And it is to this kind of table that the Psalmist refers when he sings of the feast of the sheep. He means nothing more than that he has provided for his flock in the face of their enemies a rich pasture, a spreading slope, where they shall feed with contentment and peace, in spite of the evils that surround them.
But the quiet and peace which the sheep enjoy, while partaking of their spread-out banquet, are entirely owing to the protecting presence of the shepherd. And it frequently happens that here again the utmost skill and diligence of the shepherd are called into play in thus securing the peace and safety of his flock. The most abundant pastures are many times interspersed with noxious weeds and plants, which, if eaten, would sicken and poison the herd; while around the feeding places and grazing grounds very often lie hid, in thickets and holes and caves in the hillsides, wild animals, such as jackals, wolves and panthers, ready to spring out, at the critical moment, and devour the innocent sheep. The shepherd is aware of all these evils and enemies of his tender flock; and he goes ahead and prepares the way, avoiding the poisonous grasses, and driving away, or slaying, if need be, the beasts that menace the peace and security of the pasture. The evils are not entirely dispelled, but only sufficiently removed or held in check so as not to imperil the flock.
Such is the table prepared for the sheep by their provident and watchful shepherd; and such is the feast of which they partake with quiet joy in the sight and presence of their enemies. But, as just said, the tranquil joy which is theirs comes not from the fact that danger has been all removed, nor from the fact that they have become hardened and used to its presence. They know it is always near; and they are conscious, as far as animals can be, of their own utter helplessness, if left to themselves, to survive an attack of their powerful enemies. But they do not fear, they are not disturbed or anxious, solely for the reason that they feel their shepherd is present, and they know he will guard and protect them. Hence the Psalmist is speaking for the sheep when he says to the shepherd with a tone of confident joy, "Thou spreadest before me a table in the presence of mine enemies."
The spiritual meaning of this, like the other verses of the Shepherd Psalm, is peculiarly descriptive of our Lord, the Good Shepherd of human souls. He, in a manner altogether divine, precedes His elect, and prepares them the way of salvation. He does not deliver them from enemies and dangers, which would be unnatural in the present state, but He makes use of evils, as said before, to increase the perfection of His chosen souls. Gradually, step by step, from a natural He leads them to a higher state -- from diffidence to trust, from fear to love, from sorrow and anguish to peace and joy.
The change in the soul is rarely at once and immediate; it does not come of a sudden. At first it is difficult and repugnant to nature to find joy in sorrow and pleasure in pain, to see gladness in tears and rest in disturbance, to find peace in the midst of our enemies; but God, in His omnipotent goodness, so disposes and provides for the souls of His elect that sooner or later they penetrate to the meaning of things, and find there their hidden treasure. When the fabric of life itself has crumbled to its native dust, when friends have gone and charms departed, when the very earth we tread seems trembling beneath our feet, and every dream of earthly bliss is fled, when enemies sit where loved ones sat, and the heart has all but ceased to beat, then is the acceptable time and propitious moment, for the devout and faithful soul, that has washed its garments in the blood of the Lamb, to look up to Heaven with expectant joy. The thrilling vision of eternal love so much desired, so long perhaps delayed, is then, indeed, about to dawn.
The sweetness of God and the peace of His spirit are not to be found in the market place, nor in the noise and clamor of the busy street. It is not at the banquets of earthly kings that we taste of the joys of the Saviour's feast. It is not amid honors and riches and the pleasures of sense that the calm dews of Heaven refresh the soul. We were made for a higher friendship, for a more intimate union, for a sweeter companionship than any that earth can provide. And it is only when the door has been shut to the outer world, when the vanities of time have ceased to be sought, that the soul is ready for the wedding garment, and able to prepare for the marriage feast. It is in the inner sanctuary and alone, divested of fleshy trammels and freed from the bondage of earthly attachments, that the soul is able to meet its God and hold intimate converse with Him.
There are few, comparatively, out of the multitude of souls that are called to the feast which is spread for them, that ever sit down at the Master's table. Many are invited, and the servant is sent out at the hour of supper to say to them that were called, that all things are ready, and that they should come; but they tarry, they are not ready, they begin to make excuses and wish to be held excused. Some are entangled in perishable riches and cannot leave their possessions; others are preoccupied with worldly affairs and must not neglect their business; still others are pursuing the pleasures of earth, and have no time for the things of Heaven. But the feast is not for these, after all. The Master invites them, He calls them, He sends His ministers in search of them, He reproves and chides them, He thunders against them to make them hear and obey; but they will not come, they shall never taste of His banquet. He has not spread a table for the proud, the haughty, the arrogant; He cannot meet in loving communion the worldly, the sensuous, the lovers of ease and hurtful pleasures. Such as these are not prepared to meet Him; they would be out of place and ill at ease in His company, they do not like His society.(60)
To be able to come to the Master and to sit at His feast there is need of preparation. The garments of the world must be changed for the garments of Heaven, the ways of men must be made to yield to the ways of God. For what is wisdom with men is foolishness with God,(61) the weak things of earth are the strong things of Heaven, the outcast of the world are the chosen of the Father Almighty. And hence our Saviour under the figure of the master in the parable who prepared a great supper, says of all those who will not hear Him, who neglect His divine inspirations and despise the call of His ministers, that they shall never taste of His feast. But who, then, shall sit down at His table? for whom has He prepared the banquet? He tells us Himself, that those who shall partake of His supper are the lowly, the humble, the poor, the lame, and the blind; the despised of men and the outcast of the people; those who have known sorrow and suffering and penance, who have found the way of the cross and embraced it; who, for the kingdom of Heaven and the love of Christ crucified, have given up father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren and sisters; yea, and their own life also, that they might inherit everlasting crowns that fade not away.(62)
St. Paul was one of these masterful spirits, who surrendered all that he had, all that he prized most dearly for love of Christ and His service. "The things that were gain to me," he says, "the same have I counted loss for Christ. Furthermore, I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as waste, that I may gain Christ."(63) What a struggle, too, was that which St. Augustine describes, speaking of his own conversion! The parting with those sinful delights which had hitherto held him in chains was like the forfeiture of all he possessed, and it seemed to him that life thereafter would not be worth living; yet he generously and vigorously gave them up that Christ might become his possession. He has also described for us the change. "How sweet," he says, "did it at once become to me to want the sweetness of those trifles, which to lose had been my fear, but which to have lost was now a joy! Thou didst cast them forth from me, oh Thou true and highest sweetness! Thou didst cast them forth, and in their stead didst enter in Thyself, sweeter than all pleasure!"(64)
It is such as these, heroic souls, who for the sake of God and His kingdom, have made the world their enemy, that compose the company of the elect. And for these alone it is that the Shepherd of souls has spread a table of rest and peace, even in this life, of which they partake in the sight of their enemies, in the presence of those who think evil of them, who despise and deride them, in the sight of the world which hates them. These holy souls, the elect of God, whom the Father has chosen for Himself, have learned, through the trials and losses of life, the lessons of peace and detachment which crosses are intended to teach. They have learned, by exclusion and retirement from worldly festivities and pernicious delights, to draw near to God, out of love for His beauty and mercy, or if only to ease their breaking hearts and dispel the loneliness of their forsaken lives. In the words of the Psalmist, they have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet, and that there is no one like unto God.(65) With the image of the Crucified before their eyes and conscious of the presence of their loving Shepherd, they greet with delight the sufferings that oppress them, and they feast in peace in the presence of their enemies. They know that all is arranged or permitted by the hand that guards them, and by the One that loves them; and, though He slay them, yet will they trust Him.(66) For what can happen to those that love God? what evil can befall them? Angels have charge over them to keep them in all their ways.(67)
It is confidence, therefore, in their Saviour and God that gives peace and tranquillity to the souls of the just. To know Him, to love Him, to trust Him, to dwell in His presence and to please Him, throughout all the vicissitudes and evils of life, are the objects of their constant actions and the highest aspirations of their fervid souls. Confident of the favor and protection of God, and rooted in His love, they despise all pain and the threats of men; and in the midst of the battle of life they rejoice in a peace of mind and soul of which the worldling cannot dream. The pasture in which they feed, the banquet of which they partake are nothing else than the love and friendship of God which nourishes and refreshes their spirits when to every mortal eye they seem destitute, abandoned and alone. And this peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding,(68) develops in souls truly spiritual a habit of mind and a character of life that even here below partake of the stability and calm sense of victory which, in their perfection, belong only to the state of the blessed in Heaven. They feel that all things are possible to them through Him that strengtheneth them,(69) and that no temporal affliction, no power of man or any creature shall wrest from them the feast which they enjoy. And hence they are able to ask, in the confident words of the Apostle, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness; or danger, or persecution, or the sword ... In all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us. Therefore we are sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord."(70)