He Leads Me in Paths of Righteousness"When we find ourselves on the right path, all glory is rightly directed to our Leader rather than the follower."
The final of the four blessings David groups together in this psalm builds once again on his experience as a shepherd. “He leads me in paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:2) helps the reader picture a shepherd leading a flock down a well-worn sheep trail toward the pasture where they will stop on their journey. This is the right path, a trusted path, a good path, known by the shepherd and perhaps even by the sheep. As David reflected on his life, he recalled moments when he could clearly sense that he was on the right path, closely following the Lord’s lead. At times in Israel’s history, the nation also closely followed God on those right paths. Perhaps, right now, you are in one of those seasons where you are on the right path.
The age-old challenge for those on the right path is to stay on it. We can become complacent, distracted and even bored. At times we can feel constrained and limited when we are on those well-worn right paths. We are sometimes tempted to escape the predictability of those righteous ruts and blaze our own trail. Like a child who explores their limits, we are tempted to extend a toe off the edge to see what it is like. The paths are there for a good reason.
As Timothy Lanisk writes, “In the familiar image of Psalm 23, the Divine Shepherd guides the psalmist on the right trails, on paths of righteousness. These are the ‘righteous ruts’ or tracks that lead us safely out to pasture and safely home again.” Nonetheless, there are scores of examples of people who were on the right path but got diverted or distracted from God’s guidance.
- Following a decisive victory over the Amalekite Army, King Saul steps off the path and fails to devote to destruction all of the animals of the Amalekites and has to be confronted by Samuel the prophet (1 Samuel 14).
- After a miraculous collapse of the fortified walls of Jericho and Israel’s total destruction of the city, Akin veered off the path and got distracted by shiny trinkets which led to disaster in the next battle (Joshua 7).
- Even David, despite all of his mighty deeds and close relationship with God, got toppled by his own passionate desires.
David knew first-hand how easy it is to be knocked off of the right path and be distracted from following the Shepherd. He uses an unusual word for path in Psalm 23. The Hebrew word MaGal literally means “a camp in a circle configuration for military defense.” David is saying that the Shepherd leads him on the guarded paths of righteousness.
It is comforting to know that the Lord simply does not only point us down the paths of righteousness but also acts as a sentinel, providing protection and security along the way.
This does not mean that dangers and distractions disappear. Anyone who has followed the Lord long enough knows this full well. Just as sheep find it very easy to stray off the path under their own power, so it is remarkably easy for humans to stray off the path. One songwriter describes humans as “prone to wander.” Isaiah sees it as a universal problem. He laments that:
“All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.”Isaiah 53:6 NLT
Some sheep wander slowly and move away from the right path in nearly imperceptible increments, others sprint away. It starts with a step toward the next clump of delicious grass. For us human sheep, it can begin with a curious step toward a distraction or a careless thought. It can be difficult to clearly identify the actual moment when we began to wander. The wanderer wakes up one day and realizes just how far he or she has strayed. I think of the Prodigal of the New Testament and Samson of the Old Testament as examples of those who with much pride and strength sprinted off the right path. Whether at a sprint or a crawl, the destination is the same—lostness.
The Lord has a particularly tender heart toward lost sheep. I am grateful for this. David gives a great sense of hope to all wandering sheep when he affirms that the Lord guides him in the paths of righteousness. As far as David had wandered, he was but one step away from returning to the safe and guarded paths of righteousness. Samuel Logan Brengle notes that “I do not consider myself beyond the possibility of falling. I know I stand by faith and must watch and pray lest I enter into temptation and take heed lest I fall. Yet, in view of all God’s marvelous…tender mercies to me, I constantly sing, with the Apostle Jude: ‘Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling…’”
Brengle is right to join Jude in praising the Lord for His protection and for helping him not to stray from the right path. It is not simply for our benefit that the Lord leads us on the right path. It is for His name’s sake that He leads us. One commentator has said that the Lord “does so partly because of His reputation.” The Lord has such supreme confidence that the path He has laid out for us is the right one that He stakes His reputation on it.
When we follow along the paths of righteousness, we bring glory to the Lord and to His great name. There is a key lesson for us here. When we find ourselves on the right path, all glory is rightly directed to our Leader rather than the follower.
Lt. Colonel Dan Jennings is Divisional Commander for the Army’s Northern Division, with headquarters in Roseville, MN. He earned a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO.