As a boy memorizing the 23rd Psalm, I thought the Psalm ended by promising three things would always follow me: surely, goodness, and mercy. It was the way I was taught to enunciate the words, pausing between each as if there was a comma between surely and goodness. As I was reading the passage out of the Bible one day it struck me, the Psalm ends with a bold confession that no matter what, God’s goodness and mercy will follow us. Surely was not one more item in a list, but confidence in God’s steadfast journey with us. Surely God will follow us with goodness and mercy.
It was not until I was in seminary, studying Hebrew, that I realized just how strong that confession is. The old English translation, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me,” made me think of how my dog used to wander around behind me. Sometimes the dog would get distracted by squirrels, or chase birds taking off from the ground. Always the dog would come back. I began to think of God’s goodness and mercy as dependable companions like my dog, ambling on behind me, sometimes taking off in different directions but always finding me. Surely God’s goodness and mercy would follow along. I learned the Hebrew text uses a strong verb to describe God pursuing us, not simply ambling on behind us.
The idea of God pursuing us is reinforced by the Psalmist’s use of the word Chesed. Chesed is the word often translated mercy in the Psalm. Chesed is translated in other places as loving kindness, covenant love, deep love. Chesed is used to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Chesed is God’s love that does not give up on us but keeps searching for us as God wandered through the garden of Eden calling out until Adam and Eve finally step out of hiding.
Perhaps what causes us to lose sight of the strong confession at the end of Psalm 23 is the way the Psalm lulls us to think that all is peace and calm. We focus on the green pastures, the still waters, and we believe the Psalm merely describes a peaceful stroll with God. However, Psalm 23 also talks about the valley of the shadow of death and sitting down at a table with enemies. The Psalmist is aware that journeying with God does not guarantee that all will be peace and calm. The Psalm bears witness to a faith that no matter where we travel, in peaceful pastures or dark valleys, God will not leave us on our own. Indeed God will pursue us with goodness and love.