LIVING UNDER GOD'S GRACIOUS CARE
As we all know, in life we encounter many dangerous situations. Sometimes we are warned by signs that we are near danger. Here is a list of danger signs we may have seen. Caution: Dangerous Curve Ahead. Danger: High voltage. Danger: Avalanche Area. Danger: Rip Tides. Danger: Fuel Storage. No Smoking. Danger: Buried Cable. Danger: Underground Gas Lines. Danger: Asbestos. Danger: Live Wire Overhead. Danger: Watch Out for Alligators. Danger: Flammable Materials. Danger: Chemical Storage Area. Danger: Hot Surface. Danger: Open Trench. Danger: Slippery Surface. Danger: Construction Site.
Danger is all around us. In fact, it might be a good idea to put a sign in hospital delivery rooms proclaiming to each newborn child: "Warning: Danger Ahead." Life is filled with all kinds of dangers, and there are all kinds of signs warning us of countless dangers. Obviously, we will be wise if we follow their instructions. It is best to avoid danger.
But we can't always avoid danger; there is just too much danger that fills this world. Perhaps the most threatening kind of danger is to live in enemy territory. For instance, imagine you are a spy living among the enemy. You have a critical mission - to gather information on the enemy. But you know if your cover is blown, that will be the end of you. It's dangerous to live in enemy territory.
That's really the situation we are in, for enemies surround us, and that makes for danger.
What are our enemies, besides the ones mentioned on all those signs? We might initially think of enemies such as a severe illness, a snatch thief, a jealous co-worker trying to hinder our career, or anyone or anything that would hurt us in some way. Certainly, those are all enemies; they confront us with a kind of danger we would like to avoid.
Then there are other enemies that really are even more dangerous. These enemies would be anyone or anything that would lead us astray, that would distance us from God, that would keep us from fulfilling God's good purposes for our lives, that would hinder or prevent us from experiencing the fullness of life that God desires for us. So these enemies would include: Temptations that pull us. Worldly values that lure us. Peers who pressure us. Attitudes that diminish us. Lies that deceive us. And of course, behind all these is Satan, who would destroy us. Scripture compares him to a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (I Pet. 5:8).
Life is plenty threatening with all these enemies surrounding us. But while we must be alert and take them seriously, we do not need to fear, for we do not face them alone. As we continue our study of Ps. 23, we come now to vs. 5, which assures us, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." These are such encouraging words for those who live in dangerous times - and that would include all of us.
What specifically did David have in mind when he wrote these words? David, of course, is writing from the perspective of a shepherd and his sheep. Two of the main responsibilities of the shepherd were to keep his sheep safe and to provide them with adequate food. Both these responsibilities are highlighted by this verse. "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." "You prepare a table" refers to provision and "in the presence of my enemies" implies protection.
The ancient shepherd was always on the lookout for new pastures, new fields of grass where he could feed his flock. Especially with the change of seasons, the shepherd would have to lead his sheep to higher ground in the summer months and to the lower places in the fall.
Before letting his sheep graze in a new pasture, the shepherd must first walk up and down the field, examining it thoroughly. He must check to see if there are any plants or grass that would be poisonous to his sheep, for sheep don't always detect that a plant is poisonous to them. So, the shepherd will have to pull up the poisonous plants before bringing his sheep there.
And in the ancient Middle East, he would also have to check for vipers. These particular snakes live underground. As the sheep are feeding, with their head down biting off the grass, the vipers will pop out of their holes and bite the sheep on the nose, which can cause the sheep to die.
If there are such vipers in the field, the shepherd will do two things to protect his sheep. First, he will pour some oil in and around the holes of the vipers. The smooth underside of the vipers can't get any traction on the oil, so they are not able to spring out of their holes.
Second, the shepherd anoints the head of each sheep with oil. In our modern times, we read that phrase, "He anoints my head with oil," and we likely wonder what is the point of that. What was David referring to, and why was that comforting to him? Well, the oil on the sheep's head acts as a kind of repellent. If a viper should get near the sheep, the smell of the oil drives the viper away. Thus, the sheep are able to graze without harm in the presence of their enemies.
In addition to vipers, another dangerous pest sheep sometimes confront are insects, in particular a fly called the nasal fly. These flies buzz about the sheep's head, which is of course irritating, but worse they try to deposit their eggs in the moist, mucous membrane of the sheep's nose. A few days later the eggs hatch and the worm-like larvae make their way into the sinus passages of the sheep. This can cause a severe and painful inflammation. Then the sheep becomes distressed and may beat its head against a tree or rock to try to rid itself of the painful irritation. In the process, a sheep may actually kill itself. In other instances, the infection can lead to blindness. So, the wise shepherd, at the first hint of these flies, applies oil to the head and nose of the sheep as a form of protection against these flies.
Fortunately, we have a Good Shepherd who watches over us. When David says the Lord prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies and anoints his head with oil, he is speaking of God's provision and protection over our lives. To be clear, this doesn't mean nothing bad will ever happen to us. We live in a broken, fallen world where bad things happen. Accidents, illness, loss of a job, broken hearts, as well as those people and situations that would threaten or diminish our faith - Christians are not excluded from such things.
But this is what the Lord does promise us. First, we have the assurance that even in the midst of bad and difficult and painful things, God is at work. As Rom. 8:28 promises us, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Even if we are hit with difficult or tragic circumstances, God will be at work to bring good out of them. Perhaps our faith will be strengthened, or our priorities rearranged, or our relationships deepened, or our character transformed, or our values adjusted. And as God is at working bringing good, we also have the assurance that He will be with us to be our strength.
That's why David went on to say in vs. 6 of Ps. 23, "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life." David didn't say that he would always enjoy good things, but that goodness itself would always be his companion, because God is good, and God always works for the good of those He loves.
Beyond this, we can be certain that God will always protect us from ultimate harm. We are not necessarily spared every harmful situation, but we are protected from ultimate harm. Ultimate harm would be if we were cut off from God and separated from His love. That is the worst thing that could ever happen to us. But we know that will not happen. Rom. 8:37-39 promises us that there is nothing is this world or the world to come that can ever separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.
David closes this psalm by asserting, "and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Ultimate harm would be to spend eternity away from God and His loving presence, but that is not our destiny. Because of Jesus our Good Shepherd, we will spend eternity in the loving presence of God. So in this dangerous world, God is with us, He always works to bring about good for us, and He assures us that the worst that could ever happen can never happen.
Then we have God's promise in the face of another enemy, and that is temptation. We all know the dangers of temptation. Yet, we are not powerless in the face of those things that not only would be wrong in God's sight, but in the act of them would create distance between us and God, and they keep us from being all God created us to be. I Cor. 10:13 declares: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." God protects us in the midst of temptation, in the midst of those things that hinder us from experiencing God's best for our lives, and God does that by not allowing any temptation that we could not handle, and then by providing a way out of other temptations that confront us, if only we will take it.
There is another kind of danger we face, but in which we can be confident in the Lord's protection.
Unfortunately, far too many Christians today have become convinced that living the Christian life is simply about attending church services, maybe serving on a committee, and if they are really devoted, attending a mid-week Bible study. To be sure, those are all good and important things, but they are not the sum of what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.
As disciples of Jesus, we are sent by Jesus into the world. Jesus told His disciples in Jn. 20:21, shortly after He was raised from the dead, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Jesus sends us into the world in the same way and with the same mission that He was sent, to live as His witnesses, pointing others to Him. That means He sometimes sends us into dangerous places. Yes, the God who protects us from danger sometimes sends us into dangerous places - places and situations where we may be opposed or challenged, maybe even persecuted as His people.
In Mt. 10:16 Jesus said to His disciples, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves." In other words, He sends us into dangerous places, enemy-held territory. But we do not go on our own. In Jn. 17:15 Jesus prayed to the Father, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one." As we seek to live as God's people and God's witnesses in this fallen world, we may and probably will sometimes face opposition, but God will protect us from the evil one and the harm he would seek to bring into our lives.
Jesus said we are the light of the world, but light does no good in a room that is already well lit. The purpose of a light is to shine in a room that would otherwise be dark. That means we are sent by Jesus into the darkness of this world to be His light, where we will likely be confronted by those who oppose us and oppose the Christian faith, as Jesus was opposed. But God sends us into the world so that others can see God's love and truth shining through our lives, and He will be with us. As Jesus said to the disciples when He commissioned them to take the gospel into all the world, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Jesus sends us as light into the darkness of this world, but He is with us.
There is another important point from what David wrote. That God prepares the table for us implies that He has gone before us. Just as the shepherd prepared the field before taking the sheep there by pulling up any poisonous plants and checking for vipers, so our Good Shepherd prepares the way for us.
Thus, no matter what dangers, difficulties, or trials we may encounter, they do not take God by surprise, for He goes before us. Shortly before Jesus was arrested and crucified, He said to Peter "Simon Peter, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. When you have turned, strengthen your brothers." Peter was about to be severely tested as He saw Jesus arrested and crucified, but Jesus had already prayed for him, so Peter could look upon this testing with confidence. He would falter temporarily as he denied the Lord, but soon his faith would be strengthened, and then he could strengthen others, for Jesus had already prayed for him. In that sense, Jesus went before Peter.
As we've already seen, in Scripture Satan is depicted as a roaring lion seeking someone to attack. But we need not fear, for Jesus has always gone before us. The key for us is to stay close to the shepherd. When enemies of the sheep were nearby, mountain lions or wolves, the safest place for the sheep to be was close to the shepherd. And so it is for us. As we regularly nurture our relationship with God, our faith will be strong. As we absorb God's word, our sense of discernment will be sharp, and so we will be less likely to fall for the temptations of the enemy.
The Lord prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. The place where we see all this most profoundly is at the Lord's Table as we celebrate Holy Communion. From this table, as we eat the bread symbolizing the body of Jesus broken on the cross, and as we drink the cup representing His blood poured out for us, we feast on the abundant grace of God. This table God prepared for us in the presence of our enemies – the enemies of sin that condemns us and Satan who accuses us. But at the cross Jesus rendered these enemies powerless. It is a table that He prepared for us, that He makes possible for us as Jesus willingly offered His life on the cross, so we can be forgiven, restored to God, and experience the glory of life with God - both in this world and then throughout eternity.
At the Lord’s table we also celebrate the victory of Jesus over another enemy, what I Cor. 15:26 says is "the last enemy," and that is death. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus defeated not only sin and Satan, but also death. As I Cor. 15:54-57 assures us, the sting of death has been removed and death has been swallowed up in victory. We won't see the climax of that victory until Jesus returns and there will be no more death, but already the victory is sure. It's sting, that is its power to harm us, has been removed for through the death of Jesus we are forgiven and at the point of physical death we are ushered into the presence of God forever. Thus, we are protected from the worst enemy. As Ps. 23 closes, we "will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." For all of eternity we will be in the loving presence of our Good Shepherd.
Gathering at the Lord's Table is a feast, not only of the bread and wine, but of divine and sacrificial love that makes our eternity possible, and it revives our souls and fills us with joy. In the midst of the broken world filled with dangers - the dangers of unexpected illnesses, temptations that challenge us, worldly values that steer us away from God, and even death – we come to the Lord’s Table for refreshment and renewal and assurance.
Throughout our study of Psalm 23, we've been comforted with the fact that God is not a remote, distant, inaccessible God who leaves us to manage our lives on our own while He manages the universe. No, God is wonderfully accessible and is intimately involved in our lives. David affirmed, "The Lord is my Shepherd. He leads me to places of rest and renewal. He guides me in the right paths. He is with me even in the darkest valley, where He offers me protection. He extends lavish hospitality to me. He tends to my most pressing needs. He pours out His goodness on me, and one day He will welcome me into His home for eternity." What an amazing Shepherd we have!
Just imagine, some 3,000 years have passed since David penned the words to the 23rd Psalm. Think of all the kingdoms that have risen, seemed invincible for a time, only to fall into obscurity. Think of all the leaders who ruled briefly but now are but footnotes on the pages of history. Yet through it all, the words of this psalm have remained, and they have remained true. They speak just as much truth and comfort and assurance and revelation to us today as they did to David's original listeners.
Haddon Robinson observes:
"These words are among the first that many of us learned as children, and they are often among the last that we whisper in the final dark hours of life, as we look forward to the daybreak of heaven. We speak these words to the dying and repeat them to the grieving who are left behind. The sufferer in the hospital room, the soldier at his lonely post, the immigrant in a strange land, the man and woman burdened down with iron cares - all have found in this psalm strength for their weakness and a lullaby for their fears."
What an amazing gift God has given us through these words of David we know as Psalm 23. David affirmed that his cup overflowed, and that is true for all of us when we know the Lord as our Shepherd. Our cup overflows with the countless blessings He pours into our lives - His provision, His guidance, His refreshment, His mercy, His presence, His protection. And then our cup overflows with joy and gratitude to our Good Shepherd for His abundant care.