Stronghold 2: Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd).
Stronghold verses are the fortresses in your spiritual life. When you’re attacked, they are your strong places which help you stand your ground. When worldly ways of thinking get swept away by tides of temptation or trouble, the strongholds remain firm and sure. Jesus finished His Sermon on the Mount with this very point – when you build your life on the rock of His words you can stand strong during the storm, but a life without such strongholds will crumble on the sands (Matthews 7:24-27). Jesus was talking about His teaching generally, but stronghold verses are the exact same principle, just focusing on a few special verses that you can easily memorise and turn to when things get hard. Do you have any strongholds yet? If not, now is the time to get some.
The second one of mine (after Numbers 6:24-26 first up) is Psalm 23. It’s well-known and well-loved – for good reason – but it also makes a great stronghold. That’s because it assures us of God’s love, direction and presence, and helps bring us rest, peace and confidence. Let’s dig a little deeper…
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (v. 1)
God is the shepherd, not just of our souls but of our very lives. ‘The Lord’ is our modern translation of God’s personal name, Yahweh, which signifies a God of covenant faithfulness and personal relationship – He’s not dispassionate, remote or formal. He watches over us, cares for us, loves us and provides for us. He sees to it that we lack nothing. That’s a challenge for us in 21st-century Britain, when we think we lack so many things, be it the latest tech or fashion or status symbols. The truth is we lack nothing, because God provides all we need. It’s time to reframe our perspective on what we have, not what we don’t have.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters, (v. 2)
We live non-stop lives in a world that is just getting faster and faster. Rest seems like a more precious commodity than ever when busyness is so prevalent that it’s an assumed default state. That’s why we need God to ‘make us lie down’ – we’re often too busy to do it of our own accord. We need God to lovingly break into our stress-filled bubbles and preoccupations to bring restoring rest and quietness. Introvert or extrovert, we all need to be led by God to a place where we can recharge. This is a stronghold that is also a sanctuary, a haven of peace as well as a refuge of safety.
He refreshes my soul. (v. 3)
Our souls get worn out and dried up. They get fatigued by strain and stress, hardened by hurts and parched by perpetual activity. They need refreshing, just like the body needs water and the mind needs sleep. And the outcome is just as bad for us if we don’t get it. Problem is, the symptoms of a dehydrated soul don’t show as quickly as those of a dehydrated body, so we can often ignore them and go weeks, months or even years before we realise how drained they’ve become. We need this stronghold verse to remind us that we need regular refreshment for our souls, and that God is the only one who can do that for us. Don’t let a day go by without some sort of refreshment for the soul, to stop it shrivelling up and taking the best of us with it.
He guides me along the right paths
for His name’s sake. (v. 3)
There are so many paths we could take, so many options in life, that it’s more difficult than ever to know where to go. Nowadays we suffer more from too much choice than too little, and we need God’s direction just like a sheep needs to be shown the way by the shepherd. But we don’t need to get too hung up about finding the ‘one’ path as if there are no alternatives – the use of the plural here, ‘right paths’, shows that God can lead us by many ways and routes to the same destination. The difference between right paths and wrong paths is that the former are ‘for His name’s sake’, that is, motivated by, and aiming for, God’s glory, not our own.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
they comfort me. (v. 4)
Isn’t it funny how this mention of ‘the darkest valley’ follows straight on from God guiding us along ‘the right paths’? That’s because sometimes the right path leads through dark places. If you’re in a dark part of the journey, it doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong road, it just means that God will lead us through tough times for our own good, to make us stronger and to teach us to trust Him. There might be evil in this valley, but we don’t need to fear it because God is with us. His ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ symbolise His comforting presence and His ability to defend us from the wolves. Don’t assume a path is right because it isn’t dark, or that a dark path isn’t right – follow God wherever He leads and stick close to Him.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies. (v. 5)
Try as we might, we all have enemies, even if it’s only the enemy. There will always be people who oppose us or try to undermine us or displace us. This verse is a promise that God will give you the victory. You don’t have to worry about it or take matters into your own hands – there’s no fighting here – just sitting down to a meal. The only way you can sit at a table in the presence of enemies is if they’ve been defeated and disarmed. So don’t worry about them, about any temporary slights or setbacks – God is in your corner and will lead you to a victory feast.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. (v. 5)
Just as the ‘lack nothing’ in v.1 refers to the provision of rest in v.2, refreshment and guidance in v.3 and protection in v.4, so here in v.5 we see it pictured as a table overflowing with all manner of good things. A head anointed with oil shows a person favoured and chosen by God – you have a calling on your life and a purpose in God’s plan that no enemy can ever take away from you. Don’t let doubts make you think that you’ve got nothing to offer or no business chasing that dream. God has picked you, and that’s all that matters. An overflowing cup speaks of an abundance of good things – we have so much that we can’t even hold on to it all. This doesn’t have to mean physical excess or material wealth, but it does mean we have so much goodness from God that we have enough to share with others. Claim this promise any time you feel hard up, financially stretched or lacking any kind of resource. You have enough, because God is enough.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life, (v. 6)
We can be sure of God’s blessings all our lives. Not a day will go by without them. God’s faithfulness and generosity are unflagging, unfailing and unending. The word ‘surely’ isn’t a question or fantasy but a statement of faith – His blessings are sure, so long as you follow Him. Take each day at a time. Some will be harder, some will be easier, but none of them are outside of God’s lordship, and every day we should remind ourselves in faith that He is with us and gives us everything we need.
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.” (v. 6)
This psalm feels like a journey, and we’ve come a long way in six short verses. It starts with us setting out with our shepherd. We’ve taken in both shadowy valleys and green pastures along the way – life contains both – and we’ve discovered God’s provision and purpose as we’ve followed Him. Now we come to the end point, the goal, the destination. The house of the Lord is where we will end up. Forever. David was thinking of a specific place in Israel, but He was also writing prophetically about a heaven He could barely conceive of. God has called us all heavenward, and His house has room enough for all of us – we each have our own place to look forward to (John 14:2-3). The goodness and love that God gives us every day of this life will continue through all eternity as well. Take comfort today in knowing that that’s where you’re heading.
Any one of these six verses could be a stronghold in its own right, whether you need protection, provision, hope or replenishment, but taken together, the whole psalm is a veritable castle of comfort. Whenever life gets tough, whenever exhaustion creeps up or enemies press close; whenever it gets dark or you’re not sure where to go next, come here, and find comfort. God wrote these words just for you, so read them often. They’re strong and sure enough for you to build your life upon them.
(come back next week for Stronghold number 3: Psalm 84).