Pursued by God

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Psalm 23 is among the most beloved and memorized of the psalms by Christians. Its reigning motif, as suggested in the very first verse cited above, is one of God’s tender care for us. This, of course, entails that we faithfully follow him. The rest of the psalm then sketches out a journey—by turns through a verdant landscape, out of a valley shadowed by death, and to a feast.

But, then, at the very end, the whole movement of the psalm shifts. And it is so subtle that most of us miss it. Here is the last verse in the full context of the psalm:

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 right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
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 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
my whole life long (NRSV translation).

Notice the fourth line from the bottom, which is bolded: ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.’ Here is the reversal. We tend to think of shepherds, as the psalm itself says, as leading their flocks. But, now at the very end, the goodness and mercy of God ‘follow’ the Christian.

In fact, although it is a translation that is both tradition and accurate, ‘follow’ far understates what is happening here.

In Hebrew the word, radaph (pronounced: raw-daf’) has a much more aggressive meaning that the simply English follow fails to capture. Normally it means pursue, chase, or even persecute. This is how it appears to be used in the Old Testament. For example, it is the verb that describes the Egyptian response to the exodus:

The Egyptians followed in pursuit after them—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen—into the midst of the sea (Exodus 14:23).

In all the psalms leading up to Psalm 23 it has this meaning. For example, there’s Psalm 18:38,

I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
I did not turn back till I destroyed them.

In one rare instance are the Israelites exhorted to ‘pursue’ in a positive sense:

Justice, justice alone shall you pursue, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:20).

But what we have in Psalm 23:6 is far more radical than this. God pursues us.

Specifically, it is his goodness and mercy he sends after us. In Hebrew, the word translated here as mercy, which is checed (pronounced: kheh’-sed) has a range of intriguing meanings. It could also be rendered as lovingkindness, favor, or even desire and beauty.

This is consonant with the theology of grace, which holds that God always acts first. Even our free acts of accepting his love spring from the hidden movements of his grace (which moves our free will without overriding its freedom in a manner that is ultimately mysterious to us). As 1 John 4:19, says, “We love because he first loved us.”

The Incarnation was the great initiative of God towards us. And, as the true story of God-made-man plays out in the gospels this is what we see again and again. It was Jesus who found His disciples, not the other way around. It was Jesus who walked on water to meet them in their storm-tossed boat. Again, it was the resurrected Christ who came looking for His dumbfounded followers, not the other way around.

Certainly we are called to seek as well. Peter gets out of the boat and takes halting steps towards his savior. Zacchaeus had to come down from the tree. Peter ran to the empty tomb. But God first pursues us. The kingdom of God first seeks us before we learn to seek it first. And God finds us before we even learn to look for Him.

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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