Following and Finding true refuge in the Great Shepherd
Our current studies on the Book of Ecclesiastes have reminded and encouraged us to be more introspective and reflective of our lives as we ponder over its complexity, brevity, and incomprehensibility. Lest we become cynical and doubtful of life, it is important to read the whole canon of Scripture as we seek to ponder about the questions raised by the author (Qoheleth aka teacher) of Ecclesiastes. In this regard, my recent close reading of Psalm 23 (a favourite memory psalm) reminded me about the attributes of God, and our response to Him and it has helped me to better appreciate Ecclesiastes.
Delighting in the God who is great
The psalmist starts by focussing on the source of his daily provision, preservation of sanity and protection from his foes (v.1). Our God is the great shepherd and we are the sheep of His pasture whom he cares for greatly. This focus on the great shepherd by the psalmist stands in contrast to the attention on life “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes which always seems like a never ending cycle of work demands, relational responsibilities, packed schedules in our present context. In this rat race, we may easily lose sight of God, and the joy of making Him central in all that we pursue, and become entwined and entangled in our own activities and to do lists. John White in his book “Cost of Commitment” wrote how he initially desired a prolonged retirement break and settled next to a gorgeous lake, sheltered from the hustle and bustle of life with solitude, time for his writing, and admiration for the white snow during winter and marvellous nature around him. Yet he realised over time that his “paradise became less attractive”. He was feeling listless as it competed with his inner desire to focus on his work for the Lord back where the action was. It was when he and his wife prayerfully recommitted to God and His needed work that he found renewed peace, joy, and meaning as God opened doors for his subsequent ministry. The challenge for us daily is whether we can regularly recalibrate our focus on the Great Shepherd who gives deep joy as we trust in Him and be part of His kingdom work.
Following the God who is our guide
Over the next few verses (vv. 2-5), the psalmist considers the Lord going ahead of him in his experiences and situations no matter how challenging they are such as traversing the valley of death and facing his worse enemies. Through God’s guidance, He restores stillness, removes fear and replaces the psalmist’s apprehension and anxiety with God’s comfort. The crux of the matter is whether fundamentally, we are willing to follow His guidance and purpose and not just our own agenda or herd instincts. In the current postmodern world that we live in, we are presented with the prevalent alternative view that there is no absolute truth and what everyone agrees as acceptable is the right position on any issue. However, human feelings and reactions are vulnerable to external (e.g. life events, reactions of others) and internal influences (e.g. past experiences, impulses, thoughts, images) and herd behaviour can be fatally wrong (e.g. cult suicides, drug dependence). The recent sharing of the victim of Group B Streptococcal bacterial outbreak in the media illustrated how he followed God’s purpose and guidance in the seeming tragic “randomness” of life. Mr Tan contracted the sinister bacterial infection after consuming raw fish porridge which resulted in him becoming very ill with compromised blood circulation to his peripheries and ultimately requiring amputation of his four limbs. This was the valley of death that he went through as he fought for his life in the ICU and later had to face the prospect of loss of all his limbs. He said that “I was so depressed when I realised I couldn’t even kill myself, even if I wished to”. However, he shared that his new found faith in the Lord guided him through the dark valleys to see the light of day. At present, he guides others through his own testimony and makes frequent visits to those in hospital and at home with newly-acquired disability. Such is the sovereign will of God that we as mere humans will often not fully comprehend. The question for us is whether we resolve singularly to follow His leading so that we can be similarly restored, renewed in our strength to share His love with others.
Taking refuge in the God who is good
As King David concludes (v.6), I believe that the image of God in his mind is one that he holds with reverential fear. It is not just of God as a strong, powerful and invincible shepherd and guide who can overcome the valley of death and marauding foes, but also a God who is personally concerned about his struggles. Just like He draws near to King David, He draws near to us as well. Hence the psalmist is able to contemplate dwelling in the house of the One who is merciful and good. One of our friends recently came down with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. However what encouraged us was his desire to lean on God as his refuge and rock and he continues to serve Him to the best of his ability through his re-arranged work plans and ministry in his own church. Indeed the goodness of God encourages us, come what may, to take refuge in Him who is also the great healer. Like the psalmist, we can choose to focus on him amidst the sounds (sometimes deafening and threatening) that are clamouring for our attention in our daily lives. The challenge is whether we constantly tune in to listen to His still small voice and find refuge even in the context of seemingly unending and dizzying changes in our lives. As we study Ecclesiastes with its discomfiting view about life, let us mediate and refocus on God and his word. May we be reminded from Psalm 23 that we can delight in the God of greatness and His work and learn to follow His guidance. We can also take refuge in the God of goodness and echo with Qoheleth to “fear God and keep his commands for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccle 12:13) in spite of the enigma that life can appear to us.
Wishing one and all a Happy and Meaningful Lunar New Year!
Eld Sim Kang