Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life
In the Lord's own house shall I dwell
For the rest of my days.
Reflection - So, here I am, back from giving the MH England staff a retreat in nearby Filey, just south of Scarborough, right on the North Sea. The retreat was beautiful, but the weather was ghastly - cold arctic winds continually blowing off the sea with rain and sleet and snow mixed in with it. So much for an English spring!
Fortunately, the Lord's goodness and mercy were not thrown off the track by all that, and followed us there through all the storms and nastiness. And that is the point of these first lines of the poem: no matter what, no matter what difficulties, problems, conflicts, tensions, even sins we are bedevilled with... God is with us.
This was true for the inspired writer of the psalm, whoever and wherever he was. How much more true it is for us, now that Christ has come. God became man, and man has never been alone since, not really. Oh, we don't always feel that way. Maybe we don't 'feel' it often at all. But it is so. Emmanuel has come, God is with us.
The second last verse of the psalm is all about this never-failing fidelity of God. Goodness and mercy follow us all our lives long. Goodness--that in every situation, in any circumstance, there is a good choice to be made, a way of righteousness through it. It may be (usually is) difficult; it may involve sacrifice, may even involve martyrdom, but there it is.
And mercy -- when we fail (often), there is mercy from God, compassion from heaven, help given to stand up again when we stumble and fall. Our whole life is bound up with goodness and mercy, the constant call to do the right thing, and constant succor when we fall woefully short of that right thing. All of this is God's shepherding of us, and Christ the Good Shepherd leads us on our way.
But the last verse of the psalm is where it opens up to an even deeper 'shepherding'. In the context of the original psalm and its time, it probably meant having access to the temple of God in Jerusalem always, being able to enter in and offer worship, and never being deprived of this to the point of death. There was little awareness of eternal life in early Judaism.
But for us... the Lord's house has a different meaning, and 'the rest of our days' has a slightly longer scope now. The Good Shepherd is leading us, not to a happy earthly life, not even to a godly virtuous earthly life, but to heaven. We are living in the Lord's own house even now (the life of grace and ecclesial communion) but will experience that house as a true house, a visible tangible home, a genuine way of life and love that we cannot imagine now, but has been assured to us by the Lord.
This is the point of the whole affair, of God's shepherding work, the deep meaning of the sheepfold God leads us towards. All the rest of the psalm - the dark valleys and cool pastures, the still waters and right paths, terminate here. We are going to heaven... at least, if God has anything to say about the matter. Seek his goodness, ask for his mercy, and keep following Him no matter what... and we'll be all right. We really will be, you know.