Psalm 23: Do You See the Moonwalking bear?

I’ve frequently heard people claim Psalm 23 as one of the most beautiful works of poetry ever written, and I have to agree. Furthermore, it’s not only good poetry, but good theology: the Lord is our shepherd. But there’s more to Psalm 23 than just good poetry. It is like the “Test Your Awareness” video on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with it, go to now and watch the video before continuing this entry.

Did you see the moonwalking bear? I didn’t. I was convinced the first time I saw the video they played a different clip, but after re-watching I realized it was my own lack of vision, not some duplicity on their part.

It’s much the same for me with Psalm 23. It speaks of lying down in green pastures, being led by still waters, refreshing the soul, and being guided along right paths. It tells me I will fear no evil, that God is with me, that my cup will overflow, and how God’s goodness will follow me: all my life and into eternity. What wonderful promises!

But I often miss the moonwalking bear.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…

In the midst of Psalm 23’s great promises stands the recognition of life’s pain and suffering. This is why I think Psalm 23 is to be counted among the great works of poetry: it does not ignore the harsh realities of life. It speaks of dark valleys in which I will walk and of enemies with whom I will dine. It gives a realistic picture of how hard this life is and declares God will be with me in the midst of these things.

I remember hearing a pastor say God is the one who walks with the cancer patient through his suffering and, should he chose, is the one to heal him. But the pastor added something else that troubled to me: God is also the one giving the patient cancer in the first place. I know such a statement can send theologians (and us normal people) into long discussions about God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom but, theology aside, if God is in control of all things that happen in this life, then it is he who leads us through the dark valleys. It is he who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. It is God who does these things.

There is a passage in Isaiah that has always been troubling to me. Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” What I find interesting is that “ra,” the Hebrew word used for “disaster” means “evil, misery, distress, injury, and calamity.” As such, when read in light of Psalm 23 we learn that God not only leads us through peaceful times, but the times of pain and suffering exist according to his plan and design!

Do you see the moonwalking bear yet? I do. But to be honest, I don’t like it!

It’s not that I don’t like God being in charge, but I don’t like having to adjust my focus from the way I want the world to be to the way it actually is. I want to always think of the wonderful things in life: of God’s great mercies, his lovingkindness, and his grace. But I don’t want to admit God’s mercies only make sense when there is a reason for mercy. I don’t want to admit his lovingkindness shines brighter when contrasted against the darkness. I don’t want to admit his grace only becomes meaningful when we find ourselves in a dark pit. And I certainly don’t want to admit the hand of God produces these dark things, dark paths, times of trouble, and trials. But if I don’t admit we are led into them by him and held through them by him, I’ll miss the moonwalking bear.

Life, just like the moonwalking bear video, often comes down to a matter of focus. If we count the passes being made, we miss the bear and if we watch for the bear, we miss the passes. But don’t forget both the bear and the passes are part of the video. And don’t forget both mercy and the valley of the shadow of death, coming to us by the decree of God, are part of life.

Is Psalm 23 a beautiful piece of poetry? Yes. Does it tell us of a loving shepherd and his protection? Yes. Is it a promise of a future life with God? Yes. But it also tells of the valley of the shadow death and of the table in the presence of our enemies. Psalm 23 paints a full picture of life, but only if you don’t miss the moonwalking bear.

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