I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately by the rampant evil and oppressive pain that characterizes this world. Another school shooting that violently stole 17 lives; a friend whose newborn has brain cancer; kids who are hungry or abused or both; shattered marriages and families; sleepless nights battling a paralyzing enemy called anxiety; and numerous other examples of the devastating brokenness in which we live.
What is going on? What’s the point of it all? How are we supposed to smile and be cheerful when there is so much to cry about?
I’ve struggled with depression in the past. I’m not depressed right now, but I feel the weight of pain and evil and fear rather than the freedom and joy I’d prefer. My own life is relatively calm and manageable right now, but I frequently feel the pain of others (and I also struggle with the knowledge that something awful could be just around the corner). Unlike my husband, I look far ahead and plan the steps required to reach my goal–and then I worry…and worry…and worry about things not going as planned. He, on the other hand, takes each day as it comes. I’m the planner and worrier; he’s the calming force reminding me that I am not God and can actually control very little. I know he’s right. But I forget so easily. And then I keep worrying.
Life just isn’t supposed to be this way, you know? It’s just not. I hate all the evil. I hate all the agonizing pain. I hate that horrible things happen literally every minute of every day. It’s all so wrong, and so far from how I know it should be.
[Side note: I find it intriguing that most people have a sense of what should and should not be; of what is right and what is wrong. In America, we like to think that we can define our own truth, that nothing is absolute, and that we can make our own reality.
And then another mass shooting occurs, and we all know that it is unequivocally, irrevocably evil and wrong. It’s disgusting, horrifying, and devastating. The right thing is for children to be safe when they’re studying and preparing for their futures.
There is a standard. We all know it, deep down, even if it’s hard to admit. God made that standard. He defined good in the very beginning when everything was perfect. He created us to enjoy perfect friendships with Him, with each other, and with all of creation. He created us to love and be loved. But we chose to defy Him and know evil, too. And then everything shattered. And He’s been working ever since to fix what we broke. That’s why Jesus came.]
So, the question I’m wrestling with is this: How do I exist in this broken world but still maintain some kind of hope? If I choose to focus on the devastation (which is my tendency), I’ll walk around defeated and depressed every day. That’s not good for my kids, my husband, myself, or my coworkers and friends. I don’t want to minimize or ignore the pain—I want to cry with those who cry. And I don’t want to minimize horrors and put on a brave smile no matter what I’m feeling—denying emotions doesn’t get rid of them. It stuffs them inside where they deteriorate and spew out at really inconvenient times (and cause more problems, like depression). If I can’t ignore and can’t deny, that means confronting the evil and emotions head on.
But…is the world really completely broken? Or, if I look closely enough, are there blessings and good things mixed in? How do I see the good, too, and put my hope in the final, coming Good—the complete renewal and restoration of this world that Jesus has begun and will accomplish?
I’m currently researching and writing the sequel to my first book, The Advent Storybook, which is an illustrated children’s book that begins with Creation (when everything was good) then travels through ancient history, tracing God’s recurring promise to rescue us. [It’s being published by David C Cook, and the release date is October 1, 2018!!]
The sequel will focus on Jesus’ life, showing who He really was and what He really came to do. One aspect I’m including is the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Dr. Kenneth Bailey has written several amazing books that have influenced many of my stories.
In The Good Shepherd, he dives into Psalm 23 and other passages, bringing out truths that many have missed. Psalm 23 was written by David, the famous Shepherd-King of Israel. In it, David affirms that God is his Shepherd. And I think remembering that Jesus is my Shepherd is one of the ways I can rest in the midst of chaos and evil. In the ancient Middle East, every family had a few sheep because they needed wool to make their winter clothing. In order to survive, sheep need 3 basic things: grass, water, and protection. That’s the background behind the famous, beloved Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In Israel, shepherds have always led their sheep out into the wilderness to graze. As the days and months pass, the shepherd must go further and further from his village in order to find adequate food and water for his flock. Before cell phones, when a shepherd and his sheep left the villages along the north-south ridge, they left both civilization and any potential source of help. They were on their own. They faced many potential dangers—thieves, snakes, wild animals, dust storms, water shortages, loose rocks, and fiery heat. All could be deadly, and there were no police or rescue teams to call (or even a way to call). But sheep trust their shepherd implicitly. They know he will both provide for their needs and protect them from danger. David says that just as his sheep had once trusted him to both provide and protect, he trusts his Shepherd to care for him and meet all his needs.
He settles me down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
This verse is often translated “he makes me lie down,” but Dr. Bailey argues that the word used should be translated “settle down” or “rest.” And then he asserts that no one can make a sheep lie down. Sheep lie down only when their bellies are full and their thirst is quenched—and when they feel completely safe from danger. This verse is saying that God meets his needs so well that David knows he can lie down and rest.
Additionally, Dr. Bailey points out that for much of the year in Israel , the grass available for animals is dry and brown. It’s only during the short rainy season that the grass turns a rich, satisfying green. David is saying that his Shepherd not only gives him the food he needs, He gives David the best food from green pastures.
Sheep won’t drink from water that is moving—they instinctively know that if they trip and fall into a moving river, their thick wool will become heavy with water and they’ll be pulled down and drown. They insist on still water that is safe to drink, and the shepherd has to either find still water or dig a small ditch beside a stream and create a place of still water in order for his sheep to drink.
David declares that God provides richly for his needs—giving him both the finest food and still water, and protecting him from danger—so that he is able to lie down, rest, and digest. God is a good Shepherd that he can trust.
He brings me back. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
The word often translated “he restores my soul” is better translated “he brings me back.” The sheep is lost and in danger. He needs the Shepherd to come find him and bring him home to safety. The shepherd is his only hope.
When a sheep is lost, it panics. It often tries to hide under a bush or rock and then begins to bleat loudly and shake uncontrollably. The shepherd must find the lost, defenseless sheep before a wild animal finds it first. When the shepherd does find the sheep, it’s too traumatized to walk and must be draped over the shepherd’s shoulders and carried back to safety. God brings David back when he is lost—and David knows that he is prone to wander (just like us—all of us).
And when God restores David to safety, He can then lead him in the good, true, safe paths again—the paths that are right, where the needs of his sheep are met. Traversing the wrong paths and getting lost leads to danger—and potentially to death. But staying beside the shepherd on the right paths will bring abundant life because of the Good Shepherd who both provides for and protects his sheep.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
In the format of the poem, this central section is actually the climax. I won’t dive into the “prophetic rhetorical template” or inverted parallelism here (although it’s completely fascinating and necessary for correct interpretation—see any book by Kenneth Bailey to learn more). But just know that this thought, at the center, is the climatic point to which the psalm crescendos. The ideas after the climax will mirror or clarify, in reverse order, the ideas we’ve already discussed.
In Israel, deep, dry valleys exist in certain places. These valleys are the only place to walk through that particular part of the mountains, but they pose a definite danger. If heavy rains occur somewhere “upstream,” the valley can abruptly turn into a raging river. Any traveler (or sheep) caught in the valley will be swept up by the flash flood and killed. These valleys of darkness and death can also be haunted by bandits.
David knows that, at times, it is necessary to travel through these valleys. That’s the only way to other side. Here, he seems to acknowledge the fact that this world is broken. Evil and dangers abound, and we can’t always avoid them. But, the valley doesn’t last forever—there is a way through. And even in this dark, shadowy, dangerous place, he knows his Shepherd is with him. He trusts the Shepherd to lead him on the right path, and he trusts his Shepherd to want good for him, protecting him and meeting his needs.
Fear can be paralyzing. Anxiety and anticipating these “valleys of death” can prevent someone from eating the green grass and drinking the still water when it is present. I think that’s what happens when I worry. My entire attention is focused on the potential horrors and threats to come, and I don’t even see the lush grass, fresh water, and rest that my Shepherd is providing right now. Anxiety and fear often steal the joy, provision, and protection of the moment. Then, when my Shepherd does lead me through the dark valley, I begin the journey hungry, thirsty, and exhausted.
That’s not the kind of abundant life the Good Shepherd intends for his sheep. Jesus, help me to remember that I can trust You.
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
This is the reason David doesn’t fear evil. His Shepherd is with him. Not only does the Shepherd lead him to lush grass and still waters; not only does the Shepherd find him when he is lost; the Shepherd stays with him through the dangers in order to protect him.
The rod carried by shepherds has several uses, but it is primarily a weapon used to protect his flock. It’s like a mace, with a heavy end often embedded with iron or nails. With this rod, a skilled shepherd can fight off predators, whether they are human or animal.
The staff, on the other hand, is much lighter and longer with a crook on one end. It offers support when standing, walking, or climbing, and it is also used to direct sheep or lift up lambs that have fallen off the path. The rod protects while the staff supports and directs, and they both reassure the sheep when they are carried by their trusted shepherd.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
The poem shifts here from talking about a shepherd with his sheep to talking about a banquet; before, David talked about food provided for sheep, and now he mentions food provided for people. In the Middle East, hospitality and community are highly valued. Shared meals are an integral part of the community-oriented culture.
Additionally, Dr. Bailey points out that preparing food has traditionally been the responsibility of women. One fascinating aspect of this psalm is how God is compared to both a good shepherd and a good host (who, if she prepares food, is a woman). I really appreciate how Dr. Bailey points out that God created both men and women in His image; He highly values both; and while He is Spirit (and, therefore, neither male or female), He has characteristics that are traditionally attributed to both males and females.
Dr. Bailey understands the phrase “in the presence of my enemies” to mean that God shows David (and us) love no matter who is watching and no matter who will be angry about it. If a guest is hated, that hatred is often transferred onto the host, as well. Dr. Bailey gives the example of how years ago, if a white person invited a black person to an expensive restaurant in the white part of town, people would’ve been furious. The hatred and hostility usually directed at the black person would have been felt by the white person, as well. He would’ve paid a high price in order to dine with his friend.
There are several examples of this “costly love” in Jesus’ life, which I’ll share in The Easter Storybook. Here, David affirms that God, both his Good Shepherd and Good Host, loves him no matter the cost and no matter who hates Him for it.
Anointing with oil (often perfumed) and filling a cup to overwhelming show how “over the top” and hospitable the host is treating his guest, regardless of the furious enemies looking on.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
David is followed, like sheep heading home after a long day in the fields, by Goodness (tov) and Mercy (khesed)—by the Good Shepherd who walks behind the flock in order to keep them safe.
Tov, or goodness, paints the picture in my mind of a perfect life in the Garden of Eden—where everything was good and we enjoyed perfect friendships with God, with each other, and with all of Creation. That’s what goodness really means, I think.
And khesed is a beautiful word that means not only faithfulness to a covenant (a friendship promise), but also grace, or undeserved favor. Unfailing love, faithfulness, and grace describe who God is—and that’s who follows David home and protects him. That’s who follows me, and you, and protects us. Usually being followed is unnerving, but if you’re being followed by the Good Shepherd, it means you’re safe.
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for the length of the days.
Where else would a sheep rather be than in the house of the Good Shepherd, who provides, protects, and loves?
There isn’t a better place.
That’s where I want to be. I know if I follow Him, He’ll lead me to green grass and still waters. He’ll allow me to rest. And He’ll always come find me if I get lost.
Why should I fear?