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Enemies at Dinner

Yup! Our enemies are right there at our dining table, according to Psalm 23. And apparently the Good Shepherd does not make them go away.

This truth has been there amongst the gold mine of metaphors in “The Shepherds Psalm,” but I had not really absorbed it until recently. The part of the psalm I’m referring to reads like this:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

                                I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.

                You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

                                You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

                Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,

                                And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.              (Psalm 23:4, 5, NIV)

I had noticed that in verse 4 the psalmist says he will fear no evil—but he does not say there will be no evil. He only asserts that he will not be afraid of it. We might like to think the verse means that evil will be held at bay, but it does not say that. In fact, the psalmist creates the psalm, I think, precisely because there is evil and he needs reassurance that the Shepherd will take care of him.

So In the midst of evil, in the midst of the darkest valley of all, why wouldn’t the psalmist, be afraid? “Because you are with me,” says David, who wrote this psalm.

I have heard that God’s promise to be “with us” is the most repeated promise in the Bible. And I understand why that is critical because we human beings have a deep, primeval fear that we will be abandoned: we will be left alone in the dark or we will be so shamed and rejected that we will melt down into nothing. Here’s the promise the psalmist reminds us of: that will not happen. We will never be abandoned; and we will not disintegrate into nothing. The Shepherd’s rod and staff are his reassuring touches, even in the dark, that he is there, and he is in control. He is with us.

But the metaphor of the next verse of Psalm 23, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” vividly brings home how close and constant the evil can be. We need our Shepherd not only in the valley of the shadow of death, but constantly. At the table means right where I eat. Right where I live. In my home! Somehow the Shepherd allows our enemies into the dining room and even at the table.

This is disconcerting, yet rings true to our experience, doesn’t it? Who are your enemies? Specific people who attack, criticize or trouble you? Or are your enemies worry? Cancer? Diabetes? Bills you can’t pay? Addiction? Children or parents with health or relational issues? We have enemies, and here they are at the table, and there is no indication in the psalm that they are going away.

But it is a fascinating metaphor because, although the enemies are there in the dining room, at the table, the table is prepared by the Shepherd—“YOU prepare a table before me…” It is His table; the table and the dining room belong to Him.

In Scripture, the provision of food, of a banquet, is an important and repeated theme: the Lord gave instructions for the Passover meal before the Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus, and for annual celebration of that meal. God provided manna for his people in the desert. Jesus, the night before he was crucified, instituted the Eucharist. Still to come is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. God seems to be into feeding us and having banquets. So, in this case, what is the meal or banquet about?

Psalm 23 is rich in metaphors, and we are allowed to “have at it,” so to speak, trying to understand the metaphors God gives us, as long as we don’t stray too far from Scriptural themes. Surely, then, the table the Shepherd lays before us implies provision: physical provision, our “daily bread.” Also, spiritual provision: our salvation, our sanctification, all we need for “life and godliness.” And therefore, emotional provision as well: strength for the day, grace for the current trial.

In the middle of our enemies, who seem—and are—so very present, our Shepherd provides for us. Not in a meagre way—but amply, generously, as befits a banquet. He may allow the enemies to be present for his own mysterious reasons, but his provision for us in the midst of them is not scanty.

Not only that, but he “anoints my head with oil.” In the time of David, the shepherd-king who wrote this psalm, anointing had several meanings. A shepherd, whose duties David knew well, used oil as ointment to protect the sheep’s eyes and nose and mouth from annoying gnats; used oil as medicine on wounds; used oil for cleansing when soap and water were not available. This was, please notice, a very “hands-on” procedure: the shepherd handled his sheep intimately and caringly. Anointing a sheep with oil was tender loving care for sure. We, then, in the midst of our enemies, receive the personal healing touch and tender loving care of our Shepherd.

The other connotation of anointing with oil was a spiritual and relational one: a person so anointed was set apart and designated as special, as equipped for a particular service. Such anointing was also a sign of divine favor and honor. So, in the presence of my enemies, I am provided a rich and more than sufficient banquet, I am cared for and healed, and I am clearly claimed as my Shepherd’s favored and honored servant. If all that is true, how much do I really need to worry about those enemies?

But it doesn’t stop there. “My cup overflows,” writes the psalmist. A commentary I consulted observed that in middle-eastern cultures a guest is welcome as long as the host keeps filling their glass. When the filling stops, it is time for the guest to leave. In this psalm, our cup stays constantly filled by the Host. Enemies may come and go, but we stay. We belong. And whatever our needs may be, for strength, reassurance, help—we receive constant replenishing.

It does seem strange, but all of us know by experience that God isn’t removing our enemies yet. Sometimes we are healed, yes. We see supernatural provision; we see some enemies sent packing. But other enemies never leave, and if one does, another may take its place at the table.

So there they are, our enemies: right in the dining room. I don’t like it a bit.

But the psalm reassures us that, in spite of the very real presence of those enemies, and the temptation to fear them, God provides for us in every important way. He is with us. He feeds us—physically and spiritually. He tends our wounds. He chooses us, anointing us with favor and blessing and salvation. He fills our cups over and over to show we belong, we are welcome, we are wanted. And he replenishes our constantly emptying cup with the strength and grace we need. So, drink up!

Then, verse 6! “Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives,” and we will live at home in that love and mercy always. I have it on good authority that that Hebrew word sometimes translated “follow” in verse 6 should actually be translated “pursue.” I like that better, but am amazed by it: God pursues us with his love and mercy. We are not going to get away from his tender loving care and generous schemes, no matter what.

No abandonment. No disintegration. Through Jesus, we already live “at home” in love and mercy. And we are going to be pursued by more and more of that love and mercy.

Right now, paradoxically, our enemies get to be in the dining room—right at the table. Their presence is distracting and disconcerting, to say the least.

But here’s the thing: it’s not their house. It’s not their table. They may be present, but they cannot do anything my heavenly father doesn’t let them do. And that’s my dad, at the head of the table; he loves me and he’s in charge of the dining room. One word from him and those enemies are outta here.

Soon, I hope, he’ll say that word.

In the meantime, even with enemies at my dining table, I don’t need to be afraid. My dad is right here, and on my side. Always.

My problem is to stop focusing on the enemies and remember whose table it is.