Left to ourselves we would have nothing more than restlessness, driven by the realization that there is something more to know and love. But God will not leave us to ourselves.
According to Psalm 23:2, He makes us lie down in green pastures. He leads us beside quiet waters. The verbs suggest gentle persuasion—a shepherd patiently, persistently encouraging his sheep to the place where their hungers and thirsts will be assuaged.
In David’s day, “green pastures” were oases, verdant places in the desert toward which shepherds led their thirsty flocks. Left to themselves, sheep would wander off into the wilderness and die. Experienced shepherds knew the terrain and urged their flocks toward familiar grasslands and streams where they could forage and feed, lie down and rest.
The picture here is not of sheep grazing and drinking, but at rest, lying down—“stretched out” to use David’s word. The verb leads suggests a slow and leisurely pace. The scene is one of tranquility, satisfaction, and rest.
The common practice of shepherds was to graze their flocks in rough pasture early in the morning, leading them to better grasses as the morning progressed, and then coming to a cool, shaded oasis for noontime rest.
The image of placid waters emphasizes the concept of rest—the condition of having all our passions satisfied. Augustine cried out, “What will make me take my rest in You . . . so I can forget my restlessness and take hold of You, the one good thing in my life?”
The compulsion begins with God. “He makes me [causes me to] lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters” (psalm 23:2). The Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (john 10:3-4).
God makes the first move. He takes the initiative by calling us and leading us to a place of rest. It’s not because we’re seeking God; He is seeking us.
God’s cry to wayward Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” suggests the loneliness He feels when separated from those He loves. G. K. Chesterton suggests that the whole Bible is about the “loneliness of God.” I like the thought that in some inexplicable way God misses me; that He can’t bear to be separated from me; that I’m always on His mind; that He patiently, insistently calls me and seeks me, not for my own sake alone, but for His. He cries, “Where are you?”
Deep within us is a place for God. We were made for God and without His love we ache in loneliness and emptiness. He calls from deep space to our depths: “Deep calls to deep” (psalm 42:7).
David put it this way, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek’ ” (psalm 27:8). God spoke to the depths of David’s heart, uttering His heart’s desire: “Seek My face.” And David responded with alacrity, “I will seek Your face, Lord.”
And so it is: God calls us—seeking us to seek Him—and our hearts resonate with longing for Him. That understanding has radically changed the way I look at my relationship to God. It is now neither duty nor discipline—a regimen I impose on myself like a hundred sit-ups and fifty push-ups each day—but a response, an answer, to One who has been calling me all my life.
What are those green pastures and quiet waters to which God leads us? And where are they? What is the reality behind these metaphors?
God Himself is our “true pasture” (jeremiah 50:7) and our pool of quiet water. He is our true nourishment, our living water. If we do not take Him in, we will starve.
There is a hunger in the human heart which nothing but God can satisfy. There is a thirst that no one but He can quench. “Do not work for food that spoils,” Jesus said, “but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. . . . I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (john 6:27, 35).
Malcolm Muggeridge’s confession is a striking expression of this thought:
I may, I suppose, regard myself as being a relatively successful man. People occasionally look at me on the street. That’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for the highest slopes of inland revenue. That’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, can partake of trendy diversions. That’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time. That’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and I beg of you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water that is offered to the spiritually hungry.
But how do we “graze” on God and “drink” Him in? Once more we’re confronted with symbolism. What do the metaphors mean?
The process begins, as all relationships do, with a “meeting.” As David said: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (psalm 42:1-2).
God is a real person. He is not a human invention,
a concept, a theory, or a projection of ourselves. He is overwhelmingly alive—real beyond our wildest dreams. He can be “met,” to use David’s commonplace word.
A.W. Tozer wrote:
God is a Person and as such can be cultivated as any person can. God is a Person and in the depths of His mighty nature He thinks, wills, enjoys, feels, loves, desires, and suffers as any other person may. God is a Person and can be known in increasing degrees of intimacy as we prepare our hearts for the wonder of it.
That’s the reality, but it’s also the rub: Are we willing to prepare ourselves to meet Him? He responds to the slightest approach, but we’re only as close as we want to be. “If . . . you seek the Lord your God, you will find him,” Moses promised, then added this proviso: “if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” (deuteronomy 4:29).
We don’t have to look very hard or very long for God. He’s only as far away as our hearts (romans 10:8-9), but He will not intrude. He calls us but then waits for our answer. Our progress toward Him is determined by our desire to engage Him in a personal way—to know Him.
We say, “Something’s wrong with me. I’m not happy. There must be something more,” but we do nothing about our discontent. It’s this mood of resignation that keeps us from joy. Our first task is to get honest with ourselves.
Do we want God or not? If we do, we must be willing to make the effort to respond to Him. “Come near to God,” said James, “and he will come near to you” (james 4:8). It’s a matter of desire.
“O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you,” the psalmist said (psalm 63:1).