One of the great lessons I learnt on my trip to Israel a few years ago was that I had been reading Psalm 23 completely wrong.
This much loved Psalm, about the Lord being our shepherd, opened up in a totally new way once I became aware of a very simple mistake that I had been making.
Hello, my name is Remmo, and today I want to share with you this lesson that I learnt in Israel.
When I read these words I always associated it with images that I was familiar with. In my mind I would see this:
Sheep grazing in lush green grass, close to water, with plenty of shade and shelter, protected in a fenced paddock.
Yet, this is not the landscape that David had in view when he wrote this Psalm.
David was a shepherd who kept his sheep along the borders of the Judean Wilderness. So his visual when writing this Psalm was something more like this:
And this changes the meaning of the Psalm entirely.
gREEn Pastures and Disappointment
When we hold to the traditional image of lush green pastures we can interpret that the Christian life described in Psalm 23 is characterised by comfort, security and ease.
However, the landscape of a Christian’s life is not always like this. Actually, living the authentic Christian life, in today’s increasingly secular world, opens one up to persecution and trials. And the landscape of our lives often looks nothing like the Edenic image, but more like a dry and desolate desert.
So then, instead of this Psalm being a source of encouragement and strength, it may become one of frustration and discouragement, as we start to question “what has gone wrong, where is my green pasture?”
But the landscape that David had in front of him was not our Edenic image, rather it was the harsh landscape of the dry Judean Wilderness.
And this changes the meaning of the Psalm entirely.
Green Pastures and the role of the shepherd
By associating the Edenic green imagery with this Psalm we diminish the role of the shepherd and elevate the features of the landscape. We subconsciously associate that our security is derived from the landscape, rather than from the shepherd – as everything a sheep needs is within reach… green grass, water, shelter, and it appears that there is no real need for a shepherd.
In our lives we may think that our security and comfort is found in what we have – our homes, financial security, health and relationships… and we do whatever we can to hold on to them, as we subconsciously believe that our security is found there – in the features of our landscape.
However, David was looking at a landscape that lacked everything, and yet he was secure. And that is because his focus was different. His eyes were not focused on the landscape, rather they were focused on the Lord – the shepherd who was the one confidently guiding him through.
This is why he starts out by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”.
So that even though the landscape lacked everything, David wanted for nothing. The Shepherd ensured that he was provided all.
But what does that actually mean?
Pastures that require movement
The traditional Edenic imagery encourages us to interpret the Christian life as a sedentary one. That once we have been saved we are effectively put into this lovely pasture where our needs are met, and we have no real further need of the shepherd.
However, the Christian life is anything by sedentary. It is one that requires movement. This is what the landscape teaches us.
The green pastures of Psalm 23 are not the thick, lush fields of grass.
In the wilderness green pastures are not the norm. Grass is only green for 3 months of the year, for the remainder of the time the pastures will be brown and patchy and knowing where to find sufficient pasture requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape.
Having an intimate knowledge of the landscape the shepherd knows where to find pastures that are sufficient, and of suitable size, for his flock. He moves his flock continuously – ensuring that the pastures aren’t over grazed, and that the sheep and goats receive sufficient food – so that once satisfied they will settle and lie down.
Just as a Judean shepherd has an intimate knowledge of the wilderness landscape, so Christ has an intimate knowledge of the landscape of our lives. He will lead us to those green pastures, so that even within the chaos of our season in the wilderness we can settle down and be at rest.
However this requires movement. It requires that we continually follow our shepherd.
Following in paths of righteousness
Sheep aren’t driven from behind like cattle. Rather sheep are lead. The shepherd walks on ahead, and the sheep follow.
This is what we must do also. Just as the sheep listens to the voice of his shepherd and follows, so we must synchronise our lives with Jesus.
And as we follow Him in the path of righteousness that He is leading us on we will receive comfort and security – even though these are seemingly lacking in the landscape that we find ourselves in.
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