Psalm 23 is pretty great. Often viewed as one of the go-to pieces of scripture, it was the psalm I knew best before I became a Christian (shout out to the Vicar of Dibley title credits). The psalmist praises God as our guide, comforter and provider through all of the parts of our lives.
At the end of the psalm, however, the writer states;
‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’ (v.6, ESV)
Until recently I’ve never understood the necessity of this line. I got even more confused when I learned recently that a better translation would be;
‘Surely goodness and mercy pursue me...’
Before this I assumed this meant that goodness and mercy to be an outpouring of God’s love into our actions, which would glorify God as they are good and merciful. Whilst our actions are positively affected by God, I don’t think that this is what the psalmist is trying to say here. It seems like they are suggesting that goodness and mercy are actively trying to reach us; they literally are in pursuit.
If the metaphorical flock had any sense, they wouldn’t have goodness and mercy pursuing them, they’d be trying to pursue those attributes as hard as they can- who doesn’t want a bit more goodness and mercy in their lives? As the previous verses have shown, the shepherd (God) gives incredibly good things to his flock. Here’s a list to break it down-
He ensures we have everything we need (v. 1)
He gives us places and opportunities to rest (v.2)
He leads us (v.2, 3)
He restores our souls (v.3)
He makes sure we don’t have to fear evil (v. 4)
He accompanies us in dark places (v.4)
He comforts us (v.4)
He defends us from enemies (v.5)
He blesses us with oil and fills us to overflowing (v.5)
He lets us live in his house for ever (v.6)
That’s a pretty great deal for a bunch of sheep. I don’t know many shepherds who would let their sheep hang out in his own house, let alone live there. Yet even with all of these gifts revealing the beautiful nature of God with his people, goodness and mercy have to pursue them- why are they not turning around and chasing it themselves?
I think that the pursuit is the answer to this question. In order to pursue, there must be something running away. The necessity of the line of this psalm is found in the reality that even though God provides and does all the things listed earlier in the psalm, besides loads more, we still run away from Him.
It begs the question that if what God offers is so good, why do we run away from God’s goodness and mercy? The answer is that our imperfect, fallen natures often tell us that things other than God will make us feel better than God can. These things are often not bad things in themselves, but when they take the place of God in our lives, it gets messy.
The reminder that goodness and mercy pursue us is both a comfort and a reality check. They comfort us in reminding us that God loves us enough that the state of our rubbish priorities isn’t enough to put him off extending his grace, his goodness and his mercy to us. The reality check confronts us with our own shortcomings that in the face of the amazing gifts and promises of God we still choose other things. Where in your life are you running away from God?
Bethan Gibb is one of our student Forgees. She likes gin cocktails and apologetics.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.