‘He leads me in the paths of righteousness’ (Psalm 23:3)
The Lord our shepherd leads his sheep into all righteousness. From the moment of our new birth as children of God and at each key juncture of our pilgrimage through this world – at the dawn of each new day and at every single step throughout our lives – the Lord is there, directing us towards and along a path of righteousness.
The path of righteousness is narrow and is accessed solely through the ‘open gate’ of Jesus Christ himself. Consequently, the righteousness of this path is the Lord’s own righteousness.
To a holy God, our human ‘righteousness’ is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), so we can never boast of having any genuine goodness of our own. Yet we can boast of possessing the righteousness of God himself – a righteousness imputed to us gratuitously in and through Jesus Christ.
Being justified by faith in Christ’s finished work- in his death on the cross and in his resurrection – we are both deemed righteous and declared righteous. Therefore, the Bible exhorts us to live henceforth as righteous people.
The path of righteousness is altogether different from the ‘broad way’ of destruction trodden by the countless millions who follow the course of this world and walk in wilful opposition to God.
In contrast, those who frequent the path of righteousness are few in number. Yet the ‘little flock’ that follow Christ quickly find that the path they tread slopes heavenwards. It brings them into ever closer reliance on and communion with their Lord.
The fruits of righteousness
The Good Shepherd who leads us also teaches us to walk only in the path of right-eousness. He will lead our lives along no other route. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness in all that we do, think and say.
We are to submit to the rule of our Sovereign, who wields the sceptre of righteousness. In following Christ, we are to walk in the light as he is in the light – and not stray outside the confines of his righteousness, holiness and glory.
As branches abiding in the true vine, we are to be filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ (John 15:1-8; Philippians 1:11). That is, by walking in Christ’s footsteps, and in his presence, we experience the transforming power of his Spirit in our lives and are changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). The path of righteousness is the only route to Christlikeness.
It is incredibly stimulating to ponder that the Good Shepherd goes ahead, setting before us his own righteous standards and bidding us walk in accord with them. The Lord spreads before us a panoramic view of his righteous, holy and perfect will – and prompts us to do that will, just as it is done in heaven. We are privileged to walk on earth a path paved with the righteousness of Christ.
Faltering and failing
Yet, in spite of our best efforts and spiritual aspirations, our progress on the road of righteousness is often laboured. The good we want to do is left undone, and the evil we detest becomes a besetting sinful habit. Instead of striding triumphantly onwards and upwards in our spiritual walk, we halt and stumble on the way.
The sure, firm steps of faith and obedience can peter out, as we first falter, then fail and on occasions even fall back. Like foolish sheep we have a tendency to stray. Too often we turn our backs both on our Lord and on his way.
The stresses of daily life buffet us. An uncompromising world seeks to squeeze us into its own godless mould. The sin in our own life strives against our ‘inner man’ with seemingly irrepressible power.
Meanwhile, the cunning strategies of Satan both confuse and confound us. And as these streams of opposition converge, they threaten to overwhelm our faith with a floodtide of failure and hopelessness.
Our predicament is amplified by the dearth of support and sympathetic fellowship – for our fellow pilgrims are few indeed and far between. Consequently, to our shame, much of our time seems to be spent, not walking the path of righteousness and glory, but wallowing in the gutter of unrighteousness and guilt.
And where can succour be found when a sense of failure and discouragement threatens to extinguish the hope that flickers in our soul? ‘Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:6).
The shepherd knows his sheep
While God’s righteous standards were unambiguously set before him, the psalmist also realised that God’s goodness and mercy followed behind. Preceded by righteousness he was nevertheless pursued by mercy.
We too need to affirm that Christ (to use a sporting metaphor) never lowers the bar regarding righteousness. He calls us to rise up to and meet the highest standards of character and conduct.
In setting such a high standard he also bestows upon us every spiritual blessing – through his Word and his Spirit – that we might be holy and blameless before him. In the light of all that Christ is and has done for us, we have no excuse for not walking the path of righteousness in which he leads us.
And yet along with David, we too can joyfully acknowledge that our Good Shepherd constantly and gratuitously favours sinners with his goodness and mercy. His knowledge regarding his sheep is all-compassing and is based on first-hand personal experience.
He knows his own sheep far better than we know him. He knows that we are frail creatures of clay and that we resist the shaping of the potter’s hands. He knows full well that we are wandering sheep at heart and prone to stray. And yet (this is the marvel) he loves us still, in spite of knowing our every transgression, failure and sin.
Overtaken by goodness and mercy
Due to this perfect knowledge, and his sacrificial love for his sheep, he is able to both anticipate and redress the diversions from righteousness that hinder our walk and mar our souls. On the one hand, righteousness precedes us, showing us the loftiness of our high calling in Christ. But on the other hand, goodness and mercy pursue us, gently ministering to us as we sin and fall short of the glory of God.
This combination of God’s goodness and mercy answers every need of the repentant sinner. Divine mercy ensures that we do not receive the punishment we justly deserve, whilst divine goodness proffers the good things we do not deserve. Such is the matchless grace of God!
Not only does he forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness; not only does he transplant us from the kingdom of darkness into the eternal kingdom of his dear Son; but he also makes us recipients and heirs of the blessing of Abraham – the promised Holy Spirit and the unsearchable riches of Christ.
What tremendous encouragement this is for all those earnest, struggling pilgrims whose footsteps falter on the path of right-eousness – to know that the goodness and mercy of God stalks their every step!
And if, as a consequence of pondering the righteousness, goodness and mercy of God, we are consoled and built up in Christ, then we are profited and he is praised. May Hopeful’s words in Pilgrim’s Progress be ours too: ‘Let grace be adored, and let me be ashamed’.