Actually, Goodness and Mercy Don’t Follow Us

Actually, Goodness and Mercy Don’t Follow Us

A Dogged and Determined Pursuit

Psalm 23:6 speaks about two things “following” us: goodness and mercy. Almost without exception, commentators on this verse point out that the verb “follow” is in fact a very weak rendering. Richard Briggs goes so far as to say that it is “the one word in the whole psalm that in my opinion has been persistently poorly translated in English.”1 Instead, at the very heart of the word is the meaning “pursue.” Goodness and mercy pursue David; they do not merely follow him. The word is so intensive, it is often used in combat scenes, where people are “pursued” to death, but the word itself is not negative and can be used in delightfully positive, instructive ways:

Turn away from evil and do good;
      seek peace and pursue it. (Ps. 34:14)

In Psalm 23:6, says Briggs, “It is almost as if the verse attributes both agency and initiative to these divine characteristics here, whereas ‘follow’ might suggest a sort of tagging along with me. Instead, [God’s] goodness and mercy are dogged and determined in their pursuit.”2 God has sent them after me.

This psalm shows us how active the shepherd is toward us, and this is another signal that the Lord himself is doing something extraordinary for us.

This sense grows stronger when we consider the two subjects in the pursuit: “goodness” and “mercy.” It is no accident that the two are used together here. Neither is an abstract noun that we can understand apart from God, as if the two are ethereal forces out there in the world; rather they are covenantal nouns. In Exodus 33 when the Lord tells Moses that he has found favor in his sight and that he knows Moses by name, Moses asks to see God’s glory. In response, God says: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19). God’s glory is revealed as his goodness and his name, and both are expressed in his covenant love to his redeemed people: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7).

In the exodus from Egypt, the people being rescued were pursued by the fury and tyranny of Pharaoh. In their ongoing rescue from sin, they were pursued in the wilderness by the goodness and mercy of their covenant Lord, who did not abandon them in their rebellion but kept making a way for their return to him. David knows that the “goodness” which pursues him is the covenant goodness of God: “You are good and do good” (Ps. 119:68). He knows that the “mercy” hot on his heels is the covenant mercy of God: it is hesed, the word for God’s steadfast love (as the ESV footnote records). This is his loving-kindness, his loyal, committed, faithful love. With this word, “the relational nature of the term cannot be overemphasized. It describes the duties, benefits, and commitments that one party bears to another party as a result of the relationship between them.”3 Peter Craigie says, “In a sense, the language of Exodus and wilderness which permeates the entire psalm comes to a head in the expression lovingkindness; the God of covenant, who in the past had expressed his lovingkindness to his people so bountifully in their redemption, would continue to do so in the future.”4

One of my favorite films is The Fugitive. Harrison Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, a man wrongly accused and sentenced to imprisonment for murdering his wife. Kimble escapes from custody and ends up on the run, determined to prove his innocence and clear his name. All the way through, he is hunted down by Tommy Lee Jones’s character, Samuel Gerard, a ruthless and determined police offer.

At the very end of the film (spoiler alert), in the showdown, there is a moment when Gerard shouts across the room to where Kimble is hiding: “I believe you—I know you didn’t kill your wife.”

God doesn’t have goodness or love that he might dispatch them; he is goodness and love.

In that moment, we see the relief wash over Kimble’s face. All his efforts have come good; he is vindicated and in the clear. Why? Because, as it turns out, the man who has been pursuing him is good. Kimble is being pursued not by a crooked cop but by a good one, a man capable of showing mercy to those in need. It changes everything.

When we see it or experience it personally, human goodness can be truly amazing. It can be life-giving and liberating.

So, too, steadfast love. In January 2022, Ron and Joyce Bond from Milton Keynes, England were in the news for being Britain’s longest-married couple. That month they were celebrating eighty-one years of married life together. They were 102 and 100 years old respectively. What made me smile the most as I read the story was their recounting how some people said on their wedding day that it would never last! I looked at pictures of them from that day and then looked at them on their eighty-first wedding anniversary, and I realized that what I was looking at was steadfast love. It was love that hadn’t gone anywhere other than after the other person. It was love that stayed and sought and stuck.

In Psalm 23 the words of verse 6 tell the most beautiful story. After all the focus on our following the good shepherd, we now look over our shoulder and see two things following us: goodness and steadfast love. This is God’s married love with which he pursues and woos his people. Such pursuit is delightful and honoring to the one so pursued.

It is common for preachers to envisage here “goodness” and “mercy” as being like two sheepdogs of the modern-day shepherd, dispatched by him to bring up the flock from the rear. Spurgeon imagines “great guardian angels” who “will always be with me at my back and my beck.”5 Dale Ralph Davis regards them as “two special agents” and “beloved denizens” whose attempts to overtake and waylay and dog David are a source of immense comfort to him.6

As powerful as all these images are, I think the text means to communicate something even more wonderful: these words are another way of saying that the Lord himself is pursuing us. They are his divine attributes, yes, but the fact that they are functioning as the joint subject of the verb points to their personification as a way of stressing that these words reveal the covenant Lord himself to us. In the same way that the words “Send out your light and truth; / let them lead me” (Ps. 43:3) is the psalmist’s way of asking God himself to lead him to his holy dwelling, so it is here. For God is his own attributes. God doesn’t have goodness or love that he might dispatch them; he is goodness and love. God sends these attributes after us as a way of giving us himself. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14). So when we put the beauty of these nouns and the intensiveness of the verb together with the sense that God sets out deliberately to have us experience him in our lives through his goodness and his steadfast love, the combined effect is the beautiful reality that it is the Lord himself who pursues his people.

Notes:

  1. Richard S. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 115.
  2. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd, 116.
  3. Nancy de Claissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 7–8; cited in Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd, 114.
  4. Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 208.
  5. Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 3 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 1:356.
  6. Dale Ralph Davis, Slogging Along in the Paths of Righteousness: Psalms 13–24 (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014), 171.

This article is adapted from The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion, and Host by David Gibson.



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