Psalm 23 Series, Part 5

Paths of Righteousness
—Psalm 23:3

IN THE rugged country where David, the shepherd boy, tended his father’s sheep, it was essential, in leading the flock from one feeding ground to another, to follow paths which had been previously used or determined upon. These might lead through mountain passes, or ravines, or over the barren wilderness of the desert. It was the shepherd’s business to be acquainted with these paths—to know the safe from the unsafe ones, and particularly to know where the paths led. It was essential to the well-being of the sheep to follow the leading of the shepherd, whether to new pastures or to a place of safety for the night.

How beautifully this illustrates our dependence upon the Lord, our Good Shepherd, for surely as new creatures we are surrounded by a wilderness beset with pitfalls and dangers of many kinds. There is a pathway of sure progress out of this wilderness, but we cannot walk in it unless we follow the leadership of the Good Shepherd. It is not an easy matter however, to follow him, for the paths of righteousness which he chooses for us are seldom wide and smooth; instead, they are narrow, rugged, and uphill. It is possible to walk in these ways only if we keep our eyes fixed upon our Leader and depend upon him to furnish us with strength in our every time of need.

The psalmist’s use of the term ‘paths’, in the plural, suggests divine leading in all the individual ways of our lives. The entire Christian course is spoken of by Jesus as a ‘way’, which he described as a “narrow way.” We walk in this pathway from the time we give ourselves to the Lord until we finish our earthly life in death. All of the Lord’s people—his sheep of the Gospel fold—are walking in the same narrow way; but within its boundaries the Lord leads his individual sheep from one experience to another, overruling them for the eternal good of each.

While the Good Shepherd may be permitting some of his sheep to traverse stony paths of affliction, others may be finding the way comparatively smooth. But whether the way is smooth or rough, it is a path of righteousness—literally, a right way—and is the only way to enter into glory, honor, and immortality. No matter how difficult the way may be, at times, or how pleasant, all these experiences go to make up our walk in the narrow way.

“Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,” said the Good Shepherd. (Matt. 7:14) The gate is evidently the entrance into the narrow way, and Jesus said this entrance is ‘strait’. (Greek: ‘narrow’, ‘hedged about by obstacles’. Strong’s Concordance) It is only by going through this entry into the narrow way that we become the Lord’s sheep. It is the gate of full consecration to do the Lord’s will and to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd whithersoever he may lead.

However, our own consecration or the surrender of our wills to the divine will, does not in itself put us in the narrow way. We are not acceptable to the Lord in our own righteousness, and therefore, in order for our consecration to be acceptable to him, the merit of Christ’s righteousness must be applied as a covering for our imperfections. It is this application of the blood that makes it possible for us, as members of the fallen race, to walk worthily before God in path of righteousness. It is the assurance that the merit of Christ is available to cover our imperfections that gives us the courage to enter the narrow way through the difficult gate of consecration.

Surely there are formidable obstacles which tend to bar the entrance to the narrow way. Fear, for example, often stands in the way. We are fearful of failure; fearful to trust our every interest in the hands of the Good Shepherd; we are fearful of the opinion of friends, relatives, or of the world. To surrender our wills to the doing of God’s will frequently means running contrary to the desires of our dearest friends, and this is no small barrier to surmount in entering the strait gate to the narrow way.

Faith is the quality which enables us to hurdle all these barriers. Our faith in the promises of God keeps us strong in every time of need. It enables us to lay hold upon his promises, trusting even where we cannot trace his leadings. Then by painstaking care, as we keep our ears attuned to the voice of the Good Shepherd, we will safely follow him each day. Sometimes, as the poet suggests, the Good Shepherd will lead us through scenes of deepest gloom, and at other times, where Eden’s bowers bloom; but at all times our faith can grasp the assurance that regardless of the way he leads, it is always in path of righteousness—and from the divine standpoint, altogether lovely.

Our responsibility as sheep is to follow the leading of the Good Shepherd or we may discover that we are walking in paths that are not right. The psalmist suggests that one great danger is that of following the works of men. He writes, “Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer.” (Ps. 17:4) The only safeguard against this unwise course is to be guided by the words which come from the lips of the Good Shepherd.

And how true this is! Human wisdom and advice are not reliable. The prophet wrote that “there is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Prov. 14:12) But how can we be sure that we are following the voice of the Good Shepherd, and not being misled by mere human wisdom? The depth and genuineness of our consecration has much to do with this. Sometimes the Lord’s way is difficult, and if we are not wholly surrendered to his will, an easier way suggested by human wisdom might appeal to us, and we could reason ourselves into believing that it is the right way.

Another safeguard which our Heavenly Father has provided for us against being misled, is prayer. David prayed, “Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.” (Ps. 17:5) Ah yes, we will need the Lord’s strength to hold us up, otherwise we may become weary, and not watching our steps carefully, we might stumble and fall. We should pray not only for strength to endure the hazardous journey of the narrow way, but we must look to the Lord or wisdom to guide our steps aright. We must watch and pray. David expressed this thought beautifully, saying, “Show me thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths.”—Ps. 25:4

How can we expect the Lord to teach us his ways? Again the psalmist gives us the proper thought when he continued, saying, “Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.” (vs. 5) How clearly the psalmist indicates here that the Lord, the Good Shepherd, leads us through the medium of his truth. After all, the paths of righteousness are not literal paths, but paths of truth—the path of the just, which as a shining light shineth more and more unto the perfect day.—Prov. 4:18

A similar thought is expressed in Psalm 119:105 where David speaks of the Word of the Lord as being a lamp unto our feet, and a light to our path. And it is very important to remember that it is through his Word that the Good Shepherd leads us, or we could find ourselves being led by whims and fancies, either of our own imagination, or of others. One of the most difficult lessons for the Lord’s sheep to learn is that they are not to be led by their own preferences. To keep self-will from entering into decisions is one of the most severe tests of a fully consecrated life.

Having entered the narrow way by making a covenant with the Lord to do his will, we can remain in the right paths only by keeping that covenant. The Good Shepherd is merciful. He knows our weaknesses. As David wrote, “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth.” He is indeed merciful to those who are walking in the paths of righteousness if their hearts are perfect toward him. When we do the very best we can to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, the psalmist explains, the “Lord’s paths are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.”—Ps. 25:10

The Good Shepherd leads his flock in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. All the works of God will ultimately redound to the glory of his great name. It is well to keep this in mind, for it will help us to realize that our chief concern in all that we do as co-laborers with the Lord should be for the glory of our God.

We have a practical illustration of this when Moses prayed for the salvation of Israel, that the name of Jehovah might not be brought into reproach before the Egyptians. The Israelites were a rebellious people, and after repeated disobedience to God in the wilderness, Jehovah told Moses he would destroy the nation entirely, and set up a new nation with Moses as its head. To one less devoted to the Lord than Moses, this idea may have been appealing. But this great leader of Israel was more concerned about the glory of God’s name than with his own advantage.

Moses had led the Israelites into the wilderness at the behest of the Lord, and by means of the Lord’s guidance and overruling providence. Mighty miracles had been wrought in Egypt to induce Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave the country. No doubt the Egyptians thought that the Israelites would surely perish in the wilderness. If God had destroyed them, these Egyptians would conclude that the God of Israel lacked the power to care for his people. Moses would not permit a situation to develop which would disgrace the name of his God, if it were possible to avoid. Therefore, he offered his own life as a substitute for the nation, so that God’s name might not be brought into reproach.

In Moses’ attitude we have a beautiful representation of full devotion to God, one that places the glory of God’s name in every sense before any real or imagined advantage. It is only by developing such devotion that we, too, will remain in the paths of righteousness. It is fitting that our text should say, “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,” and how eminently proper is this reason! The well-being of all intelligent creatures throughout the universe depends upon their recognition of the Creator’s sovereign right to be the Ruler of their lives. Certainly all creation should give glory to his name!

Every feature of God’s great plan of the ages is designed to give him glory, particularly the arrangements of the narrow way. Those who are being led in the paths of righteousness, are being prepared not only to share his glory, but also to reflect his glory throughout all the earth. It will be through the instrumentality of Christ and the church that the glory of God will be caused to fill the whole earth as the waters cover the sea. It is, indeed, for his name’s sake that the little flock of this age is being led in paths of righteousness by the Good Shepherd. The whole object of its being led in this manner is that, through it in the Millennial Age, the glory of God will be revealed to all mankind; and, yes, even better understood by angels!

God’s name becomes increasingly glorified in our own hearts as, from day to day, we come to know him better through the wonderful way the Good Shepherd is leading us. We experience divine help to keep us from falling. The divine wisdom of his Word points out the right way for us, serving as a lantern to our feet. His love overshadows us, and we sense the tenderness of his affectionate care in our every time of need. We rejoice, too, in his mercy. His glory is particularly reflected by his mercy! “For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great”—Ps. 25:11

The unfailing guidance of the Good Shepherd enhances our appreciation of God’s glory as we serve him more wholeheartedly, following him closely as he leads us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. To follow the Good Shepherd to the end of the narrow way means that we will follow him even unto death. This, in fact, is the ultimate goal of the illustration. It is a realization which we would do well to consider. Only as we ponder the fact that we are committed to follow him until the end of our lives, will we be prepared to reap the full benefits of the Shepherd’s care, and finally to reach our destination.

Generally, the shepherds of Israel were zealous in caring for their sheep. They protected them from danger; led them into green pastures, and beside still waters. They nursed them when bruised or sick. But the final purpose of all this care was that the shepherd would lead his sheep to the slaughter when it suited his purpose. And even so it is with us, for the destination of those whom our Shepherd leads in the paths of righteousness, is death.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” said the Master. Taking up a cross symbolizes walking on the road to death. And this is just what it means to follow Jesus. He is our Good Shepherd, but previously he walked in the very same path in which he is now leading us. He was “brought as a lamb to the slaughter,” and we are now following in his steps. Not only do we remain in the narrow way by hearkening to his voice, but we need also to trace his steps, and walk in them.

We should not expect, then, that the paths of righteousness are always paths of pleasantness. True, we have the joy of the Lord while walking in this narrow way. But often the way is difficult. From start to finish, it is a way of sacrifice so complete that it ends in death. Jesus was afflicted and suffered, and he finally died upon the cross. We cannot expect that the narrow way will be easier for us than it was for our Master. But we can endure all things if we keep the thought before us that the way in which we are being led is “for his name’s sake.”

The glory of God’s name is directly involved with the manner in which the Good Shepherd is leading us. Paul wrote to Timothy: “It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him.” (II Tim. 2:11) A ‘faithful saying’ is a promise of God upon which we can depend. God has pledged the honor of his name, his faithfulness, his integrity, as a guarantee that if we walk in the narrow way of sacrifice faithfully unto death, we shall, in the first resurrection, live and reign with Christ. For his name’s sake, the Lord leads us in the paths of righteousness. This little flock of faithful followers will be raised to glory, honor, and immortality, to live and reign with Christ a thousand years. To these Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) This is one of his exceeding great and precious promises, which he has caused to be repeated over and over again in the Scriptures.

Later on in the outworking of the divine plan, another way will be opened up for the Lord’s sheep, that will be called the “way of holiness.” (Isa. 35:8) It will be for the ‘other’ sheep, mentioned by the Master in his parable, “which are not of this [Gospel Age] fold.” (John 10:16) They are spoken of in the parable of the sheep and goats. The highway in which they will be led will not be one of sacrifice leading to death, but instead it will lead to perfection of human life, attained by the process of restitution. To these the Good Shepherd will say, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”—Matt. 25:34

Any who do not qualify to inherit the restored dominion of earth will be cut off in the second death. In this way the earth will be purified from all elements of opposition to God, or to the recognition of his sovereign will. His glory will be apparent in the restoration of the whole world of mankind to at-one-ment with their Creator.

With the prospects of these much-needed blessings flowing out to every human being to the praise and glory of the Author of such a loving plan, let us earnestly endeavor to follow the Good Shepherd faithfully, even unto death!

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