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Jun 19 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

June 17, 2012 – Psalm 23:6

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever
. Psalm 23:6

INTRO: Today we come to the end of our exploration of this lovely poem

And it is exactly at this point we must consider a potential criticism
– someone could say, “That’s just poetic fantasy, it’s not the real world”
– there is certainly the danger that we treat this last verse as a mere platitude
(we treat a lot of verses as platitudes)

A platitude is an empty saying we quote rather than think deeply before we speak
– the worst time to use platitudes is in the face of tragedy or death
• they do nothing to provide a person with comfort, insight, or help
“Everything happens for a reason” — “everything”? Is there always a good reason?
“Time heals all wounds” — time itself is not curative and some wounds worsen over time
– many platitudes contain only a half-truth and for that reason are flawed:
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” — but could also make me bitter, turn to crime, or eat a carton of ice cream
“The truth will set you free” is a statement that is greatly weakened if we forget its context (Jn. 8:31-32)

The problem with treating scripture as platitude is that we don’t take platitudes seriously

The psalmists were not foolish dreamers, blind to reality
– all we have to do is read the previous Psalm, which begins “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me”
– those ancient poets were hammered by affliction, loss, violence, and humiliations
• but still they were able to find their way to a positive outlook
– whoever has this outlook becomes a better person and lives a better life

Let’s see what we can learn that will help us get there

The poet made this statement with certainty – “Surely”

He is not saying something about life in general
– his point is that this is the nature of our lives when the LORD is our shepherd

Goodness and lovingkindness are not forces in nature–like gravity or electromagnetism
– they do not exist in a vacuum, but  derive their existence from a person
– they are a person’s motive or the essence of a person’s actions
• a person puts goodness and lovingkindness out there in the world

The name of God appears twice in this psalm – in the first line and in the last line
– everything in the middle depends on One who envelops it
– this is the Person responsible for the goodness and lovingkindness the poet mentions

The poet was certain that he was being followed

Goodness (Heb. tov) is the word God said again and again in Genesis chapter 1 as he surveyed creation
– goodness is also a central word in how God has revealed himself — it is his essence

I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion ( i.e., he doesn’t need a reason to be gracious or compassionate with a person, he can just do it; Ex. 33:19)

– for many years, Israel’s theme song, even through exile had been:

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good,
For His lovingkindness is everlasting
(Ps. 136:1)

– there’s an important clue in this song that helps explain the poet’s certainty
– “for He is good” – there are times when we cannot find one good thing in our circumstances
• but God is good, sometimes the only good, but he is always good

Can you remember a time in your childhood when you were enthralled with the world of nature?
– Nancy gave me a book by Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are
– the first chapter was difficult to get through, because of heartbreaking event in her childhood
– chapter two also began rough, but then turns a corner

Ann mentions being in hair salon and noticing the title of  book the woman next to her was reading, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. She asked herself, “Is that it? Are there physical places that simply must be seen before I stop breathing within time, before I inhale eternity?
“Why? To say that I’ve had reason to bow low? To say that I’ve seen beauty? To say that I’ve been arrested by wonder?
“Isn’t it here? Can’t I find it here? . . . The wonder? Why do I spend much of my living hours struggling to see it? Do we truly stumble so blind that we must be affronted with blinding magnificence for our blurry soul-sight to recognize grandeur? The very same surging magnificence that cascades over our everyday here. Who has time or eyes to notice?”

– we’ll return to this thought in a moment

Lovingkindness (Heb. hesed) is also translated mercy
– on your own, figure out how both words can share the same word
– in the Hebrew Scriptures, goodness and lovingkindness are frequently paired

Barb and I were watching a program on Russian mobsters in Philadelphia
– both of us felt that one mobster they interviewed was a compelling character and very likable
– the director used him again at the end of the program

“Criminals are everywhere. It’s like I told you about Jesus. Where did he die? Between two men who is criminals.”

– here is a criminal who knows something about Jesus–i.e., his innocence and goodness
– its a picture of mercy, of lovingkindness — that the criminal knows of a thief who received undeserved compassion and a generous love

“Followed” is accurate, but it’s the tame meaning of the Hebrew word
– “chase” is its more aggressive meaning, and this brings up an important issue
– maybe you’ve been chased or dreamed of being chased
• when you stop running, you think, “Am I still being chased?”
• how do you determine if you are?
You stop, hold yourself very quiet and still, look around, and listen carefully
– our life experience is not all goodness and lovingkindness
• how can we know if they’re still chasing us?
• in contemplative prayer we stop, hold still, look, and listen until we again become aware of goodness and mercy
But I’m getting ahead of myself

The poet knew the pleasure of living with God

There’s a tension between the two lines of this verse
– “follow” indicates he is on the move, but “dwell” indicates that he’s settled
• one potential resolve is to make a slight change in the Hebrew word for “dwell” to make it “return”
• this makes good sense and “home” where we eventually return
– but we don’t need to resolve the tension, because the truth is, we live it
– we have our active lives and our settled lives
• active, we’re accompanied by goodness and mercy
• settled, we rest in God’s presence, making ourselves at home with his people in prayer and worship

To visit the temple during the holy days must have been a thrill for the ancient Israelites
– it would be like combining their best vacation with a spiritual retreat

German theologian, Walther Eichrodt observed that for the Old Testament believer, there was “a fullness of life” that transcended material possessions and is “the real good, which alone bestows upon God’s other gifts their true meaning.”

– apart from this fullness, everything else was transient and trivial

In the musical, “Fiddler On the Roof,” the most materialistic song is “If I Were A Rich Man”
– the most spiritual song in the play is “If I Were A Rich Man” — the spiritual part comes in the last verse:

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.

– that “sweetest thing of all” is what the poet was thinking of when he spoke of dwelling in the house of the LORD

No one “lived” in God’s house – not even the priests or Levites
– the point is, the poet hoped to live in unbroken fellowship with God
– no more starts and stops–waking up to God, then falling asleep again
– no more “coming to our senses” in the far country, cut off from our Father
• rather, we would spend the rest of our lives in the presence of God

“Forever” is literally “length of days”
– this makes an explicit connection with the first line of this verse, “all the days of my life” and means basically the same thing
– a life consists of days – some good and some bad
• but the poet is able to say, this is my present and my future, and in God’s presence it is all good

CONC: The poem is a vision – a potential opportunity

It tells us that we can upgrade our experience of life
– all the way through, we’ve seen this psalm as the outline and objective of contemplative prayer
– so how can we move ourselves to this place?

From the psalm we can draw some simple contemplative prayer exercises:

  • slowly work your way through the psalm, holding each line in prayerful silence, allowing it to speak to you
  • develop a habit of looking for something wonderful in every here and now
  • be still, be quiet and alert, look, and listen carefully to discern God’s goodness and lovingkindness
  • give thanks for evidences of goodness and lovingkindness

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton mentions the story of Robinson Crusoe — the shipwreck survivor who washed up on a deserted island

Chesterton says, “. . . the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. . . . It is a good exercise in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything . . . and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island.”

– that is one way to recognize goodness and mercy, by giving thanks all that we have salvaged from the sea or from the fire
– in that light, there is one other exercise we can do in contemplative prayer

  • whatever we have not been able to salvage–a marriage, our home, a treasured possession–, we surrender

– surrender is at the heart of our trust in God and the threshold of a greater experience of his living presence

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