I Shall Dwell in the House of the Lord
Topic: Expository Scripture: Psalm 23:5–23:6
“The LORD is my shepherd.”
In this series of messages we have been focusing on David’s words of exquisite poetry as he has expanded that wonderful metaphor, that word picture, as it portrays to the believer’s trust and confidence in God’s care.
We come today to the final 2 verses of Psalm 23:
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
These verses have sparked considerable discussion among commentators and Bible scholars and they represent the most difficult interpretive problem in the psalm. The question is whether David is here continuing the shepherd metaphor, or is he, in fact, introducing a new word picture?
Philip Keller, in his book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 is one of those who would argue that David is continuing the shepherd metaphor. Others do the same. For example, one such effort expounds the text this way:
The word “table” refers to the practice of the shepherd of carrying with him a piece of cow hide, upon which he would spread special fodder or grain for the sheep to eat to supplement the often inadequate grazing. The enemies referred to would be the predators that threatened the flock. The anointing of the head with oil would speak of the practice of the shepherd of applying oil to the scratches that the sheep would get on its face and head as it was forced to graze among thorns or to scramble through thickets of brush. The cup would refer to a bowl or container that the shepherd would use to dip water out of hard to reach water sources to quench the thirst of his sheep.
Such an interpretation is certainly attractive, and preserves a unity of thought in the psalm. But I must admit, the usage seems a bit forced, and these practices of the shepherd rather more obscure. In addition, if we do interpret it in this way, this verse becomes primarily a repetition of the earlier verses of the psalm and the care of the shepherd to meet his sheep’s physical needs: It is another elaboration of the statement in verse 1: “I shall not want.”
The second interpretation is that David is in fact introducing a new word picture. It is the metaphor of a host welcoming a guest at a special banquet or meal in a lavish display of Mid-Eastern hospitality.
This interpretation seems to me to better fit the plain use of the words and customs referred to in the verse. But I also admit that this sudden change in scene and direction at first struck me as an anti-climax, a kind of weak ending; A bit of a disappointment. But as I have continued to meditate on these verses, I have come to see it in a whole different light.
As we consider the metaphor of the relationship between a sheep and its shepherd, it marvelously pictures the truths of the sheep’s security, and of the shepherd’s care. But there are certain inadequacies in the sheep metaphor. Being compared to a sheep is not entirely complimentary. A sheep, even in the animal world, is not renowned for being the brightest bulb in the barn. Often dirty, smelly, prone to panic, likely to wander, tending to mindlessly follow the crowd. Yes, the dependent sheep is wonderfully secure and content in the care of a good shepherd. That is the beautiful truth of the first 4 verses of the Psalm.
But now, David wants to go beyond that. He wants to express aspects of his relationship with God which cannot be contained in an animal to person metaphor; truths that require a person to person metaphor. And for this he turns to the picture of the gracious host.
As I read verse 5 with this picture in mind, I come away with a very distinct impression that this verse is not about food and drink, or about physical needs at all. This is a picture of welcome, of honor, of lavish blessing and preferential treatment.
Thou preparest a table before me
To prepare a table here speaks of careful arranging, and spreading out an elaborate meal, of great care taken to welcome an honored guest. All the garnishes and fine touches are there. This is the Mid-Eastern “meza” at its finest. No expense is spared and the amount of food is extravagant.
In the presence of mine enemies
You don’t have to read the psalms, especially David’s psalms, very long, before you see how commonly this theme of his enemies occurs. And there are several aspects to these references. One is clearly simply a concern for physical deliverance from those who sought to harm him. But there is another common concern, and that is vindication. It is the reality hat because David had put his trust in God, it was important that his trust in God be vindicated, and that those who opposed God and his chosen servant should be disgraced and put to shame.
O Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” But you are a shield around me, O Lord; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. (NIV)
Do you see the picture? “My enemies are mocking me! They are saying that God has abandoned me. But, God, you are a shield around me. You bestow glory on me – you prepare a lavish feast before me while my enemies are forced to look on in jealous fury. You publicly vindicate my trust in you.”
Thou anointest my head with oil.
It was an expression of hospitality and welcome to anoint the head of honored guests with perfumed oil. This was still a custom in Jesus’ day, when he rebuked Simon the Pharisee for his lack of hospitality: “You never anointed my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with precious ointment.”
My cup runneth over.
This line always takes me back to my days in Kenya. It is almost impossible to visit in a Kenyan home without being served a cup of “chai” or tea. And it is an expression of their welcome and delight in receiving a visitor to fill the cup very full. Brimful. It was rare that I ever managed to get the first sip to my mouth without spilling some into the saucer. I think it was a similar custom that is envisioned here. The welcome God extends to his follower, the honor he bestows upon him by filling his cup “brimful.”
How often do we think about our relationship with God in these kinds of images? Of the gracious host, pouring out hospitality and honor and blessing upon a welcome guest? Two New Testament passages come to mind in this connection.
One is in John 10:10, where Jesus says: “I have come that they might have life and might have it abundantly.” I think it is interesting that he makes that statement and then in the very next verse he says: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus wants us to have life and have it abundantly. That’s the picture in Psalm 23:5: A picture of abundance.
And the other New Testament connection is in the story of the Prodigal Son. Do you remember how the father responded when the son returned? Listen to his words to his servants: Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.”
Oh, how God loves to bless his people! And he has blessed us especially in Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”(NIV)
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over.
And then David closes with the words of verse 6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
In terms of literary structure, I believe this verse is a summary, gathering together the truths of both the shepherd metaphor and that of the gracious host. It is a clear language declaration of the goodness and blessing of God upon his follower, and of the security of the believer who places his faith in God.
Surely goodness and mercy. This is God’s goodness. “God is so good,” the old chorus goes. Or as some churches make a practice of saying: “God is good…all the time.” Resting in the goodness of God is one of the basic components of the life of faith.
Mercy is translated “love” in NIV. It is the strongest word for love in the Old Testament. My Hebrew professor translated it: “loyal love”. It is the closest OT word to the NT word “agape”: the permanent, unconditional love of God for his children.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
I get the impression listening to us talk sometimes as Christians, that we maybe feel that we have to hang on to the love of God, that we have to pursue it. That if we’re not alert and careful it will slip away from us and be lost. But notice this verse does not say: “I will follow goodness and mercy” but “Goodness and mercy shall follow me.” They will pursue me. The goodness and loyal love of God will be there, around me, beside me, behind me, in front of me.
And how long will it last? All the days of my life!
God will not abandon us when we get old or sick or when we feel we can no longer contribute to his work or to his kingdom. All the days of my life!
And then what?
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
What is David referring to here? The temple was not built yet. That task was delegated to David’s son Solomon. In fact, during David’s time, the worship functions of the nation were divided. The tabernacle which was constructed by Moses was set up in a town called Gibeon, about 10 kilometers outside Jerusalem. This was the designated place of worship and sacrifice. But the ark of the covenant was kept in a special tent in the city of Jerusalem. What “house of the LORD” did David have in mind as he wrote these words? Was he looking forward to the temple that would be built, when he referred to the joy of going into God’s courts for worship and fellowship with God? While David does speak longingly in his Psalms of the “courts of the Lord,” and the joys of worship and fellowship with God in this life, I don’t think it is an earthly place that David has in mind here at all. I believe he is turning to his hope for eternity. To live with God forever after this life is over. It is not always easy to detect the hope of heaven in the writings of the Old Testament. But the New Testament declares that this was a significant ingredient in the faith of the Old Testament saints.
Read Hebrews 11:13-16:
13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Do you see it there? Their hope in a heavenly home?
I believe Psalm 23 is one such example of that faith: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is the third of three great statements of personal faith and confidence made in this Psalm. In conclusion to our meditations on this wonderful little psalm, I want to link all three together to show just how secure we are as God’s children. How comprehensive God’s care is for us.
I shall not want. It is the assurance of God’s provision.
I will fear no evil. The assurance of God’s protection.
I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. The assurance of God’s promise of eternal life.
That is pretty comprehensive security isn’t it? The promise of God’s provision and protection in this life, and the guarantee of heaven in the life to come. I remember a sermon my father preached at an American Thanksgiving service, sponsored by the American Embassy at a church in Nairobi. I was only a teen-ager, but I’ve never forgotten the title and theme of that message: All This and Heaven, Too!
That is our assurance as children of our heavenly Father, as sheep under the Great Shepherd’s care, and as guests at God’s banquet table.
The assurance of God’s provision: I shall not want.
The assurance of God’s protection and presence: I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
The assurance of God’s promise of eternal life with him: I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
All this, and heaven, too!