Since the psalms were originally written in Hebrew, sometimes the translations are not as accurate as they could be.
In Psalm 23, we are accustomed to praying “Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.” But Chad Bird, an Old Testament scripture scholar, claims that the verb “radaph” in Hebrew, which is usually rendered as “follow,” is more accurately translated “chase after or pursue.”
Thus, Bird says, “The goodness and mercy of God don’t follow us like a good little puppy dog. They gallop after us like a celestial stallion. They chase us down labyrinthine paths like the hound of heaven.”
In his poem “The Hound of Heaven” Francis Thompson had the same idea in mind: “ 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 midst of tears/ I hid from Him . . .”
The image of God pursuing us “like a celestial stallion” is an intriguing one. It is not we who take the initiative, but rather God. We have all these thoughts about being unworthy or feeling that God will take away our freedom if we are caught. Yet all God wants is to shower us with His goodness and mercy.
“Who are we that you care for us?” the psalmist asks in another psalm, Psalm 8. We just can’t believe that God is so enamored with insignificant human beings like us. He might pursue important people like saints and martyrs or kings and rulers, but we see ourselves as nobodies. What could we offer God? That’s our human way of thinking.
But God created each one of us to be his special child. He sees each person as lovable, unique, beautiful. He does not tally up our sins or demand payment for our wrongdoings. Like a mother with her newborn child, God delights in how perfectly we are made. He lavishes his love upon us even when we are undeserving. He does not demand perfection.
I am reminded of a prisoner to whom I write and who is a “lifer.” He was an accomplice in a murder when he was a youth. He is now in his 60s. He reads the Bible every day and tries to be kind to his fellow inmates even when they are bullies. He says he is blessed and prays for all those in need. God chased him down in prison and filled his heart with goodness and mercy.
God does not just wait for us to come to Him. He is “hot on our heels.” This is hard for us to fathom and so we try to run away from God. Yet we cannot escape Him. He keeps chasing us all the way to heaven. As Bird expresses it: “The goodness and mercy of our Shepherd radaph us all the way to heaven’s gate and into the arms of our Father.”
I am sure we are going to be surprised to see some of the others in heaven when we arrive. All the beggars and prostitutes, the criminals and villains, the lame and the deaf, the wounded and the unbelievers, the rich and mighty, the poor and lowly.
All will be welcome in God’s House. We will share our stories of how God chased us like the “hound of heaven” or a “celestial stallion.” And we will give thanks that God’s goodness and mercy radaph(ed) us “all the way to heaven’s gate.”