Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Psalm 23:6 (NIV)
In this Psalm of the Shepherd there is this curious verse. I always think of the shepherd as leading the sheep, and indeed in verses 2 and 3 “he leads me” and “he guides me.” But here goodness and mercy follow. What does that mean? It gets even more interesting when you look at the Hebrew meaning of the word. All of you who have ever chased down a two-year old heading for a busy street will understand this verse.
The Hebrew word translated “follow” in this verse is radaph – רָדַף. It means to run after or pursue. A couple of versions do translate it this way (NLT and Message). It is a much more passionate word than a wimpy English “follow,” like a puppy on a leash. Most people would not indifferently follow a toddler out into a busy street. Radaph means to follow after aiming eagerly to secure, pursue, chase down, pursue ardently, harass, persecute. Those last two meanings may sound weird in this context, but the word is actually mostly used in a hostile sense in the Bible, as in an enemy pursuing me – “The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground” (Psalm 143:3). It is also used a few times to describe the pursuit of righteousness or justice, as in Proverbs 21:21. “He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.”
Abraham (then Abram) and David, as foreshadowers of the Good Shepherd and types of the passionate heart of God, go after (radaph) and rescue family members that have been kidnapped.
During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing (radaph) them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people. (Genesis 14:15-16 NIV)
And He [the Lord] said to [David], “Pursue (radaph), for you will surely overtake them, and you will surely rescue all” … So David recovered all that the Amalekites had taken, and rescued his two wives. But nothing of theirs was missing, whether small or great, sons or daughters, spoil or anything that they had taken for themselves; David brought it all back. (1 Samuel 30:8, 18-19 NASB)
Both Abram and David recovered all. None were missing (see John 6:39, 10:29).
But, radaph is only used this one time in Psalm 23 for God in his goodness and mercy ardently pursuing us, chasing us down, so passionate and intense that it can feel like harassment or persecution. The NetBible Translator’s Notes explains this seeming paradox.
The use of רָדַף (radaf, “pursue, chase”) with טוֹב וָחֶסֶד (tov vakhesed, “goodness and faithfulness”) as subject is ironic. This is the only place in the entire OT where either of these nouns appears as the subject of this verb רָדַף (radaf, “pursue”). This verb is often used to describe the hostile actions of enemies. One might expect the psalmist’s enemies to chase him, but ironically God’s “goodness and faithfulness” (which are personified and stand by metonymy for God himself) pursue him instead. The word “pursue” is used outside of its normal context in an ironic manner and creates a unique, but pleasant word picture of God’s favor (or a kind God) “chasing down” the one whom he loves.
“Chasing down the one whom he loves!” That’s you and me – glorious love! And oh yes, I am sure that God has felt, many times in my life, like he was chasing down a fleeing two-year-old. And I have felt like that kid running away from restricting hands, laughing as I run out into traffic, angry as I am dragged back from what I wanted to do, my will, my plan. Totally not getting it.
Goodness and Mercy pursue me – yes! chase me down – all the days of my life! That I may dwell in your house, in your flock, forever.
What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? Matthew 8:12 (NASB)
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. Luke 19:10 (NIV)
Image Public Domain, By Emma Frances Logan, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61776928