The Hound(s) of Heaven
Psalm 23 begins with these familiar words: The Lord is my shepherd.
Of course, you realize, by saying “the Lord is my shepherd,” you’re admitting that you are a sheep. That implies that you know something about sheep (and not just that they’re where sweaters come from). Sheep are not terribly respectable animals. There are no sports teams named after sheep, with the exception of Fort Collins High School: the “lambkins.” (Grrr.) Sheep are not self-monitoring. They have a strong tendency to get into trouble, to become lost. A shepherd must take a very active role in leading them.
So enter the Border Collie. This dog runs around the flock and keeps them together, not just for the sake of keeping them under control, but so to lead them to places of blessing: green pasture, still waters, along paths of righteousness. This can be very hard and painful work—for both the sheepdog and the sheep. But it’s worth it, because GOD HAS OUR BEST INTERESTS AT HEART.
Like a dog, any dog, GOD IS FIERCELY LOYAL.
If you go to Edinburgh, Scotland, to Greyfriars Churchyard, you’ll see a statue of a Skye Terrier named Greyfriars Bobby. He belonged to a man named John Gray. When Mr. Gray died, he was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard. For the next 14 years, until his own death, Greyfriars Bobby slept on his master's grave.
Have you ever seen that bumper sticker says, “If only I could be half as wonderful as my dog thinks I am!” King David, who wrote psalm 23, knows this. Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, David writes, you are with me. You think the Old Testament is for Law and the New Testament for gospel? Think again. This is a marvelous summary of the gospel. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
When God became human in Jesus of Nazareth, God came as Immanuel, “God with us.” And not God with us to make us prosper, or God with us to give us victory, but God with us through thick and thin, especially through the darkest valley: the cross. You may be in that valley today, or maybe you’ve already been through it once or twice. Or maybe you’re being prepared to go through it. In any case, take heart. God is fiercely loyal.
The 23rd psalm is so familiar to us, and for good reason. It’s incredibly beautiful and poetic and comforting. It’s no wonder it’s often read at funerals. It’s so familiar to many of us that we can miss some of the riches in it. Take for example verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” This is often read to mean that no matter where we go or what we do, God will bless us and our lives with divine sweetness. That’s beautiful, but it’s not true. (And we know it.)
There’s a verb in this verse that’s very interesting. It’s the Hebrew word radaph. Ever since the King James Version of the Bible came out in 1611, it’s been translated “follow,” as if God’s blessings are sure to follow us like baby gifts after a birth. The truth is that radaph means “follow” only in a very general sense. Specifically, radaph means “to persecute, to pursue, to chase, to hunt, to hound.” Get the picture? Radaph is almost never used in a positive way. Battle scenes? Lots of radaph-ing.
King David, the shepherd who knew that God was his shepherd, knew that God leads us and works us like a sheepdog or a border collie; he knew that God is as loyal as a Skye Terrier; and he knew that God chases after us like a bloodhound.
This is the third thing this great psalm teaches us: GOD PURSUES US DOGGEDLY.
The dog I had when I was a young boy was a bloodhound named Beauregard; he was amazing. Bloodhounds, you may know, have been bred for their remarkable sense of smell (since the 8th century!). Bloodhounds can smell parts per billion in the air, days after a person has passed through an area, and even across water. The Bloodhound is the only animal whose evidence is admissible in a court of law. They are “a nose with feet.”
We used to play a little game with Beauregard. We lived out in the country, and I would hike far, far back into the woods and hide myself as best as I could. Later, my dad would give Beauregard a sniff of one of my shirts or a baseball cap and tell him to go find me. Without fail, every time, no matter how far away I ran, no matter how lost I got, he ran straight to me, jowls dripping with slobber. I’d throw my arms around his neck and he’d lick my face.
Francis Thompson wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven.” It’s about how in his own life Jesus Christ pursued and hunted him down with grace.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated, down Titanic glooms of chasmed fears, From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
This is the way we are sometimes. But God, in his amazing love, keeps running after us, nose to the ground.
Is the Hound of Heaven chasing you down and finding you in these vulnerable days we’re living in? It’s not a game, is it? You can say no, but he will not give up. You cannot shake him off your trail. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that God is pursuing us, especially if your understanding of God is some kind of drowsy ethicist.
But meet Jesus Christ, the fully alive Hound of Heaven, who was released to gather his flock and lead them to places of blessing. The Hound of Heaven, who is fiercely loyal, even into the darkest valleys. The Hound of Heaven, who relentlessly tracks and chases down those whom he seeks.
Bob Jacobs is Pastor of Westminster Church, Rapid City. Check out his personal blog at www.brittlecrazyglass.wordpress.com.