Actually, Goodness and Mercy Don’t Follow Us

God doesn’t have goodness or love that he might dispatch them; he is goodness and love. God sends these attributes after us as a way of giving us himself. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14). So when we put the beauty of these nouns and the intensiveness of the verb together with the sense that God sets out deliberately to have us experience him in our lives through his goodness and his steadfast love, the combined effect is the beautiful reality that it is the Lord himself who pursues his people.

Psalm 23:6 speaks about two things “following” us: goodness and mercy. Almost without exception, commentators on this verse point out that the verb “follow” is in fact a very weak rendering. Richard Briggs goes so far as to say that it is “the one word in the whole psalm that in my opinion has been persistently poorly translated in English.”1 Instead, at the very heart of the word is the meaning “pursue.” Goodness and mercy pursue David; they do not merely follow him. The word is so intensive, it is often used in combat scenes, where people are “pursued” to death, but the word itself is not negative and can be used in delightfully positive, instructive ways:

Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it. (Ps. 34:14)

In Psalm 23:6, says Briggs, “It is almost as if the verse attributes both agency and initiative to these divine characteristics here, whereas ‘follow’ might suggest a sort of tagging along with me. Instead, [God’s] goodness and mercy are dogged and determined in their pursuit.”2 God has sent them after me.

This psalm shows us how active the shepherd is toward us, and this is another signal that the Lord himself is doing something extraordinary for us.

This sense grows stronger when we consider the two subjects in the pursuit: “goodness” and “mercy.” It is no accident that the two are used together here. Neither is an abstract noun that we can understand apart from God, as if the two are ethereal forces out there in the world; rather they are covenantal nouns. In Exodus 33 when the Lord tells Moses that he has found favor in his sight and that he knows Moses by name, Moses asks to see God’s glory. In response, God says: “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19). God’s glory is revealed as his goodness and his name, and both are expressed in his covenant love to his redeemed people: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7).

In the exodus from Egypt, the people being rescued were pursued by the fury and tyranny of Pharaoh. In their ongoing rescue from sin, they were pursued in the wilderness by the goodness and mercy of their covenant Lord, who did not abandon them in their rebellion but kept making a way for their return to him. David knows that the “goodness” which pursues him is the covenant goodness of God: “You are good and do good” (Ps. 119:68). He knows that the “mercy” hot on his heels is the covenant mercy of God: it is hesed, the word for God’s steadfast love.

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