This week I’m going to build off of what I wrote in my last post about finding true happiness in this world, and today I want to start with a passage from the Psalms.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…
I have always loved this Psalm and it is has always been a favorite amongst Gods people since the day it was written. I have even written songs about this passage and we sing them regularly at the congregation that I pastor here in Tampa. It is a passage that we read when we need provision, when we need God to intervene, and when we need a little bit of peace in a chaotic world.
But, like much of the scriptures, this passage has been divorced of it’s original context. And when we remove a piece of writing form it’s original time, place, and audience we tend to miss some incredibly important things that we desperately need to hear.
Usually when we think of this passage we picture big fat fluffy sheep grazing in a field lush with green grass up to their mouths. In fact, if you do a quick google search of Psalm 23, this is exactly what kinds of images are conjured up. As if the sheep barely need to even lower their heads because the grass is so thick and healthy that they can almost wander with their eyes closed and open their mouths and be fed.
But the reality of that passage in it’s original context was actually much different, and it should have a profound impact on the actual meaning of the text. The “green fields” that the sheep were supposedly wandering in did not actually exist like we have just described them here. In reality, they looked more like this:
Not quite the same, I would say. The food that was available for the sheep was not really all that abundant. In the morning, as the sun was rising, the dew would settle on these tiny sprigs of grass, and they would soak up the dew like a sponge. They would indeed turn green, but only for a short time. By noon there would be a scorching wind coming in from the east that would cause the grass and it’s flowers and greenery to wither and fade.
Without a shepherd the sheep would never eat, because only the shepherd knew where to lead them to find the food that they need. The shepherd knew that at different times of the day there would be grasses good for eating in certain parts of the valley, and he would take great care to lead the sheep to exactly what they needed to eat at the exact time that they needed it.
Think about that for a second.
The shepherd didn’t lead them into a land of plenty where they never needed to think about food anymore. He didn’t lead them to a place where they had such abundance that they could relax and no longer worry about being fed for the rest of their days… that kind of place did not exist!
Instead, the shepherd would lead them to exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. It was their “daily bread”. It was not year by year, but moment by moment.
If the sheep wanted to live, they had to keep their eyes on the shepherd. In fact, to take their eyes off of the shepherd was the most dangerous thing they could do. And all first century nomadic peoples knew the context in which this passage was written. Peter, Paul and James all wrote about it. Here is what James said in chapter 1:
For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
That word for “scorching heat” is the Greek word “καύσων (kausōn)”, also called the “simoon”. And it’s heat could killed a healthy man who did not take shelter under a tent, tree, or at least a turban.
So lets reevaluate how we are to read this text.
I know that we want God to lead us into a place where we are at perfect peace. Where there is plenty to feast upon and no lack of abundance. But that is never promised to us in this life. Instead, we are told that we have a shepherd that we can trust, who knows the way through the fires of life, who has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow Him. He knows the way. He is paving and has paved a way for us to be fed and nourished. A way for us to find peace. Not a storehouse of peace, but a fountain of it. Constantly flowing.
Peace is not abundant food or money or shelter… it is abundant trust and faith that, if we follow our shepherd, we will always be given exactly what we need when we need it.
In fact, it is when we receive too much abundance that we tend to fall into misery. When we have too much of a good thing, we find ourselves alone and heading towards destruction.
Pay attention to exactly what God said to the Israelites when he was about to lead them into abundance. He is not telling them that it will be what they need, instead He warns them that it of the dangers of it all. Read Deuteronomy 6:10
“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…with great and good cities that you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of bondage…
It did not take long for them to forget about the God who fed them in the wilderness day after day. It did not take long for them to fall into idolatry. It wasn’t long before they found themselves back in bondage once again.
Usually it is when we have too much that we forget our shepherd. He becomes unnecessary. We find ourselves self sufficient, and so we isolate ourselves.
Sometimes the things that we are praying for, that things that we want, that things that we look at and say “If I only had THAT, then I would be HAPPY!”… THOSE are the thing that will be our undoing.
Sometimes the most loving thing that God could possibly do for us is to say “no, you don’t need that, and I will not be giving it to you”.
Sometimes the most loving thing that god can do is to give you just a little, right here, right now.
Sometimes when we are receiving all of the things that we always wanted, we should be terrified because perhaps we are actually being chastened and disciplined.
Happiness comes in the providence. It comes from posture of thankfulness.
Perhaps the best way to put it is in the lyrics of a beloved song from The Muppet Christmas Carol:
Yes, and every night will end
And every day will start
With a grateful prayer
And a thankful heart
So may you wake up tomorrow in want and need. Because only in the seeking and finding, day by day, do we really understand that love is real and that we have a shepherd and a guide who sees, who understands, and who is capable of granting salvation in every moment. Not just later, but NOW.