Psalm 23:3-4 A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; …
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
When I grew up, I loved dogs and had a number of them. And to some extent, I still do. Dogs are smart animals. They are easy to train. Once we train them well, they follow instructions and respond well when we call them. I wonder how shepherds train their sheep.
Yet we learn from the Bible (and from extra-biblical sources – if you happen to be a biblical scholar wannabe … like me) that a shepherd nurtures his sheep. But he also leads his sheep. Now as a sheep in the flock of God, King David trusted the leadership of his Shepherd. He believed that God would lead him along the path of righteousness.
So what does righteousness mean in the world of the Old Testament? From Psalm 1, we learn that the way of the righteous is the way of the Law of God – given to Israel as God’s people whom God rescued from the slavery in Egypt. So obeying God’s Law was meant to be a lifestyle for God’s people – an expression of their love and gratitude toward God for his grace. This is what it means for someone to be righteous: trusting that God is faithful and living in relationship with him.
As King David trusted God’s guidance, he walked in God’s Law. Yet, as great as King David was, he was not the Promised Righteous King in Psalm 2. Sure, this King was to come from David’s line (2 Sam 7), but David was not the One. Indeed, King David failed and committed great sins. Consider this: he slept with the beloved wife of his loyal warrior. The lady got pregnant and David tried to cover it up. As his trickery was ruined by the utter loyalty of his trusted warrior, he successfully devised a plan to murder him in the battle field. Suddenly the heinous acts we witness in the ‘God Father Trilogy’ look like juvenile misdemeanors! But why was King David still considered a man after God’s own heart? Because he held onto God’s faithfulness and repented from his sins (Psalm 51).
Well, righteousness still has the same meaning in the New Testament. In Luke 15:1-7, Jesus gave us a story of a good shepherd who searched hard for his lost sheep until he found it. Having found the lost sheep, he rejoiced greatly. Being our good Shepherd (John 10:11), Jesus will not abandon any of his sheep including those who wander around and are lost. Why? Because he –in whom God himself comes to visit us– is the faithful Shepherd.
Just as King David who wandered around into the sins of pride, adultery, deception, and murder, so we often stray away from the path of righteousness that God has set for us. Our lack of trust in God has caused this. But God is faithful. If we are his sheep, God will reach out and not let us get away from him (John 10:27-29). In Reformed theology, we have a cool name for this majestic truth: ‘Perseverance of the Saints’ – God in his faithfulness will preserve his saints so that they may persevere in righteousness to the end. Again, our righteousness is not merely about a set of rules/laws and living spotlessly. It is all about trusting God’s faithfulness and his guidance.
However, knowing that God is faithful does not release us from our obligation to obey him unconditionally. See, we like to be nurtured by our Shepherd. But we don’t like to be led! We want to be independent, “free”, as if we knew what‘s the best for us. We can’t be more wrong! Holding onto God’s faithfulness, we have a responsibility to listen to the voice of our Shepherd – to be led by him – because the true mark of God’s sheep is to listen to the voice of our Shepherd (John 10:15-16).
Later on, the wise son of King David and Lady Bathsheba -the woman whom David snatched from the hand of his loyal warrior- wrote: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). May this become our prayer as we are often tempted to trust our own and depart from God’s way.