English word, surely, but the word has a very serious and powerful meaning. It means that whatever follows is for sure, certain, true, positive, undeniable, and guaranteed. In Psalm 23, David, the shepherd-king, is building to a triumphant conclusion. “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” This is not wishful thinking or a faint hope. It is certain and expected that he will see goodness and mercy for the rest of his days. Are you living in that mind-set? Do you expect to see goodness and mercy every day? Do I?
And David is very particular about his words. Goodness and Mercy WILL follow Him, because He is constantly surrounded by his Good Shepherd, who embodies goodness and mercy. David did not say that health, wealth, comfort, popularity, power, or worldly success would follow him. He did not say that happiness, confidence, self-esteem, or even peace of mind would be his constant companions. But goodness and mercy will never be absent if we are in the presence of God. Because they are part of God’s character, they cannot be absent where He is present.
More than that, the word for “follow” here means that goodness and mercy are not just “tagging along” like an annoying younger sibling, or following at a polite distance. They are chasing after, in pursuit, even stalking us! God will chase after us, track us down, and surround us with His goodness! He will lavish His mercy on us– no matter how far we try to run and hide from it.
“Are you the type of person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty?” Amateur psychologists like to ask questions like this, to determine if others are optimists or pessimists. But what happens when you realize your cup or glass is really full to overflowing?!
Often, we look at our lives and circumstances with a pessimistic attitude. “I’m stuck at home during the pandemic– I can’t be with my friends, I can’t visit the gym, I can’t go to work..” We think of our “full” lives just weeks ago, and we miss all the things we took for granted– even the things we were complaining about before! And we worry and panic about tomorrow, or next week, or later today! But this is not God’s view. All that we are “missing” right now, God knows. He knows what we need, what we want, and what is best for us to have (or not have) during these days. Even if we are suffering from COVID-19, or waiting and praying for a loved one who is isolated and struggling, God knows. He listens for every breath– even the labored ones; He knows all that has come before this moment, and all that will happen in the next. If our glass is truly half-empty, we need only ask, and God will give us wisdom, patience, strength, and whatever He knows we need for the next breath; the next step.
Sometimes, we carry an overly optimistic mindset–taking pride in our half-full glass, and not allowing God to finish filling it. We sit safe in our houses, confident that we will survive any threat and defeat any enemy, especially a tiny virus. We don’t need God’s help; His abundance of wisdom and grace. We’ve got everything covered with our half-full arrogance. But this is also not God’s view. God doesn’t want to fill our cup so that we can be smug and self-satisfied. God wants to fill us to overflowing, so that we can bless others, and see the incredible riches of His mercy and love! Some people look like they are “half-empty” from the outside– they are poor, or tired, or weak– but they are overflowing with God’s love; gushing with grace, lavish with love, exuding excitement, and overflowing with joy. Meanwhile, the optimist who is smug and self-serving, may seal up her “half-full” glass, refusing to share her hope and joy with others who need it.
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:
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies..” (Psalm 23:5a)
I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like dealing with opposition. I don’t like having enemies. However, God’s word is very clear– I can’t avoid them or deny their existence. No matter how hard I try to make peace or stay on good terms with others, there will always be some who disagree, who dislike me, who stand against me.
So it should not come as a great surprise that God, the Good Shepherd, promises that He will prepare a table before me in the very presence of those enemies. He does not expect me to stay hidden; He does not give His blessings in secret. Instead, He allows my enemies to see that I am never alone or abandoned to their power. He showers me with blessing, meets my every need, binds my wounds and comforts my sorrows right before their eyes. They may have limited access to hurt me or frighten me, but God will bring His justice– and they will be made to see it. (see Psalm 37 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+37&version=HCSB)
But more than that, God invites some of those very enemies to see His peace and blessing. God’s desire is that we would all share in the wedding feast of the Lamb; that the table He sets before us would be a chance to turn enemies into brothers and sisters. And He gives us the opportunity, through His blessings, to extend that invitation of Grace and inclusion–to Love our Enemies!
Not all will accept this invitation– some will choose to watch in resentment, rebellion, and pride as we enjoy communion with our Shepherd; but they will be unable to disturb or destroy the joy and refreshment He brings. And not all “enemies” are the people who oppose us. God blesses us in the presence of those enemies who oppose Him. They may seek to hurt us, and turn us away from our Shepherd. But He will never turn from us. Even when we turn away, or doubt His presence or His purpose– even in the presence of our enemies–God is with us.
In troubled times like these, that is especially comforting to know. Chaos, disease, doubt, fear, guilt, and in the “valley of the shadow of death:” our enemies may be present and looming, but God is laying out a table, preparing to anoint our heads with oil, and showing us with Goodness and Mercy, Justice and Righteousness– all in their presence. And they are powerless to stop Him!
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.
“Social Distancing” is the latest buzz-phrase in the media. With the spread of COVID-19, governments and health officials are asking people to avoid meeting in groups, avoid physical contact, and keep our distance from those outside our immediate family. Those who are most susceptible to the disease are being asked to self-quarantine; those who contract the disease are put in isolation. This is causing many people additional suffering, because they feel alone and even abandoned.
But God assures us that He will never leave nor forsake us. No matter how “distant” we may be from others, God is always with us– ALWAYS. Prayer does not summon God to our side, or capture His focus and attention from someone or something else. Our God is omnipresent and omniscient– He know our every thought; He is with us through every moment and every breath.
So why do we feel so alone and frightened at times like these?
I think there are several reasons:
Disaster, disease, hardship– especially when they come unexpectedly or develop rapidly– remind us that we live in a fallen world. We KNOW our world isn’t perfect. We know that life is fragile. We know that health and comfort are not guaranteed. But sudden tragedy leaves us unable to deny that our world is broken and we cannot, by our own efforts, fix it. We expect that God’s presence means God’s perfection will surround us, protect us, and shield us from the reality of Sin and its consequences– including the reality of Sin in the natural world around us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, infections, climate change– God allows them to happen. They will continue to impact our fallen world until God chooses to step in and put a permanent end to them. But He is still here WITH us through the storms and sicknesses and trials of life.
God’s voice is often gentle and comforting. Panic and fear are loud and insistent. We will hear the voice we focus on most. God whispers in our ear if we are listening to Him– if we concentrate on spending time with Him. How much of my time today was spent in Scripture and prayer? How much of it spent listening to the news or reading FB posts full of anger and confusion?
Sometimes, in the good times, we pay God lip service; taking for granted that He is there, but not acknowledging His presence. Sure, we say that He walks with us (or we walk with Him); but we don’t take a moment to look up and see where He is leading us. Instead of being close to God by following our Shepherd, we are close to Him because He is chasing us down to bring us back to the right path. He is right there, but in our panic, we don’t see Him, because He is no longer leading us.
Fear and panic draw our attention inward. It’s one of the reasons “social distancing” causes emotional distress. We are social creatures, but our focus is easily drawn inward, and more so when there seem to be no other people around. Our own thoughts, fears, and questions grow bigger– enough to consume us if we are not careful.
God IS with us–let’s rejoice and embrace it:
Pray. Pray some more. Pray without ceasing! (2 Thessalonians 5:17)
Let God speak– meditate on God’s word. Meditate on His names and His character.(Psalm 19) Seek out websites that magnify God. Call or e-mail friends who can pray or praise with you.
Sing! Worship the God who is bigger than any crisis we may face. Sing at the top of your lungs– if you are alone, there is no one else to hear you, but the one who adores your “joyful noise” (Psalm 100)
Encourage others– Be the reminder that someone else needs today. (1 John 4)
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4a KJV)
The world is waking up to a global pandemic as I write this. Over 100,000 cases worldwide have been diagnosed; thousands have died. Projections are dire, with the possibility of millions of people who will need to be quarantined or hospitalized, and several thousands more dead before the year is out. Panic has already set in– people are hoarding cleaning supplies, stealing medicines and masks from hospitals, demanding testing long before they show any symptoms, and spreading rumors and false information about how the disease is spread or ways to prevent its spread.
In the midst of chaos, fear-mongering, and panic, the Bible provides both comfort and practical wisdom to face times of struggle and crisis. Psalm 23, often used to comfort people in times of grief, actually says a lot more about life than death. We have no need to panic– even though we find ourselves in unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening situations.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
Yea, though–Not “if”, or even “when” I walk through tough times, but “though.” Death is inevitable and unpredictable, and the shadow of death, the threat of our mortality, will fall on us, often when we least expect it. Even without a traumatic event, like a pandemic, we all must travel this valley path at some point. A crisis like COVID-19 is unsettling, but death and disease wasn’t invented last year, and whatever steps we take to prevent or treat COVID-19 will not stop death or its shadow from touching our lives. Nor will panic and fear, denial, or wishful thinking make death’s shadow dissipate. It is wise to face the reality of this crisis with truth and the proper perspective.
I–Not “we.” We are surrounded by others who may share much of our fear, our grief, or our confusion at a time like this. But, when we walk through this valley, it is deeply personal, and our reactions, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions will be uniquely experienced. One of the most difficult things about times of crisis is the isolation we may feel when others cannot enter into our thoughts and hearts and painful emotions. Especially when they are dealing with similar fears and pain. Not only is this valley dark and low, it is often narrow. Even so, God is still present and powerful. We can turn to others for advice, comfort, or even excuses. But no one else can walk the road beneath our feet; no one else can choose whether we will focus on the shadows we see or the light beyond the shadows.
Walkthrough— There is a great temptation to try to hurry through any crisis– to look for the shortcut– the immediate cure; the escape hatch; the high ground; the detour. God’s love doesn’t give us the promise of ease and escape. God does not ask us to sprint through this part of our life’s journey. But God gives us the grace and power to keep walking– this valley is not the destination, but part of the longer race. This leg of the journey is difficult; there will be darkness, rocks and walls closing in on us; we may feel the cold finger of death, disease, and loss. Some days our walk may feel more like a crawl–but take heart and keep moving through.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death–Death is stark, uncompromising, cold, and overwhelming. Its shadow looms huge and oppressive. But the valley is not death; the shadow is NOT death; and even the reality of death is not bigger or more powerful or more eternal than God. COVID-19 will bring death to many thousands or millions of people, and it will bring sickness, fear, pain, grief, and distress to many more. But it cannot kill God– it cannot dim His great love for each person who suffers; it cannot catch God off guard and unprepared. We may question God’s timing and purpose. We may face hardship, loss, and confusion in the days and months ahead. But we will not face anything– even COVID-19– that can weaken God’s sovereignty. The same hand that raised Lazarus from the dead; the same power that rolled the stone away at Easter; the same Shepherd that led David all the days of his life–the One who holds galaxies in his hand and has numbered every hair on your head–He walks through this valley with us!
As God gives us wisdom, let us seek positive ways to reach out to those in crisis. Pray! Pray often, and fervently for those who are sick, and those who work in healthcare. Pray for wisdom, that our nations, regions, and communities will respond proactively and compassionately. And pray for opportunities to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy.