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

Seeking Shalom in Exile

And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto YHWH for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace (Jeremiah 29:7).

What had possessed Jeremiah to say such things?

Judah and Judahites were rife with unfounded hopes in the days of Zedekiah king of Judah. They held out hope that somehow a rebellion against Babylon would prove successful; somehow YHWH would deliver them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and restore all the persons and possessions which Nebuchadnezzar had taken with him to Babylon (2 Kings 24:11-16, Jeremiah 28:1-5). Some “prophets” among those who had been exiled encouraged those in Babylon to maintain similar hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 15-23).

Jeremiah had received the word of YHWH; he knew better. The end of Judah would come soon; the exile would not last a few months but until after the seventy years of Babylon had been accomplished (Jeremiah 29:10). The exiles were being set up for distress on top of distress, hindering them from establishing some sort of life while in exile. Therefore YHWH directed Jeremiah to send a letter to those exiles, the substance of which is seen in Jeremiah 29:4-23. YHWH encouraged His people in Babylon to perpetuate life: build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children (Jeremiah 29:5-6). They were to seek the shalom of the city in which they have been exiled, praying to YHWH on its behalf, for in its shalom these exiles will find shalom (Jeremiah 29:7). The letter would go on to explain its purpose, to warn against listening to the false prophets, and to set forth the promise that YHWH would restore them to their land and would do good to them, but only after the years of Babylon had been completed; the doom of the false prophets was also foretold (Jeremiah 29:8-23).

Jeremiah, therefore, wrote so as to provide the exiles with a bit of divine context in order to understand their situation. At the time it was less than appreciated (Jeremiah 29:24-32); after the events of 586 BCE it would prove to be the sustaining lifeline of Judah in exile. YHWH would restore them to their ancestral homeland; YHWH would not abandon them in Babylon. Yet, for the time being, they must be nourished and sustained within Babylon.

Ferdinand Olivier 001

While Israel knew they could not sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, they could at least make a living in Babylon and prepare their descendants to maintain confidence in YHWH, to prove loyal to His covenant with them and their fathers, and to prepare to return to the land when that day would come (Jeremiah 29:5-6). But the shalom of the city? shalom is the word used three times in Jeremiah 29:7. It is translated as “peace” in the American Standard Version (ASV; also in KJV, NKJV), which is its standard definition. shalom, however, goes beyond the idea of peace as the absence of conflict, representing wholeness and blessing as well; such is why the term is also frequently translated as welfare (so ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV) or prosperity (so HCSB, NIV). Thus YHWH intended for the exiled Judahites to pray for the city of their sojourning for its overall benefit: an absence of conflict, absolutely, but also its welfare or prosperity, so that all would go well for all of them.

Such is why Jeremiah’s letter would seem so scandalous to the exiles. To seek the shalom of Babylon? shalom for the place and the people who had led Judah captive, who tore down the Temple of YHWH, and who had overpowered the people of God? How could they seek such a thing?

Yet Jeremiah pointed out that the shalom of the city would lead to their own shalom. The Judahites, after all, had just experienced 30 years of significant instability; Judah had seen invasions by Egypt and Babylon, many deportations and plundering, and all of that was before the final convulsive end of the Kingdom of Judah, in which the number exiled most likely paled in comparison to the number who suffered and died from war, plague, famine, and lawlessness (cf. Ezekiel 5:1-17). They needed some shalom. YHWH would provide some shalom for Babylon, not because Babylon deserved it, but on account of His people who now dwelt there. YHWH would bless it for their sake. The people of Judah had no need to fear; the condemnation of Babylon had already been decreed (Jeremiah 29:10, 50:1-51:64). Yet it would happen in stages, and its ultimate end would come without harm to the Israelites who still dwelt in Mesopotamia. YHWH judged His people in His anger, but He never stopped loving or caring for them.

Over six hundred years later Peter would write to the chosen “exiles” of his day, the Christians of modern-day Turkey (1 Peter 1:1, 2:9-10). He encouraged them to abstain from the lusts of the flesh, to maintain righteous conduct among the “natives,” to remain subject to the “native” rulers, for husbands and wives to dwell with each other in appropriate and God-honoring ways, and to seek the good of the “natives” in their midst, even if they are reviled in return (1 Peter 2:11-3:18).

Therefore, while Jeremiah did not write his letter to Christians today, we can learn much from his recommendations for Judah in exile, since we are to understand ourselves as exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven in a modern-day Babylon. We may live in the midst of the people who have or would oppress and persecute us for our confidence in the Lord Jesus. We may wonder how we can sing the songs of Zion in such a foreign land, or how we could “get settled” in such a place.

We do well if we carry on our lives while in exile, to work, marry, and raise up children to know the story of the people of God and to perpetuate it (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). We do well to seek the shalom of the city in which we reside, to pray to God in Christ for it, so that in its shalom we may have shalom (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Such does not mean God’s judgment will not come against it; the “time of Babylon” will meet its end, and so will that city and its nation-state. Yet we, as sojourners and exiles, know that when those seventy years of life in “Babylon” have come to an end, we will obtain the victory of God in Christ, and will rise triumphantly on the day of resurrection.

The Christian’s hope, therefore, is not in the salvation of the nation-state in which he or she lives. Such a state will fall; its end is decreed; we are to reckon ourselves as sojourners and exiles, citizens of the Kingdom of God, waiting for our ultimate restoration in the resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). Yet the Christian is to live in that city, work in that city, and pray for its shalom: we cannot imagine that we can simply escape the problems of the city in which we live, but must do good to all of its inhabitants, and pray on its behalf, both for its peace and for the salvation of its inhabitants (1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 3:14-18).

If the Judahites exiled to Babylon could find shalom through YHWH there, we can find shalom in the place where we sojourn. The place in which we sojourn should never feel exactly like home; nevertheless, we must seek its shalom as we await the resurrection of life and a permanent home in the presence of God. May we strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in the midst of this world, doing good to all, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of YHWH!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Desiring God

Nevertheless I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee (Psalm 73:23-25).

The Psalms begin with a wisdom psalm affirming the way things should be: the righteous prosper while the wicked fade away in transience (Psalm 1). The third book of the Psalms attempts to come to grips with the feeling that this is not always so (Psalm 73).

Asaph does not deny God’s goodness to Israel and those who are pure in heart (Psalm 73:1). Yet he was prone to stumbled for he was envious of the arrogant on account of the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73:2-3). These are not the “good people” who “deserve” what they have; they are arrogant, foolish, impious, oppressive, the rich people only fellow rich people tolerate (Psalm 73:4-12). Asaph is left to wonder if his righteousness has gotten him anywhere or anything (Psalm 73:13-14).

Asaph wants to know what we all want to know: why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? He sees it is a wearisome task to consider the question (Psalm 73:16). But while he goes to stand before the presence of YHWH in the Temple he gains a critical insight (Psalm 73:17). To what do the wealthy wicked look when they see the future? Asaph sees their worst case scenario: they lose all their wealth and fall into ruin, and all that in but a moment (Psalm 73:18-19). They are left with nothing; they are exposed as naked and helpless through calamity and disaster.

Asaph feels pricked in heart based on this insight; he recognizes the surpassing value of what he has by being continually with God, who holds His right hand, guiding him with His counsel, ultimately to receive him to glory (Psalm 73:24). Asaph then cries out a notable declaration: whom does Asaph have in Heaven but God? Asaph desires nothing on Earth besides God (Psalm 73:25). His flesh will fail; God will be his strength forever (Psalm 73:26). The wicked will perish, but Asaph knows that YHWH is his refuge and will proclaim His works (Psalm 73:27-28).

There is little pretense in the Psalms; in them life is exposed for all that it is, both what is beautiful as well as what is ugly. The Psalms do not tolerate the pious fictions we like to tell ourselves, knowing that since we should feel in certain ways and not feel in other ways, we will not speak publicly when we fall short, and all pretend that all is well. Asaph makes his admission: he was stumbling in his trust in YHWH because he was envious of the wealth of the wicked. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we at times have been guilty of the same envy. Like Asaph, we want to know why; we always seem to want to know why.

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? From the ancient Near Eastern world until today the assumption has been that people prosper when righteous and suffer when wicked. The book of Job is all about Job and his friends having to come to grips first with the possibility that a person might suffer illness or indignity but not as a result of sin and then by extension that wicked people prosper despite their evil. Yet no explanation is really given. The Preacher considers questions of this sort as vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14). These days we tend to point to God’s “common grace,” that God gives rain to the just as well as the unjust (Matthew 5:45), or we just put off the question, as in the song “Farther Along,” presuming that we will understand everything at some point in a future realm.

Yet for Asaph the question does have an answer; it is a real and present one, but it only could be discerned in the presence of God. The whole question presumes that material wealth is true wealth and material lack is true poverty, health is true wealth and illness is true poverty, or favor is true wealth and adversity is true poverty. Asaph sees that reality is not that simple. It is easy to be envious of the wealthy because we want what they have; nevertheless, their wealth can be their own prison. Asaph describes the greatest fear of the wealthy: the deprivation of all they have (Psalm 73:18-19). That fear motivates them to continue to accumulate wealth, to keep God and/or their fellow man at a distance lest they lose their wealth, and in general maintain great fear and apprehension about maintaining or increasing what they already have. After all, they are but a major economic collapse, a war and its deprivation, or an incurable illness away from losing everything! And they are filled with fear and terror. The wicked do not have true wealth; what they have causes them great fear and apprehension. In a strange sense they suffer because of their prosperity.

Asaph, on the other hand, has true wealth: God. Whether Asaph has material wealth or prosperity, God is with him. Whether Asaph maintains good health or is struck with illness, God holds his right hand. Whether he is quite popular among his people or derided and persecuted, God guides him by His counsel. When it is all said and done, and Asaph goes the way of all flesh, God will receive him into glory.

We do well to consider deeply Asaph’s cry. Whom is there in heaven for Asaph but God? No one, of course, and that is the same with us. So Asaph makes a confident declaration, one I dare say we could not make as confidently: there is nothing on earth [he] desire[s] besides [God] (Psalm 73:25).

The reason for our lack of confidence is that we like God’s blessings more than God. We like material prosperity; we like comfort, both physical and spiritual; we like having good people in our lives who care for us and we for them. God, on the other hand, is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Those who would draw near to Him must sanctify Him and His name, and many have suffered and perished for not thus honoring God (e.g. Leviticus 10:1-3). God is the Other, far above mankind; He cannot be manipulated or controlled. God has questions for our certainties. We all see the value of His blessings, but as for God Himself? We feel it is wiser to keep our distance.

Yes, God demands holiness from those who would draw near to Him; many times those closest to Him have suffered the greatest deprivations and trials, both to test their faith as well as to suffer on behalf of the Name and for others (Hebrews 11:1-40, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Nevertheless, Asaph has it right: we must desire God, not what God gives. That which God gives are but an extension of Himself and His love for us; on their own they can often distract people as they clearly did for the wicked. While God has questions for our certainties, He remains the Certainty in the midst of our trials and challenges.

In the end that is why we must desire God and not what God gives: only God can be our refuge, and only God will receive us to glory (Psalm 73:24-25, 28). In times of trial wealth, perhaps even friends, and popularity fail. In life we are given reason to question or challenge the goodness of this creation and the things within it; we sometimes may even question if there will be anything beyond this life, any great reckoning, any ultimate goal. The Lord YHWH is the Creator; Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 12:2). The life of faith is not just about what happens after death; the life of faith is about trusting in and desiring God. If we want God, we will want to be where God is; if we want God, then the resurrection will be glory, because in the resurrection He will make His dwelling place with us (Revelation 21:1-7). God’s blessings cannot compare with God Himself; why do we suffer from such a lack of faith so as to covet the lesser good when God wants us to have the greatest Good of all?

Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Actually, both the righteous and the wicked prosper and suffer in various ways to various degrees at different times. Sometimes the prosperity is a cause of suffering; sometimes suffering leads to true treasure. Asaph has learned true wisdom: God is true wealth, because despite all the trials, tribulations, suffering, and righteousness necessary to be in relationship with God, God is the Certainty by which we can continue to live, our Sustainer and Redeemer whether we have much or little, health or illness, fame or infamy. God’s blessings do not compare with God Himself; let us declare, as Asaph did, that there is nothing on earth we desire besides God, and grow in faith accordingly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Receiving Good and Evil

Then said his wife unto him, “Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? Renounce God, and die.”
But he said unto her, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”
In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).

No one enjoys pain, difficulties, and suffering. We all would much rather enjoy the good life, pleasures, and success. We often believe that we “deserve” to obtain the good things, and we do not “deserve” the bad things.

When pain, difficulties, and suffering come, we have an impulse to blame some higher authority. Many people blame God for their problems and difficulties. They do not understand how God could do evil to them, or, at least, allow the evil to be done to them. Where is God when there is pain and misery and suffering?

But notice, if you will, how one-sided we humans tend to be. While many will blame God for their failures or pain or suffering, who “blames” God for the fact that they are successful and healthy and prosperous? Many will claim that God does not exist on the basis of the existence of suffering, but no one in his right mind will argue that God does not exist because people find success, prosperity, and health. Job’s wife never imagined to tell Job to let go of his integrity, curse God, and die while their children and possessions remained! No– when people obtain prosperity, success, and health, they may very well praise and thank God for it.

It is easy for people to have such “immature” views and ideas about God. We know for certain that God does not tempt anyone with evil (James 1:13), and provides a way of escape from any sinful situation (1 Corinthians 10:13). But there is no guarantee that the life of the believer– or the life of anyone– will be free from pain, suffering, and misery. As we live our lives, we will receive both good and evil. If we are willing to honor and praise God when we receive that which is good, why should that change if we receive evil?

No one is saying that evil is desirable or pleasant, but it has its place in our fallen, broken world. Evil reminds us regarding the fundamental “dis-ease” that we should have while living on earth– this is not what God intends for the creation (cf. Romans 8:19-23). We must feel the “heat” of the law of sin and death at work in the world (Romans 5:12-18). If we did not experience discomfort, we would get rather comfortable on this planet and forget about Jesus and His sacrifice, just as the Israelites forgot about the LORD their God when they received the land of Canaan and enjoyed it!

Furthermore, human character is not developed through success and prosperity. Maturity and growth do not come from success and pleasure but from failure and suffering. Success and prosperity easily lead to belief in self-sufficiency and arrogance; trial leads to patience and growth in faith (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9). Job could only truly learn to appreciate all of God’s blessings when he suffered great misery in life, and it is the same with us. We only appreciate health when we suffer illness and pain. Success is sweeter after experiencing failure. Those best suited to handle prosperity are those who know how to live contented lives in poverty (cf. Philippians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 6:8).

It can be guaranteed that we will receive both good and evil in life. Let us remember that through times of health or illness, prosperity or poverty, happiness or misery, God is there, He loves us, and desires for us to seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6). Let us hold fast to God whether we receive good or evil!

Ethan R. Longhenry