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The Twenty-Third Psalm
by Rev. Willard D. Pendleton
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Psalm 23: 1.
Throughout the Old Testament there are many references to shepherds and their flocks. In the story of the patriarchs, in the book of Psalms, and in the prophets, the shepherd and his flock provide a basis of understanding of the relationship which existed between Jehovah and His chosen people. So it was that in speaking of Jehovah's concern for His people, David said, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" and in Isaiah we read, "(The Lord) shall lead His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arms, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." (Isa. 40: 11) We can understand, therefore, why it was that when the Lord was in the world, He took up this representation, saying, "I am the good shepherd: The good shepherd giveth His life for the sheep, but he that is an hireling . . . whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming . . . and fleeth ... because he is an hireling and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine."(Jn. 10: 11-14)
Nowhere in Scripture is there a more reassuring illustration of the Lord's love for man. Like sheep, which are dependent upon the shepherd, so man, whether he acknowledges it or not, is dependent upon the Lord. So it was that in instructing His disciples, the Lord said unto them, "Without Me ye can do nothing." (Jn. 15: 5) It is, however, only in time of temptation, that is, when man comes into states of despair, that he is fully aware of his own inadequacy. In all other states man acts from the appearance of self-life. What is more, this is as it should be, for the appearance of self-life is given in order that man may exercise freedom of choice. Were it not for this appearance, man would not be man; yet if in the exercise of his freedom, man confirms himself in the appearance that he lives from himself, he rejects the Lord's leading and turns what is good into evil in himself. This, we are told, is the origin of all evil. (CL 444)
As stated, therefore, our text is a declaration of faith in the Lord, that is, a confession of confidence in His Divine providence. As noted, however, there are times when our faith is afflicted, not only by intellectual doubts but also by even more devastating doubts in regard to His providence. The reason for this is that although we believe, we are not prepared to accept a providence which looks only to what is eternal and to temporal things only insofar as they agree with what is eternal. (DP 214) To all appearances, the life of man consists in what is delightful to self, but in so far as what is delightful to self does not agree with the Divine purpose in creation, man is denied. While intellectually we can perceive the reason for this, in reality we resist and resent those circumstances which seem to restrict our freedom and prevent us from doing those things in which we delight.
So it is that although we acknowledge that there is a Divine providence, what we frequently fail to perceive is that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the primary concern of the Divine providence is that man may be free. Hence we are taught in the Writings, "In order that man may be in freedom, the Lord places him in equilibrium between evils and goods." (AC 5982) Were this not so, man would irretrievably be held in bondage to evil and would be incapable of being led by the Lord. To understand the operations of the Divine providence in our lives, therefore, we must bear in mind that the Divine providence is not only in universals but also in particulars. The circumstances of our lives are not the product of fortune or chance but are either provided or permitted by the Lord with the view that man may be held in a state in which he can act in freedom according to reason. Concerning this, note well the teaching that, "Whatever man does from freedom, whether it be of reason or not, providing it is in accordance with his reason, appears to him to be his." (DP 74) Nothing is permitted, therefore, which deprives man of this appearance; if it were, man would not be in spiritual equilibrium.
Let us have no illusions in regard to the Lord's providence, for although His ways are not our ways, His ways are best. With a solicitude which far exceeds our human comprehension, the Lord provides for our needs. Our text, as stated, is true: The Lord is our shepherd, and, spiritually speaking, we shall not want. He it is who, while man is as yet in infancy and childhood, provides those tender states of affection which are the wellspring of spiritual life; He it is who, while we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, defends us from all evil; He it is who, having brought us out of temptation, "maketh [us] to lie down in green pastures, and leadeth [us] beside the still waters." (Ps. 23: 2)
Nowhere in Scripture is there to be found a more moving and comprehensive statement concerning the Lord's Divine providence than in the twenty-third psalm. It is attributed to David, who as a youth tended his father's sheep in the hill country of Judea. But whoever the psalmist was, it is apparent that he knew from experience the nature of the relationship which exists between the shepherd and his flock. The beauty and inspiration of the psalm, however, is not only found in the sense of the letter but also in those interior truths to which it attests. Here we find one of those passages of Scripture in which the spiritual sense shines through the letter and imparts power and glory to the words of the text. Indeed, we believe that this psalm, which so deeply stirs the affections, is an illustration of the celestial sense, which is also contained within the letter, but, as the Writings say, "cannot without difficulty be made plain because it does not fall so much into the thought of the understanding as into the affection of the will." (SS 19)
For more than three thousand years, this psalm has been a source of comfort to the afflicted. In states of despair, that is, when man is reduced to the realization that of himself he can do nothing, he instinctively places his hope in a source which is higher than self. While it is true that at this day there are few who can form any meaningful idea of the nature of God, nevertheless, we are told in the Writings that, "There is a universal influx from God into the souls of men of the truth that there is a God, and that He is one." (TCR 8) With many, however, this truth is not perceived, and if perceived, it is not understood; but when to all appearances, there is no other hope, the way is opened for a renewal of faith. Granted that with many this is only a temporary state, which is brought on by fear for self; but it is not without significance. The operations of the Divine providence in its particulars are inscrutable; nevertheless, we are told, we should, "know about it and acknowledge it." (DP 175) So it is that at this day the universals, that is, the laws of the Divine providence, have been revealed; and man, if he will, can now enter with understanding into the perception and acknowledgment of the Divine government.
In all the history of theology, there is nothing which can be compared to the work Divine Providence. Unlike many of the other works of the Writings, in which the doctrines of the New Church are compared with the doctrines of the Christian Church, we find relatively few references to Christian theology in the work Divine Providence. The reason for this is that, apart from a few passages in Scripture which give assurance that the Lord will provide, we find no definitive statements as to how or in what way He provides. In the spiritual sense of the Word, however, even the laws of the Divine providence are revealed, and this in such a way that even the natural man can comprehend them if he wills. Nowhere do we find more convincing evidence of the Divinity of the Writings, as may be evident from the fact that no man could, of himself, have conceived of these laws. When we reflect upon these laws, we can but marvel at the mercy and wisdom which are contained within them.
When considered in the spiritual sense, therefore, the twenty-third psalm takes on a meaning that it does not otherwise possess. As a shepherd, the Lord does indeed bring us into green pastures or, as translated in the Writings, into "pastures of herbs," by which are signified those knowledges of truth and good (AE 375: 34) which are found only in the Lord's Word. He it is also who leads us beside the still waters or, as translated in the Writings, to "waters of rest." By waters o f rest is meant waters at rest; that is, truths that are undisturbed by the winds of falsity, which; the Writings say, "rush in and cause dispute about truths, [and] make it impossible for anything of truth to be seen." (AE 644: 25) What is referred to here, therefore, are those states of peace and tranquility of mind in which man delights in the truths of the Word.
It is then in those states of peace which follow temptation that the Lord restoreth the soul. Hence it is said, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." (Ps 23: 4) In states of temptation, that is, in states of spiritual unrest, man is beset by many fears. Herein we find the peculiar power of the hells, which is the power to induce upon the human mind doubts concerning the Lord's Divine providence. These doubts are afflictions which take many forms; yet the inner truth of our text is that we are not to fear evil, for it is the Lord who fights for man in states of temptation. As the psalmist said, "Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me." (Ibid.)
The rod of the Lord is His Word; He it is who comforts us. So it was that on the eve of the crucifixion, when all seemed lost, the Lord addressed His disciples, saying, "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you"; (Jn. 14: 18) for, "I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth : . ." (Jn. 14: 17) "and He shall teach you all things." (Jn. 14: 26) By the Spirit of truth is meant spiritual truth, which is the spiritual sense of the Word. "Let not your heart be troubled [therefore], neither let it be afraid." (Jn. 14: 27)
Truly the Lord has set a table before us, for it is He who nourishes man in all good. What is more, if man will come to His table, his cup will run over, for by a cup is signified the natural man who in coming to the Lord's table is receptive of truth. Surely, if we do this, bringing no merit of our own, the Lord's goodness and mercy will indeed follow us in the doing of those goods which are of use and, as stated, we "will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." (Ps. 23: 6)
So it is that the twenty-third psalm, which begins with a confession of confidence in the Lord's Divine providence, ends with a declaration of purpose. In committing ourselves into His hands, we reject as untenable those reasonings from the appearance of self life which take form as doubts concerning His providence. While it is true that there is much that we do not understand, there is a reason for this; for, as stated, "If the operation of the Divine Providence were made evident to man's perceptions and senses, he would not act in freedom according to reason." (DP 176) Hence we are also told that, "It is granted man to see the Divine providence in the back, and not in the face; and to see it in a spiritual state, and not in his natural state." (DP 187) To the natural man, therefore, the workings of the Divine providence are as incredible as they are inscrutable; yet the truth remains that whatever transpires is either of the Lord's will, of His good pleasure, of His leave, or of His permission. (AC 2447) Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without thy Father's permission .( Matt. 10: 29) "Fear not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows:" (Matt. 10: 31) Amen.
-New Church Life 1976;96:357-361