This is the second in a series on Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. – Psalm 23 (RSV)
When we read the 23rd Psalm, we don’t often focus on the end of verse 3: The Lord leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. We have our green pasture, still water, and restored soul. We don’t linger long as we quickly focus on the dark valley looming before us.
However, Psalm 23 is a story of our journey with the shepherd. Our life journey is reflected as we begin with our identity in God, experience the joys and difficulties of life, and return again into the full presence of God. This is, of course, a simplistic view of life. The paths we take do not lead us from beginning to end in a nice straight line. Instead, with both intention and distraction, we weave our way through life. Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord is with us every step of the way, and the preeminent example is the Exodus.
Once protected in Egypt, the Israelites become an enslaved people. They cry out to God to save them, and God did just that. God called Moses to shepherd God’s people out of captivity and into the Promised Land. Moses leads the people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. They sojourn at Mount Sinai, where they receive the Law and learn what it means to be God’s people. From here, they begin what Deuteronomy tells us is a mere eleven-day journey to reach the Promised Land. However, like Billy’s trip through the park, the path was not quite that straight.
From the beginning, the people struggled following the shepherd God had sent them. They complained in Egypt when things became more difficult as Moses challenged Pharoah. They were ready to turn back when they saw the Egyptians chasing after them (Exodus 14). They are barely through the Red Sea when they say the Lord should have just killed them in Egypt rather than leading them through this wilderness (Exodus 16). As soon as they are provided with manna, they accuse Moses (and God) of wanting to kill them when they get thirsty (Exodus 17).
God continues to visibly lead them with a cloud of smoke and pillar of fire, providing for their every need when they arrive at the edge of the Promised Land. When the majority of the spies tell them it is impossible for them to settle in the Promised Land, they accuse God of bringing them here to kill them and they should choose leaders to take them back to Egypt (Numbers 14).
This is when the eleven-day journey becomes a forty-year wandering.
Even though the people cried out again and again to the Lord to save them, they constantly doubted God’s intentions. They couldn’t truly believe that the Lord was leading them in paths of righteousness. They were more confident in returning through the desert and back to captivity in Egypt than they were in the Promised Land that was right before them.
We read their story and can shake our heads at the scarcity of their faith. It all seems so clear. And even as we empathize with their fear of the unknown, we also are kind of like, “Well at least you had Moses and the cloud of smoke and pillar of fire! We step forward in faith with much less. O ye of little faith!”
Of course, we would have done it better if we had been there. We would have been patient while Moses was on the mountain for 40 days (no golden calf for us!). We would have followed him in the wilderness rationalizing that if God could turn the Nile into blood, surely God can provide some water in the desert. We would have been thankful for the manna so freely and reliably provided. We would have stood with Joshua and Caleb when they said we should trust God and enter the Promised Land.
Of course! Because we always believe the path God leads us on is one of righteousness.
Unless it seems to be going in the wrong direction. Or if it causes us to be uncomfortable. Or if we need to risk something valuable. Or we don’t like the people God is leading in the same direction. Or we just don’t want to go that way. Then God’s paths don’t seem so righteous…
The righteous path doesn’t mean easy or perfect. It also doesn’t mean the straightest path to get somewhere or the least costly. When the path becomes less a walk in the green pasture and more a dead-end in the valley of the shadow of death, we may find ourselves crying out against the God who we feel has wrongly led us there. We ask the same questions the Israelites did, truly doubting that God has our best interests at heart.
Honestly, this is a very human reaction. We are not faulted for our doubts and fears. I don’t believe that faith means we blindly follow. I believe faith is a choice to follow even in the midst of our doubts and fears. So if it’s not the path, then let’s return to the shepherd.God doesn't fault us for our doubts and fears. Faith doesn't mean we follow blindly. Faith is the choice to follow even in the midst of our doubts and fears. #Trust #Faith #GoodShepherd Click To Tweet
A shepherd’s reputation was based on how well they cared for their sheep. When the flock was not the shepherd’s own, they would search out the carcass of a sheep lost to predators and return it to the owner. Often if the employer’s sheep became sick, the shepherd would replace it with one of their own. Not doing so would invite speculation that the shepherd had sold the sheep for their own gain. They did this for their name’s sake. A pattern of sick, dead, or missing sheep would result in a bankrupt or unemployed shepherd.
During the Exodus, when the Israelites made and worshipped their golden calf, God was ready to destroy them with fire and start over with Moses. But Moses reminded God that these were God’s people (as stubborn and ungrateful as they were). And then Moses says, “Why let the Egyptians say, ‘Their God rescued them with the evil intention of slaughtering them in the mountains and wiping them from the face of the earth’?” – Exodus 32:12
Moses then goes on to remind God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses reminds God of who God is. Even though people deserved a thorough smiting, God would also suffer. The Lord would not be known as one of mercy and compassion, a promise keeper, the one who delivered the people called by God’s own name from bondage and slavery with miracles. Instead, God’s name would be synonymous with evil intent.
This wasn’t simply an issue of people thinking bad about God, but that God’s name would be equivalent with all that God isn’t. For God’s name’s sake, the people couldn’t be blasted into oblivion even if they deserved it.
In our world, this is about our image and who we want people to think we are. On social media, I post happy pictures of my family but not a fight we had. On Zoom, I can choose automatic touch up on my appearance to look better than I do. I told you that I have yelled at my kids. Do you think I did that in public? Of course not! Even as I try to be authentic, who I am and the reputation I cultivate are not in perfect alignment.
But this isn’t true about God. God can’t create a false Facebook profile or photoshop their Instagram account. When Moses asked who he should say sent him, God said, “ I Am Who I Am. This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.” God is who God is and cannot act against that. For God’s name’s sake isn’t about reputation but the character of God. Therefore, God doesn’t lead us in paths of righteousness for the sake of a reputation. God does so because God is unable to do otherwise.
God is love.
Love is God’s name.
Therefore, when God acts for God’s name’s sake, God is acting in love.
And this is the important part of these words we often say without thought when we read the 23rd Psalm. Our faith is not in the path itself but the one who leads us along it. The Lord, our shepherd, leads us in paths of righteousness for the Lord’s name’s sake — which is love, mercy, compassion, and faithfulness.
God leads us on paths of righteousness because God is righteous and can’t lead us any other way. And, while I believe these paths will eventually lead us to all that God promises, I follow God because I believe who God is. At times, the path will be longer and more difficult than we like. The rocks may cut our feet and we might think we will never find our way out of the wilderness. In these places, we may doubt the righteousness of the path.
My prayer, however, is that we do not doubt the righteousness of God. When we feel lost, may we trust in God’s presence. Though darkness may loom before us, may we be confident that God holds no evil intent. For God is love and can lead us in no other way. Amen.
Lord, the psalmist says you lead your people like sheep and guide us in the wilderness like a flock. Sometimes we doubt this, feeling as if we are wandering aimlessly while you look away — or even that you plot our destruction. In these times, feed us once again on your mercy and faithfulness. Let us drink of your loving kindness. Restore our souls that we might fully believe in your righteousness, trusting in where you lead. For you are love — and love always provides a way. Amen.
 Exodus 3:14, 15 (NRSV).
 1 John 4:16 (NRSV).