Four Psalms interpreted for practical use - George Adam Smith - ebook
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The twenty-third Psalm seems to break in two at the end of the fourth verse. The first four verses clearly reflect a pastoral scene; the fifth appears to carry us off, without warning, to very different associations. This, however, is only in appearance. The last two verses are as pastoral as the first four. If these show us the shepherd with his sheep upon the pasture, those follow him, shepherd still, to where in his tent he dispenses the desert's hospitality to some poor fugitive from blood. The Psalm is thus a unity, even of metaphor. We shall see afterwards that it is also a spiritual unity; but at present let us summon up the landscape on which both of these features—the shepherd on his pasture and the shepherd in his tent—lie side by side, equal sacraments of the grace and shelter of our God.

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George Adam Smith

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Table of contents

PSALM XXIII

PSALM XXXVI

PSALM LII

PSALM CXXI

PSALM XXIII

GOD OUR SHEPHERDThe twenty-third Psalm seems to break in two at the end of the fourth verse. The first four verses clearly reflect a pastoral scene; the fifth appears to carry us off, without warning, to very different associations. This, however, is only in appearance. The last two verses are as pastoral as the first four. If these show us the shepherd with his sheep upon the pasture, those follow him, shepherd still, to where in his tent he dispenses the desert's hospitality to some poor fugitive from blood. The Psalm is thus a unity, even of metaphor. We shall see afterwards that it is also a spiritual unity; but at present let us summon up the landscape on which both of these features—the shepherd on his pasture and the shepherd in his tent—lie side by side, equal sacraments of the grace and shelter of our God.A Syrian or an Arabian pasture is very different from the narrow meadows and fenced hill-sides with which we are familiar. It is vast, and often virtually boundless. By far the greater part of it is desert—that is, land not absolutely barren, but refreshed by rain for only a few months, and through the rest of the year abandoned to the pitiless sun that sucks all life from the soil. The landscape is nearly all glare: monotonous levels or low ranges of hillocks, with as little character upon them as the waves of the sea, and shimmering in mirage under a cloudless heaven. This bewildering monotony is broken by only two exceptions. Here and there the ground is cleft to a deep ravine, which gapes in black contrast to the glare, and by its sudden darkness blinds the men and sheep that enter it to the beasts of prey which have their lairs in the recesses. But there are also hollows as gentle and lovely as those ravines are terrible, where water bubbles up and runs quietly between grassy banks through the open shade of trees.On such a wilderness, it is evident that the person and character of the shepherd must mean a great deal more to the sheep than they can possibly mean in this country. With us, sheep left to themselves may be seen any day—in a field or on a hill-side with a far-travelling fence to keep them from straying. But I do not remember ever to have seen in the East a flock of sheep without a shepherd.On such a landscape as I have described he is obviously indispensable. When you meet him there, 'alone of all his reasoning kind,' armed, weather-beaten, and looking out with eyes of care upon his scattered flock, their sole provision and defence, your heart leaps up to ask: Is there in all the world so dear a sacrament of life and peace as he?There is, and very near himself. As prominent a feature in the wilderness as the shepherd is the shepherd's tent. To Western eyes a cluster of desert homes looks ugly enough—brown and black lumps, often cast down anyhow, with a few loutish men lolling on the trampled sand in front of the low doorways, that a man has to stoop uncomfortably to enter. But conceive coming to these a man who is fugitive—fugitive across such a wilderness. Conceive a man fleeing for his life as Sisera fled when he sought the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. To him that space of trampled sand, with the ragged black mouths above it, mean not only food and rest, but dear life itself. There, by the golden law of the desert's hospitality, he knows that he may eat in peace, that though his enemies come up to the very door, and his table be spread as it were in their presence, he need not flinch nor stint his heart of her security.That was the landscape the Psalmist saw, and it seemed to him to reflect the mingled wildness and beauty of his own life. Human life was just this wilderness of terrible contrasts, where the light is so bright, but the shadows the darker and more treacherous; where the pasture is rich, but scattered in the wrinkles of vast deserts; where the paths are illusive, yet man's passion flies swift and straight to its revenge; where all is separation and disorder, yet law sweeps inexorable, and a man is hunted down to death by his blood-guiltiness. But not in anything is life more like the Wilderness than in this, that it is the presence and character of One, which make all the difference to us who are its silly sheep; that it is His grace and hospitality which alone avail us when we awaken to the fact that our lives cannot be fully figured by those of sheep, for men are fugitives in need of more than food—men are fugitives with the conscience and the habit of sin relentless on their track. This is the main lesson of the Psalm: the faith into which many generations of God's Church have sung an ever richer experience of His Guidance and His Grace. We may gather it up under these three heads—they cannot be too simple: I. The Lord is a Shepherd; II. The Lord is my Shepherd; and, III. if that be too feeble a figure to meet the fugitive and hunted life of man, the Lord is my Host and my Sanctuary for ever.I. The Lord is my Shepherd: or—as the Greek, vibrating to the force of the original—The Lord is shepherding me; I shall not want. This is the theme of the first four verses.Every one feels that the Psalm was written by a shepherd, and the first thing that is obvious is that he has made his God after his own image.There are many in our day who sneer at that kind of theology—pretty, indeed, as the pearl or the tear, but like tear or pearl a natural and partly a morbid deposit—a mere human process which, according to them, pretty well explains all religion; the result of man's instinct to see himself reflected on the cloud that bounds his view; man's honest but deluded effort to put himself in charge of the best part of himself, filling the throne of an imaginary heaven with an impossible exaggeration of his own virtues.But it is far better to hold with Jesus Christ than with such reasoners. Jesus Christ tells us that a man cannot be wrong if he argues towards God from what he finds best in himself. If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him? What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? … Likewise, I say unto you, There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.That is a true witness, and strikes Amen out of every chord of our hearts. The Power, so evident in nature that He needs no proof, the Being so far beyond us in wisdom and in might, must also be our great superior in every quality which is more excellent than might. With thoughts more sleepless than our thoughts, as the sun is more constant than our lamps; with a heart that steadfastly cares for us, as we fitfully care for one another; more kingly than our noblest king, more fatherly than our fondest fatherhood; of deeper, truer compassion than ever mother poured upon us; whom, when a man feels that he highest thing in life is to be a shepherd, he calls his Shepherd, and knows that, as the shepherd, whose the sheep are