“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures”
One of the things I have come to appreciate is the importance of reading Scripture and trying to understand it not only through the lens of 2009, but also in the context in which it was written and originally read. I attempt to mentally put myself in their place, both culturally and geographically and view the words of Scripture through that lens. Psalm 23 is a passage that looks significantly different when viewed from a cultural and geographical perspective than if viewed simply through a contemporary filter.
Israel is referred to as the land flowing with milk and honey. While this description provides a picture of a land that flows with God’s provision, this phrase is also an illustration of the geography and topography of the land. The land of honey is a reference to the area suitable for farming, of crops and therefore bees. This is the area in the west. It runs from the Judean mountains to the foothills and the coastal plain. This is a lush, but a relatively small area and important for providing food for the people of Israel. The land of milk is reference to the domain of the shepherd. This is the area from the Judean mountains eastward. This is arid wilderness, a land not suitable to grow crops, but sufficient to sustain flocks of sheep and goats. Due to the relatively small amount of farmland, herds would not graze where food for the people was being grown. Thus a land of milk and a land of honey.
The job of the shepherd is to lead his sheep to those areas that can provide the food and water necessary for sustenance. This food is not always easy to find, but a good shepherd knows what to look for. In the cool of the night, when the wind blows from the west off the Mediterranean Sea, moisture condenses against the rocks and provides the water necessary for small tufts of grass to grow. However, by afternoon, the heat of the sun scorches the grass, causing it to wither and die. The shepherd must lead his sheep to these small tufts of grass while they can provide the nourishment the sheep need. These sheep are completely dependant on the shepherd to lead them to this sustenance, each and every day.
When I read the 23rd Psalm and view it through a contemporary lens, I envision the picture at the top of the page. I like to see God’s provision as a giant, lush green field with everything I could ever want or need. However, if I view it through the lens of culture and geography I get a more accurate picture of what God is trying to communicate. I see the green pastures as a place where I must daily follow and depend on the Good Shepherd. I must trust that He will give me what I need to sustain me through today and that tomorrow He will provide what I need for tomorrow.
I don’t know about you, but for me I tend to like the comfort of a giant field of knee-deep alfalfa, the feeling of security that knowing tomorrow’s provision is at hand. I like opening the refrigerator door and seeing that it is full or knowing that there is a little money in the emergency fund. However, that is not the picture God paints for us in Psalm 23. He tells us that He will give us this day our daily bread, not tomorrow’s bread or next week’s bread. He tells us that His provision is sufficient for today. The feeling of comfort that a full refrigerator gives is an illusion. We don’t know what tomorrow may hold, or what the next hour may bring to us. All those things we find security in may be gone. But we do know the voice of the shepherd and we are called to follow that voice and trust that He knows where to find the next tuft of grass to sustain us for today.
*Sheep photograph at top courtesy of jeremy ginsberg