Enemies at Your Table
Dr. Connie Befus
Yup! Your enemies—and mine—are right there at our dining table, according to Psalm 23. And apparently the Good Shepherd does not make them go away.
This truth has been there among the gold mine of metaphors in “The Shepherd’s Psalm,” but I had not really absorbed it until recently. The part of the psalm I’m referring to reads like this:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
(Psalm 23:4, 5, NIV)
Fear No Evil
I had noticed that in verse 4 the psalmist says he will fear no evil. He does not say there will be no evil. He only asserts that he will not be afraid of it. We might like to think the verse means that evil will be held at bay, but it does not say that. In fact, I think the psalmist (David, the shepherd boy who became king of Israel) created this psalm precisely because he was facing enemies and he needed reassurance that the Lord would take care of him.
So, in the midst of evil, in the midst of the darkest valley of all, why wouldn’t David be afraid? “Because you are with me,” he wrote.
I have read that God’s promise to be “with us” is the most repeated promise in the Bible. And I understand why that is critical because we human beings have a deep, primeval fear that we will be abandoned: that we will be left alone in the dark or be so shamed and rejected that we will disintegrate into nothing. Here’s the promise the psalmist reminds us of: that will not happen. We will never be abandoned; we will not disintegrate into nothing. The Shepherd’s rod and staff are his reassuring touches, even in the dark, that he is there, he is in control, and he is with us.
Enemies at My Table
But the metaphor of the next verse of Psalm 23, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” is a vivid reminder of how close and constant evil can be. David, both as shepherd boy, and as king of Israel, constantly dealt with enemies. And so do we! Just as David did, we need our Good Shepherd—not only in the valley of the shadow of death, but all the time. “At the table” means right where I eat. Right where I live. In my home! Somehow our Good Shepherd allows our enemies right into the dining room.
This is disconcerting, yet rings true to our experience, doesn’t it? Who are your enemies? People who attack, criticize or trouble you? Are your enemies worry? Cancer? Diabetes? Bills you can’t pay? Addiction? Children or parents you worry about? We have enemies, and here they are at the table, and there is no indication in the psalm that they are going away.
“YOU Prepare a Table…”
But it is a fascinating metaphor because, although the enemies are here in the dining room, at the table, the table is prepared by the Lord, by our Good Shepherd. “YOU prepare a table before me…” wrote the psalmist. It is his table; the table and the dining room belong to our Lord.
In Scripture, the provision of food, of a banquet, is an important and repeated theme. In this case, what does the meal or banquet imply? In ancient middle eastern culture, a host was to welcome any guest, friend, or stranger, and extend both lavish hospitality and protection while the guest was under his roof. As our Lord’s guest, at his table, then, we are generously provided for and under his protection.
The table our Lord lays before us implies physical provision, our “daily bread.” It also implies spiritual provision: our salvation, our sanctification, all we need for “life and godliness.” And therefore, emotional provision as well: strength for the day, grace for the current trial.
At our Lord’s table, we also live under his protection. The enemies are there, yes. We are painfully aware of them. But they are only present by our Lord’s sufferance. They cannot do anything he does not allow.
He Anoints My Head
Not only that, but the host at this table “anoints my head with oil.” In the time of David, anointing had several meanings. A shepherd, whose duties David knew well, used oil as ointment to protect the sheep’s eyes, nose, and mouth from annoying gnats; used oil as medicine on wounds; used oil for cleansing when soap and water were not available. This was, please notice, a very “hands-on” kind of care: the shepherd handled his sheep intimately. We, then, in the midst of our enemies, receive the personal touch and tender loving care of our Shepherd.
The other connotation of anointing with oil was a spiritual and relational one: a person so anointed was set apart and designated as special, as chosen and equipped for a particular service. Such anointing was a sign of favor and honor. In the presence of our enemies, then, we are provided a rich banquet; we are cared for and healed; and we are clearly claimed as our Lord’s favored and honored servants.
My Cup Overflows
But it doesn’t stop there. “My cup overflows,” writes the psalmist. Again, the metaphor implies both bounty and generosity: the host has plenty of wine and he is not stingy with it. And he is certainly lavish as he fills our cup. I have read that in the ancient middle east a guest was welcome as long as the host kept filling their cup; if the filling stopped, it was time for the guest to leave. If the psalmist had this tradition in mind, then imagine the implication of our cup overflowing: we are not only welcome, but perpetually welcome! Enemies may come and go, but we stay. We belong in the host’s presence.
It does seem strange, but all of us know by experience that God isn’t removing our enemies yet. Sometimes we are healed, yes. At times we see supernatural provision. We see some enemies sent packing. But other enemies never leave, and if one does, another may take its place at the table.
So there they are, our enemies: right in the dining room. I don’t like it a bit.
But this psalm reassures us that, in spite of the very real presence of those enemies, and the temptation to fear them, God provides for us in every important way. He is with us. He feeds us—physically and spiritually. He tends our wounds. He chooses us, anointing us with favor and blessing and salvation. He fills our cups over and over to show we belong, we are welcome, we are wanted. And he replenishes our constantly emptying cup with the strength and grace we need.
Pursued by Goodness
Then, verse 6! “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” We will live at home in love and mercy always. I have read commentaries that suggest that the Hebrew word sometimes translated “follow” in verse 6 can be translated “pursue.” That would mean we are pursued by God’s love and mercy, that we are not going to get away from his tender loving care, no matter what.
No abandonment. No disintegration. Through Jesus, we already live “at home” in love and mercy. We are going to be pursued by more and more of that love and mercy all our lives. And then we will live in that love and mercy forever. Wow!
Right now, paradoxically, our enemies get to be in the dining room—right at the table. Their presence is distracting and disconcerting, to say the least.
But here’s the thing: it’s not their house. It’s not their table. They may be present, but they cannot do anything my heavenly father doesn’t let them do. And that’s my dad, at the head of the table; he loves me and he’s in charge of the dining room. One word from him and those enemies are outta here.
I wish he would give that word.
But in the meantime, even with enemies at my dining table, I don’t need to be afraid. My heavenly dad is right here,and on my side. Always. In front of my enemies, he repeatedly affirms that he has chosen me, welcomes me, approves of me, and will care for me.
My challenge is to stop focusing on the enemies and remember whose table it is.
Dr. Connie Befus
Congregational Care Coordinator
Dr. Befus began serving as Congregational Care Coordinator at FPC in May of 2017. Before moving to Lakeland, Connie, who is a psychologist, served as Director of Member Care for missions organizations. Connie and her husband, David, also served in various ministries in Latin America for more than 17 years. Connie earned her Master’s in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami, Florida. She grew up in Africa as the child of missionary parents and has lived in seven countries. David and Connie have a son and daughter, both married, and one grandchild. Connie enjoys occasionally consulting or providing workshops for mission agencies and loves to read, walk, or garden.