Monday, November 24, 2014

Our Cups Runneth Over, Part 1

The holidays art upon us again! Already! Soon, we will have survived the gastronomical extravagances of Thanksgiving and prepare to face the hustle and shopping frenzies of Christmas and the beginning of another(!) new year. As we sprint through the holiday season, with Christmas lists and New Year's resolutions formulating in our minds, let's take a moment to focus on our relationship with the Lord of both the holidays and our lives.

Our Scripture passage this month is Psalm 23.This is perhaps the most "famous" of all the psalms, and I'm certain that most of our readers are quite familiar with its lyrical poetry. I know of no better Biblical passage to provide a much needed refreshing pause during the busy holidays.

When Psalm 23 comes to mind, I immediately think of it being read from the King James Bible in the velvet tones of Alexander Scourby or some other British actor with rich, dulcet tones. In addition, I also think of funerals. I don't believe I've ever attended a funeral or memorial service without hearing this moving passage. The familiarity we all share concerning this psalm is a testimony to its poetic brilliance and spiritual insight. Through its economical six verses this psalm has managed to communicate the cry of the hearts of millions of God's people for three thousand years.

However, this familiarity with the psalm carries with it the danger that we will take its message for granted. It is only natural that through repeated hearings we may cease actually listening to the words. As we go through the psalm, using my own translation of King David's original Hebrew, let us allow David's intimate words to impact us anew.

*The Lord is my shepherd; I never lack anything*(v. 1).

The initial portrait painted by David is that of a shepherd relating to one of His sheep. In this classic metaphor, David himself is the individual sheep and He identifies the Lord as His personal shepherd. Of interest is that David does not write, "God is my shepherd", or, "the Most High is my shepherd; no, David specifically uses the most sacred and holy name for God, YHWH. From ancient times to modern, Israel has cherished this awesome covenant name of God, the name by which he revealed Himself to Moses. To David's original audience, this name symbolized the Lord's protection and provision for His covenant people, Israel.

The portrait of God as a shepherd was one of the most common illustrations of God's relationship to His people in Scripture (2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7; 1 Kings 22:17; Is. 13:14; etc.). Indeed, it was also the role that Jesus described Himself as portraying.Millions of believers through the centuries have known Jesus as, "the Good Shepherd."

Since the Lord is the author's shepherd, he will never lack a single thing. (The more familiar translation, "I shall not want", although certainly reading more poetic in English, does not do justice to the nuance of the original Hebrew.) There will never be a time when this sheep will not have enough to eat or drink, shelter from the elements, time to rest, etc.Whatever his needs are, the Lord, as personal shepherd, will provide for them.

*He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside refreshing waters*(v. 2).

Continuing the sheep/shepherd metaphor, David is contentedly relating that the Lord always arranges a safe haven for him to get some rest. David is dependent upon his protector/provider to direct him to green, lush pasture land and calm waters where he can rest and nourish himself in peace and quiet. The author's experience is one to which many of us can relate: when needing respite from the stress and anxiety of our twenty-first century lives, we can turn to the Lord, our good shepherd, to find the peace that passes understanding.

*He restores my vitality. He guides me in straight paths for His name's sake *(v. 3).

David's poetic imagery is much earthier than the familiar King James version would lead us to believe.Since sheep do not have "souls", what the shepherd restores here is the sheep's vitality. In the same way, neither can a sheep be led on a morally "righteous" path.Although the poetry of "being led down righteous paths" is moving, what David is actually conveying is that the shepherd leads the sheep in the most direct, safest and straightest course possible to get to their destination.

The reason the shepherd directs his sheep in this fashion is that His reputation as shepherd is on the line! What manner of shepherd would willingly expose his sheep to unnecessary danger by meandering off-course and taking needless detours before arriving at their final destination? The Lord, YHWH, has pledged to protect and provide for his people. Scripture is clear that the Lord directs the steps of His people. It is true that we all have a tendency, like sheep, to go astray. Nonetheless when we follow our Good Shepherd, He does not lead us in an aimless course, but rather with divine purpose and meaningful direction. We believers are on the fast track and our God's fidelity to his promises is on public display.

*Even though I walk through deepest, darkest valleys, I won't fear any danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me *(v. 4).