Many of you have probably heard the 23rd Psalm, which goes like this:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I 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 have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23, NASB)
It’s a fairly popular piece of scripture, showing up everywhere from grandma funerals to sci-fi movies (six-year-old me was transfixed when the pastor recites the Psalm while facing down attacking Martians in the 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds). It remains evocative because of its simplicity and existential comfort: no matter what the trouble, whether invading aliens or the loss of life, an all-powerful God remains involved and in control.
Within these beautiful lines about comfort and protection, about pastures and streams, comes this odd line: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The image of God feeding the psalmist fits with the imagery that precedes it, as we once again see the almighty showing paternal care for the speaker. But the enemies do not seem to belong – if God cares so much for us, and wants to protect us, why would He even consider them? When I think of my ideal state and most perfect day, I picture books and music and plenty of steak, but I sure don’t think of my enemies hanging around.
This odd combination draws attention to a consistent theme across the 150 Psalms: the unavoidable existence of troublemakers, adversaries, and enemies. This focus on enemies functions, in part, like a gargoyle on a cathedral or the worm in William Blake’s poetic garden: a reminder of flaws, a memento mori, that draws attention to the ugly in order to accentuate the beautiful.
In doing so, the Psalm changes from something idealistically unreal to something that has actual weight and meaning. As a middle-class straight white guy living in 21st century America, I live an obscenely easy life, and my greatest hardships would be laughable to not only my ancestors, but to many of my contemporaries. And yet, even I cannot truly believe in a life of perfect comfort, consisting only of green pastures and still waters. I remain plagued by modern enemies: bills and banks, consumerism and nihilism, my own idolatry and lusts.
And that, I think, is much the point of this reminder. God never promises us that we go without hardships. Quite the opposite, in fact – Jesus directly told his disciples that “in the world you will have tribulation” and that “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (John 16:33, Mark 13:13 ESV). The Christian tradition holds that John was the only one of Jesus’s disciples who died of natural causes; the rest died horrible violent deaths, including upside down crucifixion, being drawn and quartered, and pushed off the roof of a church. Throughout the Old Testament, God explicitly tells his prophets that they will experience suffering, from Jeremiah watching his nation be seized by brutal conquerors to God telling Ezekiel that his wife will die and that he should not mourn. And it almost goes without saying that Christians have no monopoly on suffering. Even a cursory glance at the world around you reveals a staggering level of senseless suffering.
But the 23rd Psalm reminds us of this difference: Christians may suffer, just like everyone else, but in the midst of our suffering, we have a table. We have a rod and a staff that protect us. We have waters to drink and pastures in which to sleep. In other words, when we believe in a sovereign God who controls everything, we don’t have to live our lives according to what we see in the moment; in fact, we are urged not to do so.
Many of the Psalms focus on the theme of God’s sovereignty and individual suffering. My favorite appears in Psalm 46. In place of the pasture and streams enjoyed by the speaker of Psalm 23, the psalmist here faces both natural disasters (“the earth gives way … the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea … its waters roar and foam … the mountains tremble at its swelling”) and a battlefield on which “The nations rage” and “the kingdoms totter.” It is a place of extreme vulnerability and insecurity, and yet God’s role remains the same. “Be still, and know that I am God,” He commands, telling His people that He remains in control – not the calamities, not the weapons, not your enemies.
The promise of a table among one’s enemies is a hard teaching, and yet it is the one in which our faith has practical relevance. When speaking of God’s demand that we act out of faith in His sovereignty, Oswald Chambers writes that “[e]ven the most devout among us become atheistic in this regard.” In my own life, it’s the Christian promise that I’ve struggled most to claim, to translate into actionable behavior. I still too often resort to living in the world as I understand it, to rejecting food from ravens because I want something different, to hating someone else because they have things that I feel should be mine.
And yet, here is the paradox: whatever table I set for myself, my enemies remain present, whether they be little ants of inconvenience that silently invade my meal and spoil the food, or full-fledge storms of catastrophe drive me shaking to the ground. I may still be able to face them, but I face them alone, with no greater meaning than the struggle of the moment, and no assurance of victory.
Furthermore, by insisting on living according to my own understanding, I leave myself with only what I can achieve out of my own work. And the table I set for myself will undoubtedly pale in comparison to the table set by God.
And so by refusing to believe in a sovereign God, I leave myself to face my inescapable enemies by myself, in defense of a subpar meal of my own choosing.