Psalm 23:2b

He leades me beside quiet waters.

A sheep will not drink from rushing waters or from a swirling stream.  Other animals will, but not sheep.  Sheep need calm, quiet sources of fresh water. Turbulent waters or even murmuring springs are frightening to sheep.  They have to have quiet and fresh water sources. A shepherd takes great care to locate proper sources for drinking.  Some streams are too agitating.  Some still water is stagnant.  Sheep need a quiet but fresh supply of water.   Oftentimes, there are no such bodies of water in the area of their grazing.  In those times, the early morning dew soaking the pasture grasses are their best source of hydration.

Thoughts that result from this knowledge of sheep and meditation on verse 2b -

1.  We need spiritual water. We are on a constant quest in hopes of getting that thirst satisfied.
2.  Our thirst is not quenched from frenetically paced lives. Trying to drink from a chaotic lifestyle puts us in turmoil. Nor is it quenched from temporary things like riches, fame, popularity, success.  These things are stagnant waters which give an initial sense of refreshment but soon leave a sickening taste in our mouths and stomachs.
3.  Early morning is a good time to get the spiritual hydration that we need.
4.  Divine water is found in a quiet, still state. Time in His presence, in His Word.
5.  Jesus tells us that He is the source of living water and that if we drink from Him, we won't be thirsty for lesser sources, things that don't satisfy.
6.  This living water that Jesus offers His sheep comes from the Throne of God and of the Lamb (Christ).  It is His love and His joy, available to us all if we come to His Throne to drink.  Here we are free from fear and worry, full of joy and  contentment.

Isaiah 40:11 promises us that Jesus is taking care of us, leading us to the living waters that we need.  Check it out.  It's even got a precious extra promise for Mommies.
"Like a shepherd, He will tend His flock, in His arm, He will gather the lambs, and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes."

Psalm 23:6 The end

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

We have come to the end of Psalm 23.  This last verse is so very familiar and so very comforting. Our promise that all will end well and will last forever.  I found some commentary about sheep that shed a new light of possibility on what God means by this.  Let's unpack it...

First, we embrace the glad truth that goodness and mercy are forever with those who follow Christ.  Goodness - that is just what it sounds like -- good deeds.  That same thought shows up in Paul's letter to the Galatians when he explains that the result of God's Spirit in us is goodness.  Mercy - plain and simple -- not giving people what they deserve.  Just like Jesus treats us. He protects us, provides for us, and promises us abundant life, immeasurable blessing.  True.  All true.  But there is another dimension that we should consider.  The word "follow" - why did God choose that particular word?  Why not "accompany"? Or "surround"?  "Follow"....hmmmm....that means to come after....

Here's some info on sheep. If the flock is neglected or not managed well, the sheep can be quite destructive to the landscape.  They will overgraze and ravage the land almost beyond repair.  However, under careful supervision and guidance, they can be the most beneficial of all livestock to the land they pasture.  One commentary about sheep says that ancient literature refers to them as "the golden hooves" because of the benefits to the soil from their manure. Sheep rid their grazing lands of all sorts of undesirable plants, herbage that would otherwise ruin the landscape.  When the shepherd leads the flock to high pasture for resting, the fertility from the rich low lands is deposited on these less productive grounds.  A flock of sheep under the care of a wise shepherd can clean up and restore pasture lands as no other livestock can.  One shepherd writes that " I have, in just a few years, seen two derelict ranches restored to high productivity and usefulness. More than this, what before appeared as depressing eyesores became beautiful, park-like properties of immense worth."

Sounds like goodness and mercy followed those flocks.  The places they grazed were better because the sheep had been there, more productive, more beautiful, more beneficial.  Can this be part of the meaning the psalmist has for us?

Surely we have all witnessed (or perhaps participated in) scenarios where Christians leave behind shipwrecks more than a restored field. We can recall all too vividly being hurt or wronged by fellow believers.  We have all seen the damage done by a critical spirit or a gossipy tongue or a vengeful heart.  Probably we've all done some damage inflicting ourselves.  But I think that maybe, just maybe, the point of verse 6 is a plea, a call, a prayer that "surely" this won't be true for us.  "Surely" we will be those who leave behind us things better than when we arrived.

Numerous examples of this truth come to mind.  I think about some college kids I know who have built authentic relationships with scores of homeless folks, faithfully loving on them, ministering to more than just their physical needs.  I think about a relative of mine who consistently invests herself in folks who need some help in all sorts of ways.  About a friend of mine  who brightens up a room when she walks in, leaving a trail of encouragement and cheerfulness.  About a few men who addressed the medical needs of the poor in our community...and a free Christian medical clinic named Mercy Health Center followed.  About a young woman at my church who responded to a crisis in her own family by birthing a ministry of compassion to others who face similar situations - Bryan's Blankies.  About a missionary friend who plants seeds of grace and truth in my heart every time I have the blessing to speak with her. About a Mom and Dad who always give me the benefit of the doubt, especially when I don't deserve it.  About the patience and kindness of a husband who always believes the best about me...and everyone else.  Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary!

May the desire of our hearts be that goodness and mercy will be the trail that we leave.  May our lives be so lived that the places we travel will be better off because we stopped by.  May those that watch us learn about the goodness and mercy of our shepherd...through the fragrance of our lives.

And then, we will surely dwell in the house of the Lord....of our Shepherd...forever.  Because of His mercy, goodness will be ours.  Unendingly. Abundantly.  Amen.
Thanks for joining me in learning about Psalm 23.  From one sheep to another. 

Psalm 23:5c

My cup overflows

The psalmist just told us about the table the shepherd has prepared and the oil which anoints the head.  Now, the cup.  Why a cup?  Why not a platter or a bowl or a pitcher?  hmmmmm.....let's see...

First, let's notice the pronoun "my".  Not "the" or "a" but the personal pronoun "my".  The point conveyed here is that of individual attention from the shepherd.  Personal, not corporate.  The shepherd deals with us intimately, according to our individual needs and bents. And that's how He blesses us.  Specifically, individually, personally. Not en masse.

Now, "cup".  In Scripture, "cup" is often a metaphor for an individual's lot in life, his "fate", so to speak. In Bible times, when a host wished to welcome his guests and express his desire to share abundantly with them, he offered them  a cup of choice wine, and carefully filled it up till it ran over.  The over-full glass of wine implied that while they remained there, they should have an abundance of everything.  This verse tells us that the Good Shepherd fills our "cup", not partially nor even to the brim, but rather abundantly overflowing.  Get the picture... a cup with liquid spilling over, gushing down the sides, with Jesus is extravagant!

Here are some of what fills us to overflowing

-Salvation. “The cup of salvation” (Ps. 116:13). Jesus' blood abundantly satisfies the wrath of God.
- Satisfaction. “Filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53). He alone satisfies our deepest longings.
- Happiness. “Filled our hearts with . . . gladness” (Acts 14:17). He fills us up, over and over, forever!
- Peace. “Filled you with joy and peace” (Romans 15:13). God is the overflowing Fountain, the River of life and peace and joy.
- Holy Spirit. “Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
-Suffering.  (Phil. 3:10) The cup of suffering is one all of us must taste. It is a part of life. It's inescapable. Our suffering may differ. For some people it is physical pain; hard, unrelenting, pain. For some people it is mental suffering. What decision will I make? Which road shall I take? For others it is the suffering we call heartache; that deep pain that goes to the innermost part of our being. The kind of suffering may differ, but every one of us must taste the cup of suffering.  And when we do, we find precious fellowship that is only possible through pain.

In Matthew 26:29 Jesus speaks of a cup that He will not drink until He drinks it with us in Heaven. I asked my friend Susan about it because she is an expert on all things Jewish.  This cup is one of the 4 cups of the Passover observance.  The 4th cup is the cup of praise.  Sounds to me like Jesus is telling us His joy won't be complete until we are all with Him for Eternity in Heaven.  Only then will He drink the cup of praise. Our salvation perfected. Completed. Joy.  In abundance. Our cups, running over.  Amen and amen!! 

Psalm 23:5b

You anoint my head with oil;

Does this conjure up for you scenes from the teenage years when we needed to wash our hair twice a day to get rid of the flat greasy look?  We seemed to have had our heads anointed with oil!  Somehow I don't think that's what the psalmist meant...

He is referencing something positive and desirable here so let's find out what he means.

A little background - sheep are often plagued by little flies called nasal flies.  These creatures buzz around the sheep's nose and try to deposit their eggs in the moist membranes there.  Once deposited, the eggs hatch in a few days into wormy larvae that wiggle up into the sheep's head and burrow in. This is obviously intensely agonizing to the sheep. Infestations can even lead to blindess in extreme cases, but even in the least cases, it is extremely painful and the sheep wants relief. In an attempt to get rid of these internal pests, the poor sheep will rub its head in the soil, beat it against trees or rocks, throw itself on the grown in desperation.  Such frantic behavior disrupts the entire flockand can send them all into a frenzy.  Apparently, sheep are smart enough to recognize that these flies are potentially hazardous; whenever they detect some anywhere near the flock, they become exceedingly agitated, running, bleating, disrupting even the sheep not infected.

Oil is the medicinal remedy the shepherd chooses.  When he first spots flies among the flock, he smears oil over the head and nose of each sheep.  The sources I consulted said that this produces an immediate change for the flock; the sheep would quiet down, graze quietly, and even lie down to sleep in peace. Somehow they sense the ability of the oil to protect them from the dreaded flies.

In addition to the flies, there is another unwelcome parasite that shepherds have to guard against.  A microscopic critter can create a condition called "scab" on its host.  This is an irritating and highly contagious disease common to sheep, particularly in warm weather.  It is most often found around the head area and spreads by contact.  Since sheep love to rub heads with other flock-fellows, this infection spreads easily and quickly.  As with the flies, oil is an effective antidote to scab.  Sometimes, the sheep's head is doused with oil and other times, the entire animal is plunged into a vat of oil so as to ensure the scab will be eradicated. 

One last interesting use of oil on sheep - in mating season, rams vie for the favors of the ewes.  They will butt and crash and collide with one another, often causing serious injury.  In anticipation of such rowdy contests, a shepherd will spread thick oil or grease on the heads of his rams. Then, when they slam into one another, their heads are so slick that they slide against one another instead of doing damage.

So, what does this verse mean for us?  How and why does God anoint our heads with oil? I am not sure I have it all figured out but here are some thoughts to ponder:

1.  Oil is used in Scripture often times to refer to the Holy Spirit.  Remember that his phrase follows "You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies".  Perhaps the truth conveyed here is that God abundantly supplies us with His Holy Spirit so that we are equipped for what He allows into our lives.  His Holy Spirit is our strength for the battle; and the fruit of His Spirit in our lives comes forth as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

2.  Oil is also used specifically in conjunction with JOY.  Again,  fruit of His Holy Spirit in us.  When we are filled with His Joy, we are not tempted to fill ourselves up with lesser things....things which can often become an enemy to our soul.

3.  Oil was used in Bible times to anoint priests and kings.  To "anoint" something is to make it sacred, to set it apart for God's use.  This phrase of Psalm 23 could be reminding us that we are holy, set apart for God's plans and purposes.  Jesus is called both High Priest and King of Kings - Scritpure also refers to our position in Him as the "priesthood of the believer" and our role as reigning with Him. 

4. In Scripture, oil is seen to have medicinal uses as well as for burial preparation of the dead.  We can infer that God's Holy Spirit has healing powers - sometimes physically but especially spiritually.  And, the use of oil for the dead can also refer to us who have died to our selves but live in Christ.

5.  When I think about the shepherd's use of oil to reduce the sting of the head-butting, I can't help but think about how the Holy Spirit often softens the blows we inflict on one another.  Sometimes our interactions with fellow believers leaves much to be desired.  We need to be "greased with the Holy Spirit" so as to slide past the bang and not return "head butt for head butt". 

6.  Jesus anoints our heads with oil.  I pray that we are running to Him regularly for the oil bath!

In summary,  Christ anoints us with oil. Sets us apart for God's purpose and our blessing.  Oil of gladness, oil of power, oil of healing and reconciliation.  Wow.  Powerful..