"Thy way was in the sea,
And thy paths in the great waters,
And thy footsteps were not known,
Thou leddest thy people like a flock,
By the hand of Moses and Aaron."
What a strange juxtaposition of similes! It would be difficult to have a greater contrast than that presented in these two verses - the pilot in rough water and the shepherd in green pastures. On the one hand we have a reference to the turbulent sea, whipped up by tempestuous storms, and right alongside of it a reference to the shepherd tenderly caring for his flock. The first is a picture of unrest and anxiety, with stressful forces in action, while the other suggests tranquility and restfulness. What a contrast! And yet they are brought together in one statement concerning our Saviour God - He is the Pilot and the Shepherd.
We have to read the whole psalm to get its full value. The earlier verses report a record of bewildering distress, so great as to provoke the questions: "Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?" (v.9). In the midst of his outcries the psalmist suddenly seems to check himself, recollecting what he already knows of the character of God. He confesses: "This is my infirmity" adding, "But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High... I will remember thy wonders of old" (vv.10-11). The whole tone changes. Recollection and review bring reassurance and lead on to this comforting climax concerning the Pilot and the Shepherd.
This, however, seems to be by way of an introduction to the following psalm, for Psalm 78 is a great historical record of the Lord's dealings with His people. It is a long psalm, recounting the movements of the people of God as He guided them and dealt with them. Read in this light, the function of the pilot in the storm and the shepherd in the plain bring comforting reflections to us all.
The first principle which arises out of this psalm is that the divine purpose governs all His ways with His people. At the beginning of their history, Israel certainly proved that God's way is in the sea and His paths in great waters. What dread seized them as they found their way barred by the Red Sea, with its waters lashed by the howling east wind. The waters piled up as a wall on the left and the right, doing little to abate their terror. It must have been a terrible night as they passed through that sea. The word translated 'troubled' (v.16) is a word which is used to denote travail. The nation was born in the Red Sea that night when its waters were in anguish.
This reminds us of the divine purpose working in the tempest. Behind all the fearful stirring up of the waters, the divine purpose was governing, bringing to birth a nation who were chosen for His glory. Truly there was a path for Him in those great waters. Faith must learn to appreciate this principle, namely, that the things which seem to threaten to be our undoing are being governed by divine providence to produce something of value - sometimes great value - to the Lord. It was the recollection of this which saved the psalmist when his soul was perturbed by questions about God's grace and loving kindness.
He spoke for the people. They felt abandoned and forgotten. He therefore exhorted them to look back to the beginning of their national life. They had been born in a threat. They began their history in what looked like destruction. Yet they were brought through those tempestuous waters and by the skill and power of God they were delivered and set apart for Him. As the psalmist remembered this, he was freed from his doubts and questions, as we may be when life's rough seas threaten to engulf us. God has a purpose and is steering us through to it as a wise, experienced Pilot.
We have to believe in the wisdom of God as well as His power. He not only knows the end, but He knows how to get us to that end. He is that One who chooses the way through the stormy waves. To us His ways may seem strange. We wonder what He is doing, or whether He is doing anything at all. "Have his mercies clean gone for ever?" we ask. The answer is that the Pilot knows both the destination to which divine purpose has called us and the best way by which we can reach that destination. He knows - but He does not tell us. "Thy way was in the sea... and thy footsteps were not known".
To help us to understand the psalmist's meaning, let us imagine a visit to the Egyptian side of the Sea after the wind had quietened down and the tempest come to rest. We look to see where His footprints are, and we cannot find them. We fail to trace His movements and cannot discover how He did the miracle. He leaves no traces by which we can explain just how He did it. We have to be content that He did do it, and He did it because He is all-wise - the Pilot who has the knowledge of the way within Himself and so can bring us through every storm and work wonders on our behalf without giving any account as to the 'whys' and 'wherefores' of our experience.
This is why we have the complementary title of the Shepherd. It moves us on from the consideration of His power and wisdom to an appreciation of the greatness of His love. This is not an official Pilot who is disinterested and detached, just doing His job, but a Shepherd, who has a heart of love for His flock.
If there is one picture of heart concern for the good of others in the Bible it is this of the shepherd. Both the Old Testament and the New make much of this title for the Lord. We are not surprised, then, when the psalmist, having voiced his question, "Is his loving kindness clean gone for ever?", immediately realises that this is not the truth but is due to some infirmity of his. It is a common infirmity in times of great trial, to harbour questions about God's love. The only thing to do is what this man did; he resolved to call to mind the past experiences of himself and his people with their Shepherd God. The hand of the Most High was exercised through Moses and Aaron, under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd who will never forsake or forget His own.
There are three facts which every child of God must master - facts which are suggested by this psalm. We are not really qualified for the Christian life, let alone for Christian service, until we have mastered them. We will be challenged again and again about them, but without them we will be weakened almost to the point of despair. They relate to the power of God, the wisdom of God and the love of God. He is indeed both our Pilot and our Shepherd. He is the God that doeth wonders.
Originally published in "A Witness and a Testimony" Magazine, Jul-Aug 1953, Vol. 31-4.
Republished in "Toward the Mark" Magazine, Jul-Aug 1982, Vol. 11-4