David’s Awe Of God Is So Apparent In These Two Images
“Even 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.” Psalm 23:4
This is one of the most beloved of the psalms. It is also one of the shortest, but it is a profound statement about the love and the care that God has for us. David, the psalmist, is moved very deeply here. Inspired by his own experiences of God’s loving care, he expresses his awe with remarkably beautiful poetic language in this simple prayer of praise.
David uses two images to describe God’s loving nature and actions in this psalm: a shepherd and a host. Both would have been very familiar to his contemporaries. The image of a shepherd might seem quaint to a modern city dweller, but its meaning is still very powerful. The idea of a being a good host has not changed over the centuries. It may take on different aspects in different cultures, but the main sense of being a good host, or recognizing the qualities of a good host, are universally recognizable.
In ancient times being a shepherd could be a dangerous job. There are certainly economic reasons for watching over one’s flock. Sheep would have been a sign of wealth as well as a primary source of food and clothing. Prey animals in those days would have been numerous and a real threat to one’s flock and its wellbeing. A shepherd would need to be aware of where good grazing could be found and would have to guide his flock over great distances, keeping them together. He would have to be constantly vigilant, always consciously aware of each of his sheep, how they were faring. If one of them became sick, he would take personal care for it, dressing its wounds, nourishing it until it became strong enough to rejoin the flock. A good shepherd would always remain alert to any human or animal threats that might be lurking in the shadows. He would risk his life to defend and protect his flock, indeed, each one of his sheep. This is a great description of how God deals with us. With him we lack nothing. He guides us always on right paths. Though in this life we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” he remains with us. For this reason, we have no reason to fear the realities of evil that threaten us. God is with us. His love and mercy are eternal and conquer all that is evil.
God is our perfect host as well. He sets a welcoming table before us. He responds to our hunger and to our thirst for justice, goodness, kindness, and mercy, generously. On that table are his mercy, his love, and his word. We are nourished by his commandments. In them we are made strong in faith before our enemies. He anoints our heads with the oil of salvation, and fills the cups of our souls with his graces until they overflow. So great is his love for us that he pursues us with his goodness and his mercy all the days of our lives. In the end, he will welcome us into his house in heaven forever, no longer as temporary sojourners and guests, but as part of his eternal family.
Lord, in our foolishness we sometimes become unruly and troublesome sheep in your flock. Yet you pursue us with nothing less than kindness and mercy. Help us to see and to accept that you are our Good Shepherd, that with you we will have nothing to fear anymore. We praise you for your loving generosity toward us. Help us to be your good and faithful disciples in this valley of the shadow of death. Make of us small lights in the darkness. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen!
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