The Shepherd

YHWH is my shepherd / I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).

Psalm 23:1-6 is by far the most famous Psalm in the Bible, and it may even be the most well-known and beloved passage in all of Scripture. You have likely heard it read at almost every funeral service you have ever attended. But what’s it all about?

David meditated on his relationship with God in Psalm 23:1-6. As a young man he lived as a shepherd, and thoroughly understood that responsibility (cf. 1 Samuel 17:34-36). Thus it was not difficult for David to speak of YHWH as his shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

David set forth what it meant for YHWH to be his shepherd: YHWH would provide what he needed (Psalm 23:1). As a shepherd finds green pastures, calm streams, and good paths for the sheep for their sustenance and development, so YHWH has provided prosperity, peace, and the way of righteousness for David, restoring his soul (Psalm 23:2-3).

Yet the world is a dangerous place, full of evil; the image of the day of difficulty in the world as the “valley of the shadow of death” is haunting yet compelling (Psalm 23:4). David has confidence to persevere on account of YHWH’s presence. David received comfort from YHWH’s rod and staff: a shepherd would have kept a rod or staff, often bent with a hook to form the “crooked staff,” in order to support himself while walking and to provide guidance for the sheep. The presence of the rod/staff indicates the presence of YHWH and discipline to follow the good, right, and healthy way.

David found himself often beset by enemies, and yet YHWH had prospered his way; he praises God for having prepared him a table before his enemies (Psalm 23:5). God had anointed David’s head with oil and his cup overflowed: while David was anointed by Samuel at YHWH’s behest to be made king in 1 Samuel 16:13, both images here refer more to abundant prosperity from God’s hands (“anointed” is literally “to make fat” in the Hebrew; cf. Amos 6:6, Matthew 6:17). YHWH has provided abundantly for David.

YHWH has taken care of David and continues to provide for him; David thus fully expected YHWH to continue to manifest goodness and covenant loyalty toward him for the rest of his life (Psalm 23:6). David’s great hope involved dwelling in YHWH’s house forever, always enjoying His presence.

David did not write Psalm 23:1-6 merely for himself; YHWH inspired him to write to give voice to the people of God throughout time. Countless generations have taken comfort and strength from Psalm 23:1-6, and for good reason. Many have also walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Who would not want abundant prosperity? People like the idea of green pastures and still waters.

We can therefore understand why Psalm 23:1-6 gets appropriated for funerals and other moments of difficulty, and yet the entire psalm is animated by its very first phrase: YHWH is my shepherd. Everything else follows from it, indeed, but also depends upon it.

For YHWH to be my shepherd, however, I must be His sheep (Psalm 23:1). While the image of YHWH as shepherd might have come easily to David, having been a shepherd himself, the implications of the truth of such an image still requires a person to swallow a lot of pride and to exhibit humility. Comparing a person to a sheep is not flattering, then or now: sheep, quite frankly, are dumb. They must be led everywhere they go. Without a leader they wander aimlessly or stay paralyzed in one place. They are defenseless and prove easy prey for wolves and other predators. They are easily scared.

We humans easily fall prey to the pride of life, presuming a level of independence in understanding. We like to think we know how things work, can see through conceits and deceit, and have a good handle on knowing what we should do and how we should go. And yet we all make quite a mess of our lives on our own; whether we want to admit it or not, we are often powerfully motivated by fear, insecurity, and doubt, and prove self-deceived far more often than we would like to believe. In the grand scheme of things, yes, we are like sheep.

Thus, we do well to swallow our pride and to understand ourselves to be as sheep, and to look to YHWH as our Shepherd. We therefore must prove willing to follow Him and the paths He has established for us, even and perhaps especially when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We need to recognize our complete and utter dependence on God for all good things and confess our continual struggle to appreciate them and fully trust in Him. David’s final desire must also be our own: to dwell in the house of YHWH forever.

Psalm 23:1-6 is immensely comforting, but it can only be so for those who submit to YHWH as His sheep. God will lead His sheep to good pasture, still waters, and tables of prosperity. Yet His sheep must endure the valley of the shadow of death and perhaps great trial; they must depend upon YHWH their Shepherd for all things and not presume to have gained anything through the unaided work of their own hands. May we all trust in God in Christ and follow Him, the Good Shepherd, and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Being Abased

I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want (Philippians 4:12).

Apocalyptic scenarios seem to fascinate us. There is never a lack of television shows that describe, often in gruesome detail, the various ways in which our lives may end as we know them. Most of us must confess that we have watched one or more of these shows at times. It is one thing to think about such situations in the abstract while we maintain our comfortable existence. But what if one or more such scenario actually came to pass?

Unfortunately, many have recently been faced with an apocalyptic scenario in life– their homes ravaged by earthquake, tornado, flood, or fire, and in a moment, everything is gone. If the disaster itself was not bad enough, then there is the aftermath– days, perhaps weeks, dependent on outside organizations for food, shelter, and other necessities of life in the worst cases. Sadly, such people learned what it meant to be abased on account of the disaster, if they had not already learned that lesson before because of other circumstances.

Living in bounty is relatively easy; most of us, most of the time, are filled and abound. In fact, not a few of us are probably too filled and abound a bit too much! But what would happen to us if we ourselves experienced immediate humiliation?

Imagine, for example, that the power goes out. It goes out where you live, where all of your friends and family live– in fact, the power has gone out across the nation. And the power does not come back on for years. What then? Pretty much everything we have grown to depend upon is based on electricity and computerized systems. Where would we find the basic necessities of existence? How would we cope if all of our comforts and luxuries vanished in a moment?

How do you think people would respond to such a disaster? How many people would blame God, wondering how He could allow such a terrible thing to happen to us? While such is a natural and understandable response to the calamity, let us think soberly for a moment. Where did God ever promise us a nice, comfortable existence featuring all the benefits of the modern world with its electricity and technology? Everyone in the Bible lived without them. Nevertheless, how many today, in such a situation, would still find fault?

If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that being abased in such a way would be a bitter pill to swallow. While it would most likely be the end of our lives as we knew them, would it be the end of the world? Would it still not be true that God has given us the gifts of this creation, our lives, and all the spiritual blessings He provides in Christ (John 1:1-3, Ephesians 1:3)? God would remain good, even in such difficult circumstances for us. Such a calamity might force us to relearn what it means to depend on one another and cooperate with one another so that we can survive!

If you are still reading this, it means that the electricity is still on, our technologically advanced lives continue, and we still live in relative comfort. Odds are still strong that the electricity will stay on until the Lord returns. And I hope that we do not miss the point because of the example– there are innumerable ways that we may find ourselves abased in this life, and we have only mentioned a few calamitous ones. Yet we do so in order to force us to think about how we would respond and react to being abased. Can we still maintain our faith and hope in God even if we find ourselves humbled and in want? Can we still bless and glorify His name even if we find ourselves in distressing circumstances? May we all grow in faith so as to praise and glorify God no matter what circumstances may be in which we find ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Mourners

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Humans understand that physical death, pain, and suffering are the curses we must all at times endure. But that does not mean that we like it. And it certainly does not mean that we enjoy it when we endure it or have to watch loved ones endure it.

There are many reasons that we mourn. We mourn when a loved one dies. We mourn, in a sense, when beloved things, situations, or circumstances are ended. Children grow up. We get older. We might have to move away. We deal with our own emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We have to watch spouses, family members, friends, and others endure emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We may understand it is all a part of life, but it is not pleasant. They’re not events to which we look forward. We “feel” for all those who mourn.

That is why it is natural to think that it is quite a stretch to say that those who mourn are “blessed,” or fortunate or happy. Most people under those circumstances would not consider themselves very fortunate. Those who look upon them would not consider them fortunate. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all if a few heads turned when Jesus uttered this line, and if a few people seemed a bit incredulous at such a declaration!

Jesus understands that the statement is controversial and completely ridiculous in terms of conventional wisdom. But that is partly why He said it–He wants people to think about their conditions in life, and to see things in a different light.

In what perspective, however, are those who mourn fortunate? Jesus provides a bit of an answer here in Matthew 5:4–those who mourn shall be comforted. When He makes a similar declaration in Luke 6:21, 25, He indicates that those who weep will one day laugh, and those who now laugh will one day weep and mourn.

One could attempt to figure out what Jesus means by saying that they shall be comforted, whether He has human or divine comfort in mind, when that would come about, and under what circumstances. But Jesus does not provide detail; perhaps the details would get in the way of the point. The point is not that there is some inherent merit in mourning but is really a matter of perspective.

When one is mourning, one is plumbing the depths of human pain and suffering. In a very real sense, when one is mourning, the only way to go is “up”–to return, at some point, to life. And, as the Preacher noted in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, there is wisdom, experience, and growth that takes place when one walks through the vale of mourning, suffering, and pain. We learn just how fleeting life can be. We perceive how the pleasures of this world are fleeting and are nothing on which to depend. We have to come face to face with the brutal realities of evil, pain, suffering, and death, and we walk away the wiser for it. Comfort will come, be it through time, friends, God, or a combination of those and other factors. Those who mourn are fortunate not because they are mourning, but because for them things can only get better. It is when we emphasize laughing and the positive that we get into some trouble, for if we are enjoying opportunities of mirth, where else is there to go but downward? When we mourn, we can hope for and look forward to better days. But when we experience better days, to what have we to look forward? At best, a continuation of good days. But even then, we live with the fear and apprehension of what we know is most likely going to happen–darker days are ahead.

We should not imagine that Jesus is really saying that we should look forward to opportunities to mourn, or that we should really enjoy those opportunities in life we are given to mourn. Instead, we are to understand that mourning is a part of life, one that can lead to growth and a renewed appreciation for the gifts of God, life, love, friendship, and the like that we all too easily take for granted. When we mourn, things can only get better; when we laugh, things can only get worse. Let us be prepared for the vicissitudes of life; if we are currently mourning, let us take comfort in the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and let us all appreciate the bountiful gifts of grace and mercy that God has given us through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry