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a table is nice but a house is better

How often have you heard Psalm 23 and not understood it!

Ambrose of Milan

This is quite a claim! Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known psalms and perhaps one of the most well-known sections of Scripture. There is good reason for it as the psalm describes the life of a follower of Jesus, even if the metaphors don’t resonate with us all that much. Hear the words of David:

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 will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint 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 23:1–6 ESV

David lived the life of a shepherd when he was young. He was tending sheep when Samuel met with Jesse and seven of his sons as we was seeking the new king of Israel. It was only when Samuel insisted Jesse call for the youngest son that God revealed young David would be his king. The metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd came naturally to David.

He first declares that since the Lord is his shepherd, he shall not want. The “Africa Bible Commentary” points out that in areas of the world that are lush and green, it’s easy to miss the importance of the shepherd. It is in areas that are dry deserts that a shepherd must lead his flock well, leading the sheep to green grasses to eat and to slow, calm water to drink. It would be dangerous for a sheep to try to drink from a fast-moving stream or brook. If a sheep covered in thick wool were to fall into such water it would likely drown. A good shepherd knows where safe drinking water is and leads his sheep to that place.

David’s point is that God is that shepherd who provides for his people. Even when he found himself in grave danger—the valley of the shadow of death—he would fear no evil. The reason for this lack of fear was the rod and staff of God. The rod was a club-like weapon used to fight off predators. The staff was used to poke at the sheep, to prod them to go in the direction they would go. We often think of sheep as fluffy and cute, but sheep can be downright stubborn. A poke in the ribs by the shepherd’s staff would force the sheep to do what it should do. Notice that David says God’s rod and staff provide him with comfort. Staffs are not comfortable! They work because they are uncomfortable! David’s point is that God’s rod of protection and his staff that makes him uncomfortable when he strays is a source of true, genuine comfort. Both remind him of God’s abiding presence in his life.

David suddenly shifts metaphors mid-psalm. He moves from God as shepherd to God as host. The point of God-as-shepherd is that God provides for and protects his people. Sheep do not lie down in green pastures when dangers are lurking nearby; they stand alert and ready to flee. Even when walking through dangerous places such as shadow-filled valleys where bad guys could easily hide, David recognizes God’s presence keeps him safe, yet when he switches metaphors to God-as-host, he acknowledges the very real presence of danger.

He says God prepares a table—a banquet or feast—in the presence of his enemies. That is, the enemies of David are near enough to see David feasting at this divinely-provided table. Danger is not merely a potential, but is an actual thing near David. In front of David’s enemies God anoints him with oil. In this context we should think of oil as a moisturizer, used to treat dry and parched skin. A good host takes care of his guests, and in sight of David’s enemies, God gladly provides skin care products.

The point David is making is that God, the divine host, sets a table up for his people in this life, but this life entails enemies, those who are hostile toward God and his people. This life is filled with danger and with troubles. This act of preparing a table offers David great comfort, but he knows this table is but a foretaste of an even greater act of hospitality: one day he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. It is a great comfort to know that God is with us in the midst of whatever danger or crisis we face. It is an even greater comfort to know that God’s presence in this life will result in an even greater presence in the life to come.

We have not been promised a trouble-free life. What we have been promised, and what this psalm acknowledges, is that God promises to be with us. He is with us today in a far greater way than even David experienced, for Emmanuel—”God with us”—has come and when he ascended into heaven he sent us his Spirit who remains God with us. Through the storms of life we know that we are seated at God’s table, fully loved and accepted by our divine Host. One day he will finish the work he began and we will dwell in his house forever on the new earth.