Sunday 17th September – Psalm 23
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
What is there to say about Psalm 23 that hasn’t been said already. Let me take you through some things that have been said about the life of the middle Eastern Shepherd and if they help, good and well, but you don’t need any of them to luxuriate in the truth and glory of the first verse “The Lord is my Shepherd, I lack nothing” (NIV). If you go no further let that sink into your heart.
First of all we know that the Shepherd led his flock, he didn’t drive them from behind and he would make sure the places to lie down for the night were safe and secure. Even though the sheep had to pass through narrow places that were gloomy they wouldn’t fear if they knew the Shepherd was with them. In particular, he had two implements with him, the staff or Shepherd’s crook and the rod. The staff was a way of controlling the sheep or steering them away from danger like steep slopes where they might slip and fall. The rod is what it says, it is a heavy stick or club because the Shepherd needed a weapon for the protection of the sheep – predators were always a danger.
The table is of course the good food stuffs that the Shepherd would lay down for his sheep; in the presence of his enemies?? I have heard, though I cannot find this, that if a Shepherd killed snakes he would gather the gather them and pile them up in the middle of the field – the enemies had been dealt with. Anointing the head with oil, particularly the nose and eyes, was a means whereby the shepherd would keep troublesome insects and flies at bay which would be a cause of infection.
What about Goodness and Mercy? In Roman times dogs were kept and used as protectors against any predators, here they are seen as following the sheep and keeping them together. The shepherd was out front, goodness and mercy were behind. What a safe place to be.
However we think about shepherdly care, and David knew all about it, we ought to remember that we have a Good Shepherd who will take care of us and bring us to his dwelling place at the end of the journey. Hallelujah!
(You’ll find plenty renditions of it online – enjoy)
READINGS FOR THE WEEK AHEAD
If you don’t have a bible at home you can find the readings on a website such as www.biblegateway.com or an app such as YouVersion
Monday Exodus 18:1-27
It seems likely that Moses had sent his wife Zipporah and his two sons back to her father at some unspecified time, possibly before the Exodus to protect them from Pharoah, and in this chapter we have him meeting again with Jethro who brings Zipporah and the two boys with him. Jethro is delighted to hear all the things Moses tells him about their escape from Pharoah and their provision during their wilderness wanderings so far and Jethro exclaims, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods” (18:11). Together they share in a meal after Jethro’s sacrifices.
It’s worth noting that others can come to God through what they see him doing in us but we need to share it or how will they know? Jethro bec Teaching and administering justice are not the same things and becomes a wise advisor to Moses in this chapter because he sees Moses sitting as a sole judge for all the people who come to him with issues requiring an authoritative decision and he becomes worn out. I’m sure parents will understand this but multiply this by hundreds and the problems much more serious and we see as Jethro did that something needed to be done to split and share the load. Moses was to stick to the teaching bit and the capable people he appointed under him were to deal with the cases. Teaching and administering justice are not the same; countries down the ages have realised that legislature and policing may be arms of government but ought to be kept separate.
Tuesday Exodus 19:1-25
In Chapter 19 we find the completing of the promise of God given to Moses in Exodus 3:12 “And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”. The names Horeb and Sinai are of the same mountain, some have suggested possibly referring to different sides or with two slightly distinct points, the name Sinai of course links the mountain to the Sinai desert where it is situated.
Here God starts to declare his relationship with this people. Though he declares the whole earth and all its nations his, yet he tells Moses to say, “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (19:6). If we think of it, the distinctiveness of the Jewish people in all the earth is something decided by God that needs to be acknowledged by every nation and people. Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the great Christian philosopher, to give him proof of God to which Pascal answered, “Why the Jews, your Majesty, the Jews!”. We might add that no people who have lost their land and been scattered throughout the world for 2000 years yet gathered together again as a distinct people speaking the same language has existed anywhere. Also, no people have been systematically persecuted as the Jews yet still exist. The one Jew whose death and resurrection brings salvation for the world – ‘to the Jew first and also to the Gentile’ (Roms 9:5) – is Jesus.
God was going to give commands to the people under which they would live and they would be blessed through their keeping and suffer loss through their disobedience but before that came the people were to be gathered around the lower part of the mountain, not touching it, but in hearing of the voice of God. The situation shows similarity to Moses who had to remove his sandals before the burning bush.
Wednesday Exodus 20:1-17
If ever you want to find the ten commandments in the Bible remember the number 20 because the 10 are in Chapter 20 of Exodus. We should note how they start however for there is a preface in v2 which says this, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.
The commandments come AFTER the delivery from Pharoah and AFTER the Exodus. The commands of God come to a delivered people saying in effect, ‘you have been saved, now this is how you are to live’. This order is about the primacy of grace over faith and obedience and extends to all who are called by the gospel. So often the order gets inverted to ‘if you do a.b.c then God will accept you, instead of God accepts you in Christ, now do a,b,c’. Fanny Crosby’s old hymn “To God be the glory” has the second verse,
Oh, perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
The vilest offender! Can a burglar join the Church? – yes. Can a swindler and cheat join the Church? – yes. Can a foul-mouthed immoral person join the Church? – yes and many more but God changes and renews people through faith.
Paul lists a great number of unrighteous people in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 who he says will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven but then, speaking to the Corinthian Church, he adds, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing grace” and who was once a slave ship captain, wrote in later life of what God’s amazing grace did in his life, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”.are
We press on in Christian obedience to the words and commands of God not because that saves us but because being saved by the goodness and grace of God we want to work out our new nature in Christ as Paul tells the young Church in Phillippi, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:11,12)
Thursday Exodus 20:1-17
There are many books and studies available on the ten commandments and so we won’t spend time on them individually but a common splitting of them is the first four and the last six. The first four are about relationship to God and the last six about relationship to others.
Jesus was asked what was the greatest command and he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40).
There is no doubt that people find the first four difficult to understand today because we seem to live in a different culture from the ancient people however they need to be grappled with. Merely as a starter, we should ask ourselves what the love of God would constitute in and of itself. Ask yourself what does having a god/God mean? What does an image of God mean? What do we understand by the Name of God? And what does special time only for God mean? Ponder these things, meditate on them, and pray about them.
The second table (as it is called) of the law is not so difficult, is it?. Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I have always noticed that the passages of Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” Ah, yes, that’s the thing. These commands are straightforward, they are about not wronging our neighbour but loving them. Once again as the old collect says, let us “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them”
Friday Exodus 20:18-26
The physical shakings and the smoke and the noise of the trumpet made the people tremble with fear – if this was what the near presence of God was like what would his declaration of his commands be like and so they stayed at a distance and asked Moses to be their representative and hear what God would say and they woulaving left the housed listen to him afterwards. Their plea not to go any nearer was because ‘if God speaks to us we will die’ (v19) but Moses says don’t be afraid, God has come to test you so that the fear of God would be with you to keep you from sinning (v20). The idea that God shouldn’t be feared is common today but it isn’t a Biblical idea. Love is one side of the coin but the other side is wrath. [Children who are torturing a cat behind the shed hear that Mum is coming: Oh don’t worry they say to each other, it’s just Mum! Ah, well, just wait!!!].
Moses becomes the go-between as the people shrink back and as he hears the commands he also hears how the people were to worship God. They had spent many years in Egypt and were au-fait with Egyptian gods and possibly many others but here God impresses on them that he is the only one, the “I am” of creation and all that exists. Their worship was not to be a copy of what they knew and the instructions God gives are very basic and are not to be a great work of hands just a simple altar of Earth, with no dressed stones and no displays of the human body (sex was often linked with worship in amongst other peoples).
In the Presbyterian Churches of old in Scotland the garb of the minister was meant to be black to hide the man, unfortunately as the years went by robes tended to make the man stick out as something special and so the initial intention was lost. Ah well, such are the ways of men. So this was the beginning of the life of the people now freed from their captivity. Picture a man speaking to his toddler having left the house; “now take my hand because the roads we will be busy”. How they listened and obeyed, the rest of the Old Testament shows us.
We will move on now from the beginning of Exodus and take a look at what the next chapter was in the life of the people of Israel as we look at the book of Joshua.
Saturday Joshua 1:1-11
As any escapee will tell, escape is one thing, but what to do next is absolutely important. After the people escaped from Egypt and gathered at Mount Sinai they experienced both the power and the frightfulness of God in the sounds and sights they saw and they were given God’s law, his rule of life for the new life, but where was it to be lived? It was going to be in the land promised to their forefather Abraham, however that land wasn’t empty, it was occupied by Canaanite peoples whose lives were the antithesis of God’s law. There was going to be trouble.
Moses who had led them out of Egypt and spent 40 trying years with them in the desert died, but Joshua his faithful colleague was chosen by God to be his successor and to lead the people in their entry to the land promised them. The reason they spent 40 years in the wilderness was because they had refused initially to go forward into the land because they stated “there be giants there” (well, that’s what Numbers 13:28 says). They did not believe that God would protect them and give them the land, so they refused to enter and God sent them to the wilderness till the refuseniks died out and a new generation arose.
It is to this generation that God speaks and he speaks to Joshua when he says, “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them”. (Joshua 1:6). As present day pilgrims following Christ comes with the same encouragement and challenge so we need to hear and be courageous in moving forward to claim the lives we have from Him, shaping them as habitable places for the Holy Spirit.