These words sound like a scene in a banqueting hall, but they are not! The pastoral imagery is not set aside. The shepherd has led his sheep through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and he has brought them to fresh pasture. Although dangers of the valley were in the past, there was danger from enemies before them as the sheep were about to graze. Knowing this, the shepherd went ahead and searched for vipers, whose deadly bite was fatal to sheep, and he killed them with his club. Finding poisonous plants, which abounded in some pastures particularly in the spring, the shepherd grubbed them up with his mattock and laid them on little stone pyres, built by him or other shepherds, to be dried and burned. The pasture, made free from vipers and poisonous plants, is symbolized in this verse as a table prepared by the shepherd, so that the sheep may graze peacefully in the presence of what were potential enemies.
“Thou preparest a table before me”: the Lord Himself prepares the table! The divinely prepared table may be illustrated from an episode during our Lord’s forty days following His resurrection. After a long and toilsome night when they caught nothing, the weary disciples emerged from their empty boat to a fire of coals with fish laid thereon and bread. Then they heard the welcoming words of the Risen Lord, “Come and dine”, John 21. 12. This is emblematic of the Lord’s treatment of us. Sometimes we are tired and disappointed with fruitless toils, or agitated by conflicting hopes and fears, and we find that the same Lord has prepared a table with spiritual refreshment for us, so that we may sup with Him and He with us; cf. Rev. 3. 20.
It is possible to be engaged in the Lord’s work, to attend meetings and conferences, to be diligent in reading theological books, all of which are good and necessary, and yet to neglect meditation upon the Person and work of Christ as revealed in holy Scripture. The psalmist, whom we should emulate, says, “I meditate in thy word” and “I … meditate on thee”, so that “My meditation of him shall be sweet’”, Psa. 119. 148, 63. 6, 104. 34. Upon the prepared table before us, the Word of God has been provided and, like the psalmist of old, we should read a portion and meditate upon the whole or part of it. The theme of our meditation should be preferably not a principle of doctrine but the Person of Christ, even as the psalmist meditated upon his Lord. Meditation requires quietness, which is not easily found in this materialistic world with its demands of business, but even a few moments of quiet meditation on Christ will prove to be sweet to the soul.
The table prepared by the Shepherd is “in the presence of mine enemies”, says the sheep. This means that the table is not in heaven above where there are no enemies, but it is here on earth below where there are opponents who are pledged to do us harm. Such enemies are varied. One’s own family may be an enemy, because unconverted members will sometimes attempt to impede our feeding at the table that the Lord has so bountifully prepared. Another enemy is undesirable literature, which abounds today, but which will dull our spiritual appetite for the divine menu upon the prepared table, if we dare to read it. Friendship with unsaved persons may be an enemy; their ungodly influence may draw us away from this prepared table.
The remainder of verse 5, “thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over”, describes the activities of the shepherd amongst his flock at the end of the day. With the approach of evening, the shepherd led his flock to the sheepfold where he laid his rod across its narrow entrance, just above the backs of the sheep in height, and so each sheep “passed under the rod” when the shepherd counted his flock. If a sheep were missing, the shepherd left his flock safe in the fold while he went to search for the lost sheep; cf. Luke 15. 4. Also, once a year, as the sheep “passed under the rod”, the shepherd set aside a tithe of his flock for the Lord, Lev. 27. 32.
This evening scene of sheep passing under the shepherd’s rod is used figuratively of Israel in the future, passing through the gross darkness of tribulation for seven years after the rapture of the Church, when the Lord will purge out the rebels from them, ensuring that only the regenerate remnant will enter into the glorious light of the millennium, Ezek. 20. 37f.
As each sheep passed under the rod, the shepherd also examined it for briars in its ears, sharp thorns in its cheeks or weeping of its eyes from dust or scratches. Upon finding such conditions, he dropped the rod across the sheep’s back and it stepped aside. At the sheepfold, there was a big earthen bowl of olive oil and a large jar of water ready for use. With the water, the shepherd cleansed the sheep’s wounds, which he anointed with olive oil by dipping his hand into the bowl of it. In this Psalm, the sheep says appreciatively to the Divine Shepherd, “Thou anointest the wounds of my head with oil”.
If the sheep was feverish, owing to injuries, the shepherd dipped a large cup-like vessel into the jar of water, kept cool by evaporation in the unglazed pottery, and he brought it out, never half full but always overflowing. The sheep then put its nose into the cool water up to its eyes, and drank until it was refreshed. This explains the sheep saying, “my cup runneth over”.
The anointing of the sheep with oil may remind us of the consecration of Aaron and his sons when they were anointed with “an holy anointing oil”, made specially from certain spices and oil. Two important prohibitions were connected with it: first, “Upon man’s flesh shall it not be poured”; and secondly, “neither shall ye make any other like it”, Exod. 30. 22-33. If this anointing oil is symbolical of the Holy Spirit, as it often is, then the “flesh” in the sense of our unregenerate nature, which Paul terms the “old man”, cannot be anointed with the Holy Spirit. The other restriction meant no imitation of the anointing oil was to be made, which is a warning to us to be on our guard against any counterfeit manifestation of the Holy Spirit. “Thou anointest my head with oil” says the psalmist, and Paul says, “He which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God”, 2 Cor. 1. 21. These two writers attribute our anointing to the Lord and not to man.
The anointing with oil was followed by an overflowing cup for the sheep. As Saviour, Christ has given us “the cup of salvation”, Psa. 116. 13, which overflows, because our salvation relates to the past, present and future. As Benefactor, Christ has provided “the cup of blessing”, filled with all spiritual blessings; cf. 1 Cor. 10. 16; Eph. 1. 3. As Comforter, Christ provides “the cup of consolation” in the hour of sorrow and grief, for this was the name of the cup at the meal prepared by friends of the mourners after the burial of their loved one, Jer. 16. 7.
Whatever the Lord provides in our cup, it is sure to run over, as the psalmist says. The Lord does not measure His goodness as men do. There is no grudging in the Lord’s benevolence, but He gives “good measure, pressed down, … and running over”; cf. Luke 6. 38. He gives grace abundant; He gives peace that passeth all understanding; He gives joy unspeakable, Rom. 5. 20; Phil. 4. 7; 1 Pet. 1. 8.
(To be concluded)
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