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The Radical Shepherd - He Turns My Life Around

This episode, based on Psalm 23.3, complements the previous episode which focused on Psalm 23.2.  We find from a study of the Hebrew text that the phrase "He restores my soul" involves far more than we think it does. These thoughts were triggered by an article written by Rabbi Pesach Wolicki.



In my last podcast/blog, I referred to Psalm 23.2, where David says that his Shepherd leads him beside the "still" or tranquil waters and noted that the Hebrew literally says "the waters of a resting place". "Rest" in the Bible, however, is not the absence of work or trouble, but a dependence on God in every circumstance. The name "Noah" means "rest" and his life was anything but free of work, and his generation was marked by violence, so much so that God had to eliminate the entire human race from the face of the earth to restore a measure of peace. As I mentioned in that episode, the Hebrew word for the "violence" that filled the earth in Noah's day is "hamas". The point is that, even in the times of the worst social disorder, Noah demonstrated the rest God wants each of us to have.


 Moving on to the next verse of Psalm 23 in the KJV, we learned from childhood the words, "He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake." At this point, I acknowledge that I owe the core thinking behind this meditation to the words of Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Stone's Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. I receive a daily devotional article from him, which includes a passage from the Hebrew text of the Israel Bible, with an English translation and a pronunciation guide for readers who do not read the Hebrew script. As is the case when I listen to any exposition of the Bible, whether by Jewish rabbis or renowned evangelical pastors, my agreement with their interpretations is based on my own understanding of the text and the overall teaching of the Bible. While I may have cause to reject the interpretations of rabbis for obvious reasons having to do with the institution of the New Covenant through Jesus, I am an avid student of Hebrew and acutely aware of the complexities of the language. I must yield to their knowledge of the original language and carefully ponder the way they define the words and phrases of the original text. Rabbi Wolicki's rendering of the first phrase in this verse was most enlightening.


"He restores my soul," says our translation, but Rabbi Wolicki points out that the verbal form in Hebrew translated "restores" is found only 12 times in the entire Old Testament, and it is not translated "restore" anywhere else. The basic meaning of the word is "to turn in a certain direction". In Jeremiah 8.5, God's people have "turned away." In Jeremiah 50.6, the shepherds of Israel have "guided [God's people] the wrong way" (HCSB), or "turned them away on the mountains" (KJV). In Isaiah 47.10, God says to Israel, "Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee" (KJV) "Your wisdom and knowledge led you astray" (HCSB).


In these contexts, the connotation is negative. The people turn away or are led away in the wrong direction. But in Ezekiel 38.3-4 and 39.2, God uses this word to say what He will do to Gog, the ruler of Magog, who will attack Israel in the final days. " ‘This is what the Lord God says: Look, I am against you, Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Verse 4 I will turn you around, put hooks in your jaws, and bring you out with all your army, including horses and riders." He repeats this prophecy in 39.2 "I will turn you around, drive you on, and lead you up from the remotest parts of the north. I will bring you against the mountains of Israel."


But our context in Psalm 23 is far different from the passages above. Rabbi Wolicki concludes that a better translation of Psalm 23.3 would be, "He turns my soul around." The original text supports that rendering, but what about the context of the Psalm and the Bible, in general?


This psalm is full of references to the Lord leading and guiding in verse 2, we read, "He leads me beside still waters", then the second part of our verse adds, "He leads me in paths of righteousness", literally, "along straight paths." We, like sheep, have gone astray, and for us to be led in straight paths, it is obvious that the Lord, our Shepherd, has had to turn our souls around, in many ways and on many occasions, even after we have accepted His offer of salvation and have become His children by faith in Jesus.


It's in John 10 in the NT that we find Jesus' revelation of Himself as the Good Shepherd, and in Luke 19.10, at Zacchaeus's house, Jesus said, "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost." But most people today reject the idea that they are lost. They don't need finding; they don't need saving. Luke 15 focuses on how greatly God the Father is interested in saving the lost.


This chapter contains three parables of "lostness". I see different types of being lost represented in them. A sheep, a coin, and a son are all said to be lost, but they are not lost in the same way.


Let's think about the coin the woman lost. I lost my favorite pocketknife earlier this year when we were clearing the woods around our house. My pocketknife is lost, but that is a passive lostness. By that I mean the pocketknife didn't lose itself. The woman's coin didn't lose itself. The woman's joy in finding the lost coin is representative of the joy in heaven when a sinner repents, but let's be careful not to stretch the application of the parable too far. The coin didn't repent, and God is not a celestial Bo Peep who lost his sheep somewhere in the dark vast universe and doesn't know where to find us. It’s the woman's dedication in looking for the coin that’s a reminder that the finding of what is lost has everything to do with God and nothing to do on our part. We only find God because He finds us. I'm still waiting for my pocketknife to find me, but I’m not holding my breath until it does. The woman says, "Rejoice with me, because I have found the silver coin I lost." She had lost her coin, but God never loses anything or anyone. As Jesus was being arrested, He ensured that none of His disciples would be taken with Him. “This was to fulfill the words He had said: “I have not lost one of those You have given Me.” (John 18.9) The main point of this parable is to highlight joy God experiences when a lost person comes to Him.


The passive lost vs. the active lost

But no parable or illustration in the Bible can fully express all the facets of our relationship with God, so there are many parables relating to the same point. I believe the parable of the lost sheep in this chapter, like that of the lost coin, is misnamed. They should be called the Parable of the Woman's Joy at finding the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Shepherd's Joy at saving the Lost Sheep.


The two parables present two different sides of lostness. The woman FOUND the coin; the shepherd SAVED the sheep. The coin's lostness was passive…the woman lost the coin, it didn't lose itself. The sheep, on the other hand, is an active lostness. The sheep wandered off the path, it went astray. Perhaps it was led astray, but it turned away on its own legs and of its own will. The lost sheep represents us better than the lost coin. But like the first parable, this one teaches us that the saving of the lost depended on the dedication of the shepherd and not the efforts of the sheep.


But to complete the lesson, there has to be a third parable. The coin can't walk; the sheep can walk, but it can't repent. The third story, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, adds that element to the lesson. Again, there is the main emphasis on the joy of the Father when the lost is found. But unlike the sheep that may have wandered off due to carelessness or distraction, the younger son made a deliberate decision to leave the Father's house. He left of his own will. His return depended on his willingness to turn around, which was motivated by the circumstances of starvation in a pigsty. That turning around is called "repentance". But there's one more person in this parable who represents another type of lostness. This parable was specifically addressed to the Pharisees, represented by the elder brother. Our Bibles add the title The Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it is just as much the Parable of the Elder Son. He, too, was lost. Although he was still at home, he was lost in his pride and feelings of superiority. He boasted of his close relationship to his father, at least outwardly, but his heart was far from his father's heart, and unlike his wayward brother, he showed no sign of turning around. It was true of the Pharisees then, and it’s true of the Pharisees of every generation since.


In his article, Rabbi Wolicki cites God's words in the Garden of Eden as He went out to meet Adam. "Where are you?" God asked, but He knew exactly where Adam was. He wanted Adam to ask himself the question, "Where, indeed, am I?" This was the question the prodigal son finally answered for himself in the far-off land. "Here I am, starving in a pigpen."  He also realized where he wasn't, "Even the slaves in my father's house have plenty to eat. I'm going to get up and go back to my father."


Given our natural state of lostness, and the context of Psalm 23, I think the translation, "He turns my soul around", is far more powerful than "He restores my soul." In fact, I'm going to go a step further, with apologies to Rabbi Wolicki. The Hebrew word for "soul" is "nephesh". That word is most often translated "soul" (NAS - 238 times), but the second most frequent translation is "life" (146). What about translating the verse, "He turns my life around." My life needs more than a rest. My life needs more than kind words and consolation, as important as they are. My life needs turning around so I will walk in the paths of righteousness (literally, in straight paths). And that is the comfort offered by the staff with a crook the Shepherd uses to pull us back from the abyss when we wander and from the quicksand of sin when we stray. In another psalm, David sang, "He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure." Psalm 40.2


“He turns my life around; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake.” Those last four words are extremely important. They admonish us to remember that God does not save us so we will be comforted and free of trouble now and escape eternal damnation in eternity. He does it to demonstrate His goodness and grace, His mercy and lovingkindness, so that we creatures will give Him all the glory now and forevermore. My heart is filled with praise, because the LORD is my shepherd, and He not only restores my soul, He turns my life around.

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