I remember how blue the sky was in January 2010 when we climbed to the top of Herodium, a fortress built by Herod the Great in Israel, not too far outside Bethlehem. It was the clear blue sky of a desert day in spring—not the gloomy gray of January in the Midwest. I remember the sand in my shoes and the strain in my calves from the incline. And I remember how we gathered round to read Psalm 23 as we gazed out over the homeland of David—not the conquering warrior king, but the shepherd boy who had yet to kill the giant.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
When I was growing up, I always pictured those “green pastures” as the rolling hills and long green grasses my family encountered every time we went to the high mountain valleys of the Colorado Rockies. The still waters were the crystal clear streams, cooled by melting snow.
But here atop Herodium, no green pastures or still waters were in sight. All around, all we could see was sky and sand—and the occasional tuft of green poking its way out of the dirt. We watched a shepherd lead his flock across the desert, and for the first time, the absolute trust a sheep must have in its shepherd hit home for me. The sheep doesn’t have the slightest idea where to begin looking for water in the desert—it has to trust the shepherd to lead it where it needs to go.
Earlier this year, I blogged about my desire for 2016 to be a year of new beginnings. It was a theme I had felt God lay on my heart, and when Isaiah 43:18-19 came up three different times within a period of about five days in early 2016, it seemed like a confirmation of that theme.
This is what the LORD says . . . “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
For a couple months, it was easy to see and dream about new things in my life. But then, suddenly and without warning, everything seemed to stall. I was frustrated and in my hurt kept asking God, Where are the new things you promised?
I’ve read Isaiah 43 many times in the last six months, but a couple weeks ago, I noticed something. See, I am doing a new thing. . . . I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
These verses presuppose the desert. They presuppose the wasteland. When the Lord spoke to Israel in these verses, they weren’t living in the green valleys of Colorado. They were in the desert.
Somehow I missed that part the first time through these verses.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the desert lately and how often it shows up in the Bible. The people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land. David hid in the wilderness from Saul. John the Baptist lived in the desert until the Lord told him it was time to prepare the way for Jesus. In turn, the desert was a place of punishment, protection, and preparation. *
The desert is not a fun place to be. It’s a land of heat and sweat and dry throats and burning tongues. Sometimes the sand stings your eyes, and it’s hard to breathe. But the desert has one redeeming, praise-inspiring quality.
The Lord is there.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.
I see His Presence in Isaiah 43 as well, just a few verses before He tells Israel to look for the new thing He is doing in the desert.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
He is with me in the storm, and He is with me in the fire, and He is with me in the desert. I hope and pray for the new thing, but for now, I will walk with Him, waiting to see what He has for me here, in the desert.
*Thanks to my friend Amy Green for loaning me some of her thoughts on the theme of desert in the Bible!