“He leads me in paths of righteousness” (23:3b, NKJV)
Psalm 23 speaks of God as a good shepherd who leads you beside “still waters” of safety and refreshment but also to paths that are straight. Specifically this shepherd will lead you in paths that are “righteous.”
Now when I think of the word “righteous,” positive connotations don’t come to mind immediately. For example, when someone is called “self-righteous” that certainly isn’t a compliment! Thinking of people who are considered “righteous” may elicit a picture of someone adhering to rigid fundamentalism or legalistic religion perhaps. So what did the Psalmist intend to convey with the phrase “paths of righteousness”?
When Psalm 23 was read in the synagogue, it would immediately bring the exodus from Egypt to mind when Israel wandered through the wilderness for 40 years with Yahweh as their Shepherd. The phrase “I do not lack” (23:1) would remind them of Moses leading them and God providing manna, quail and fresh water in the desert. In fact the Hebrew word for “leads” (nachah) is also used to refer to Israel's journey through the wilderness. Exodus 13:21 says, “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead (nachah) them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (NIV). So these righteous paths that Yahweh is leading them on is less about religious festivals or adherence to cleanliness laws and more about a life aligned with God who leads them on good paths that result in sustenance, security, peace and wholeness.
Margaret Feinberg writes, “Sheep also trust each other immensely and, in extreme cases, have been known to follow each other right off of a cliff. Partly, this is due to the fact that sheep travel in a straight line, which creates issues when a shepherd calls to sheep across a ditch or hillside. To prevent the sheep from getting hurt, shepherds will guide their sheep in zig-zag patterns down the side of hills…The Israelites recognized that the path of righteousness is the one that leads straight to the shepherd” (Scouting the Divine, p. 55).
Millions are without jobs in the US. Reopening the country is not going to be easy nor even consistent state to state or city to city. When we will be able to or feel comfortable meeting in person for worship as the family of God? Where is the sustenance, security, peace and wholeness Scriptures speak about during this COVID-19 disaster? Perhaps right now it’s hard to see God leading in our circumstances. Maybe you’re tempted to follow others “off the cliff” into a paralyzing anxiety or a self-preservation attitude that makes it hard to care for others. As we bring our questions to the Lord, He continues to promise to lead us in paths of righteousness. He will not lead us astray.
Just as things seem to be crumbling around us, simultaneously new opportunities arise. We’ve seen a huge increase of people viewing our online worship services compared to just a month ago. I know personally of small groups that have grown since moving online! One friend started a new bible study and now over 60 people have joined! A donation of hygiene masks were donated to our church and thousands were distributed while I was also able to help another church in Seaside get access to over 5000 masks so they could distribute as well. I have new friends in Seaside now as we partner together to serve those in need. The amount of counseling and discipleship opportunities have actually increased for our staff and leaders as people seek the Lord’s guidance in these times.
So as we see the real hardships the Lord also points to the opportunities to serve and bless others. If we pay attention, the Lord wants to direct and shape us individually and as a church in this new season of the unknown.
God will be faithful to care for his wandering sheep in life and in death. What a blessed assurance to know that He will not abandon us in these troubling times.
Living Out God’s Word
As you reflect on the past 10 years of your work and personal life, where have things gone “straight” and where have they “zig-zagged”? In the past month how have you shifted your attention to the ways of the Lord and away from “falling off the cliff” of anxiety, isolation and distrust of God? Spend some time thanking God for being there in the past and for wisdom as you navigate this current season of life.
“We are so thankful to believe that this is a life for us, a life without lack, a life of sufficiency. It’s so clear in you, the sufficiency of your Father and the fullness of life that was poured through you, and we’re so thankful that you have promised that same love, that same life, that same joy, that same power for us. Lord, slip up on us today.” (Dallas Willard, Life Without Lack, p. xiii)