Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Psalm 23 - Thou dost Prepare a Table Before Me

Thou dost prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies

Some commentators think that at this point the metaphor changes from that of God as Shepherd to that of God as Host. If this is the case then David is describing the Lord as host at a banquet (cf. Is. 25:6-8) prepared for his child. The “table” is laden with food and drink.
Before entering into the banquet hall, the host would anoint the honored guest with oil (Ps. 45:7; 92:10; 133:2; Amos 6:6; Luke 7:46). The oil was made by adding perfume to olive oil.

The “cup” symbolized the gracious and beneficent manner of entertainment. The overflowing pictures the Lord as giving the best to His child. It symbolizes the care and provisions of God, previously represented by “green pastures” and “quiet waters.”

Moreover, the Lord vindicates His servant “in the presence of my enemies,” expressing both the adversities of life itself as well as God’s demonstration of His love toward His own.

But is this the correct way to see this half of the Psalm, God as Host? Or is better and more consistent to see here the continuation of the metaphor of God as Shepherd? ***(see comments at the end of this post for more of this discussion).

When we look a little closer at the practices of shepherds we see that this section does indeed fit with the God as Shepherd metaphor.

We can see this as we seek to answer two questions: What is the table and who are the enemies?

What is the table?

Most who hold to the view that David is changing metaphors here have a problem with the use of the word or idea of table. How does a shepherd prepare a table for his sheep? However, the word “table” means something spread out and does not necessarily refer to a piece of furniture for humans.

Flat places in the hill country were called “tables” and sometimes the shepherd would stop at these “tables” so that the flocks could feed. The Spanish word “mesa” means “table.” The high mountain country is often referred to as “tablelands” and even a few high flat mountains have been given the name, “Table Mountain.”

In fact the word “table” is used in a similar way in other passages of scripture:

Psalms 78:19
19 Then they spoke against God;
They said, "Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?

That is what God did for Israel in the wilderness—He spread a table for them in defiance of their foes. He gave them the manna every morning spread out on the ground…..table…so that they could gather it and eat (cf. Exodus 16:1-19).

Phillip Keller says that the psalmist here is actually recounting the salient events of the full year in the sheep’s life.

“He takes us with him from the home ranch where every need is so carefully
supplied by the owner, out into the green pastures, along the still waters, up
through the mountain valleys to the high tablelands of summer.” (A Shepherd
Looks at Psalm 23, pp. 114)

Who are the enemies?

According to Mark A. Tabb the word for enemies literally means “one who harasses.” It focuses upon the threats and abuse heaped upon us by those who oppose us. (Psalm 23: Song of the Shepherd, pp. 108)

These enemies or harassments came in three forms. Poisonous plants, predators and pests.

Enemy #1 – Poisonous Plants

As the shepherd would guide his sheep to the tablelands, there would be “enemies” there in the presence of poisonous herbs and weeds growing in the pasture which, if eaten, would prove to be fatal to the sheep. Only the trained eye of the shepherd could spot such dangers to the sheep so that they could be removed. This is in addition to the beasts and robbers always lurking in the shadows.

Phillip Keller writes,

“Unknown to me the first sheep ranch I owned had a rather prolific stand of both
blue and white cammas. The blue cammas were a delightful sight in the spring
when they bloomed along the beaches. The white cammas, though a much less
conspicuous flower, were also quite attractive but a deadly menace to sheep. If
lambs, in particular, ate or even just nibbled a few of the lily-like leaves as
they emerged in the grass sward during spring, it would spell certain death. The
lambs would become paralyzed, stiffen up like blocks of wood and simply succumb
to the toxic poisons from the plants.”
(pp. 105-106)

He continues:

“My youngsters and I spent days and days going over the ground plucking out
these poisonous plants. It was a recurring task that was done every spring
before the sheep went on these pastures. Though tedious and tiring with all the
bending, it was a case of ‘preparing the table in the presence of mine enemies.’
And if my sheep were to survive it simply had to be done.” (pp. 106)

What is the parallel for us in the Christian life?

We as humans like to try everything that comes our way. We have taste this and sample that. Even when we know that something is dangerous or destructive or even deadly, we still have to try it!

We must remember though that our Shepherd, Jesus has gone before us, blazing the trail and clearing the path so that we might not be hurt.

Hebrews 2:9-18
9 But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. 11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, 12 saying,
"I will proclaim Thy name to My brethren,
In the midst of the congregation I will sing Thy praise."
13 And again,
"I will put My trust in Him."
And again,
"Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me."
14 Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. 16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. 17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.

Luke 22:31-32
31 "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; 32 but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers."

Enemy #2 – Predators

In describing how the shepherd inspected the field for vipers / snakes Haddon Robinson writes:

“The shepherd leaves the sheep outside any such infested field. Then he walks up
and down the field until he finds vipers’ holes. He takes from his girdle a bottle of thick oil. Then, raking over any long grass with his staff, he pours a circle of oil at the top of every viper’s hole he can find. As he leads the sheep into the field, he anoints the head of each sheep with the oil.

When the vipers beneath the ground realize that the sheep are grazing above, they come out of their holes to do their deadly damage. But the oil keeps them from getting out. The smooth bodies of the vipers cannot pass over the slipping oil—and they are prisoners inside their holes.

Moreover, the oil on the sheep’s head acts as a repellent, so if a viper gets near the nose of the sheep the smell drives the viper away. Literally, therefore, the sheep are allowed to graze in plenty in the presence of their enemies. What the shepherd did for the sheep, God does for his people. If you are Christian, God has sent you to live in a dangerous place. Remember in Matthew 10:16 that our Lord says to His disciples, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The most dangerous place for a sheep to be is in the midst of a wolf pack.” (pp. 25-26 cf. Charles W. Slemming)
Jesus’ prayer in John 17:15-17 reveals His care for the sheep.

15 "I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 "They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 "Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth.

The shepherd often finds himself tending his flocks on the tableland in full view of his enemies. Only his awareness and preparation can prevent one of his sheep from being attacked. Satan, our predator walks about as a roaring lion seeking of whom he may devour. He is a snake, that old serpent who would love nothing more than to take a bite out of us.

However, our Shepherd, Jesus knows every trick and every wile of the devil.

There are many in our culture today who deny the existence of a being called Satan. They say he is a made up composite of evil and a myth (red suit, with pitch fork, tail and horns). He is seen in caricature. Yet as has been pointed out by more than one commentator we can see,

“the evidence of his merciless attacks and carnage in society where men and
women fall prey to his cunning tactics almost every day. We see lives torn and
marred and seared by his assaults though we may never see him personally.”
(Keller pp. 108)

Such were the attacks that shepherds faced in the tableland. They would see the damage done to the flock, but never actually see the predator.

Yet, Jesus Christ goes before us to protect us and guide us. It is therefore wise to stay close to him. It is the distant sheep that stray away from the flock that get picked off by the enemies.

James 4:7-8
7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Enemy #3 – Pests Next Post

***James Montgomery Boice isn’t sure whether the shepherd metaphor ends here or not so he gives an exposition from both points of view. Some of what he says for the God as Host view is as follows. (Psalms Volume 1, pp. 211-212)

“In biblical imagery oil and wine also speak of joy and prosperity, since olives and grapes take time to grow and oil and wine require time to prepare. In periods of domestic turmoil or war these tasks were not performed.

Moreover, oil and wine were highly valued in the dry, barren lands of the Near East. In Palestine, where the sun shines fiercely most of the year and the temperatures continually soar up into the hundreds, the skin becomes cracked and broken and throats become parched. Oil soothes the skin, particularly the face. Wine clears the throat. When a guest arrived at the home of a friend, hospitality demanded the provision of oil and wine so the ravages of travel might be overcome.

David spoke of this, though somewhat differently, when he prayed, “O Lord,…..let your face shine on your servant” (Psalm 31:14, 16). A shinning face was the face of a friend. In another passage David thanks God for the “wine that gladdens the heart of man” and “oil [that makes] his face shine” (Ps. 104:15).

If we allow God to lead us where he will, we will find that a table had been prepared for us, our heads have been anointed with purest oil, and our cups have been filled to overflowing with the wine of true joy.”
Derek Kidner (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Psalms 1-72, pp. 111-112) makes a good argument for ending the God as Shepherd metaphor when he says:

“The shepherd imagery has served its purpose, to be replaced by one of greater
intimacy. (The attempt to sustain the first metaphor, which is sometimes made,
would turn it through full circle, picturing men as sheep which are pictured as
men – with their table, cup and house – which is hardly a profitable exercise.)”

Every detail here is in that key, from the well-set table to the festive oil and brimming cup.

The picture (in the presence of my enemies) may be one of cool assurance under pressure, an Old Testament equivalent to Romans 8:31-39 or 2 Corinthians 12:9f….a witness to infinite resources in the worst of situations.

Or it is more likely that the phrase “probably anticipates a victory celebration, where the enemies are present as captives; or an accession feast with defeated rivals as reluctant guests.”
Given all of this I think the shepherd metaphor still fits the passage best.

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