Goodness and Mercy
"Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever." Psalm 23:5-6
Several years ago my wife and I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast style hotel in San Francisco in which the hospitality was so thoughtful, so plentiful, and so unflagging that our every need seemed to be positively anticipated and then more than met.
Soft terrycloth robes enwrapped us, cushy down blankets snuggled us, a cozy fireplace warmed us, and each day after we returned from our busyness a little teddy bear awaited us in our bed, with dainty chocolates nestled in his hand. A gourmet breakfast was served every morning, and hors d'oeuvres every evening.
We were positively spoiled. As much as we love our own home, we never wanted to leave!
Now at this point, you may be asking one of two good questions: first, when I am in the Bay area can I get that hotel number from you? And second, what does this have to do with the 23rd Psalm?
The answer to the first is, yes, of course! The answer to the second is this: the last two verses of the 23rd Psalm point us to Christ as the supremely gracious and generous and captivating host.
YOUR TABLE IS READY
We might expect to hear those words when we arrive at our favorite restaurant - but not at a bloody, marked battlefield! Yet, David admits to the Lord that he has found it so, that even in the most unlikely places and circumstances, he has fed-even feasted-on the Lord's abundant hospitality.
"I have found a table prepared for me, with every good thing imaginable, even in the presence of my enemies." This is such a remarkable statement that many good commentators have suggested that this must be speaking of a victory banquet after foes have been vanquished, or that the enemies are held at a distance by the host while the dinner is enjoyed (only to attack again once the meal is complete).
But that is not what David seems to be saying at all. The enemies are current and active, not defeated and subdued. The table is set in the presence of them, not temporarily apart from them. In the midst of my enemies, David says, You are constantly preparing for me a banquet of celebration.
As incredible as this sounds, have you not experienced many such inexplicable soul-feasts in the midst of grief-sieges, or pain-onslaughts, or temptation-assaults? In a loss, or a sickness, or a trial that you might expect to be your darkest hour, you were dining on the love and provision and presence of God.
The table was spread, the meal was enjoyed, and a fullness was experienced...even as the enemies of your soul clamored around you and strove to steal your provision from you.
YOUR HEAD IS ANOINTED
This imagery may not be very comforting or inspiring to our modern ears. However, in early Eastern culture it was customary for a generous host to anoint the head of his guests with festive oil (Luke 7:46). In a day when one did not have the benefit of daily showers, shampoo, or deodorant, the fragrant ointment had the effect of refreshing and cleansing one who came into the home hot and tired.
Similarly, David testifies, God had graciously refreshed and cleansed him, allowing him to enjoy the generous banquet that was prepared for him. Not only was a feast prepared for David, in other words, but David was prepared for the feast. He could not have enjoyed it as much otherwise.
Have you experienced the refreshment, the cleansing, the fragrance of God's goodness washing away the stench of your own inadequacies and sinfulness? This "bathing" in the goodness of God prepares us to enjoy all of His other blessings, because our conscience is clear and our guilt is removed when we come to His table.
YOUR CUP IS OVERFLOWING
Even the best and most well-intentioned hosts sometimes have inadequate resources to supply the great needs of their guests. (Remember the wedding feast in John 2, at which Jesus was needed in order to save the ruler of the feast from embarrassment?)
But God, we are reminded, is never short on resources, is never found insufficient for even the largest and emptiest cups that His guests bring to Him. Even in the presence of great conflict and difficulty, David confesses, God had somehow filled his cup to overflowing.
An overflowing cup, it is vital to recognize, is not a symbol of material provision or financial prosperity. In reality, many of God's people (including David while writing this psalm, it seems) have experienced hardship, agony, and loss. God's overflowing grace is not seen in the absence of trials but in the brimming abundance of His goodness and mercy.
HIS HOUSE IS WAITING
The form of Psalm 23 is interesting and enlightening. It begins with David talking about God in the first three verses ("He"), shifts to David's talking to God in verses 4 and 5 ("You"), and ends with a promise of David to himself ("me").
As David reviews his condition, with God as his gracious host, he makes the personal (and understandable!) determination to never leave this place. "Goodness and mercy is all I have experienced here; why would I ever want to leave? I will stay here forever and so enjoy this divine hospitality all the days of my life!"
Lest we misunderstand David's motivation, it is crucial to consider this statement in light of David's equally enthusiastic declaration in Psalm 27:4: "One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life."
Very similar language. But here David tells us unequivocally his reason for refusing to leave the house of God. It is not because he expects a trouble-free life, or material rewards, or a pain-free existence in God's house. Rather, he wishes to stay in God's house forever in order "to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in His temple."
The greatest goodness of God and the marvelous mercy of God, David says, is the beauty of God Himself. God is the terrycloth robe David wraps himself in; the Lord is the fire that warms David; Jesus Christ is the special treat that awaits David each time he beholds the glory of the Lord. In short, God is the host but He is also the feast, the ointment, and the full cup.
“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Romans 5:8-9)