Read Psalm 23:5-6
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Apparently in ancient desert culture, a criminal was subject to ruthless justice. He was pursued by any aggrieved family who would inflict punishment on him. So such fugitives often escaped into the desert hoping to benefit from a traditional sort of refuge. If such a fugitive turned up at a shepherd’s tent, he would be safe. The shepherd was obliged to give him not only hospitality but safety.
Perhaps this is behind the familiar imagery of this Psalm. Not that followers of the good shepherd are necessarily criminals, but they are relentlessly pursued by the evil one who accuses and condemns them. The only safety is in the protection of the good shepherd. Our God is our refuge because he offers us mercy rather than accusation.
It is not as if we are innocent of wrongdoing. It is not as if we don’t deserve being cut off from God. Rather it is that Jesus has removed the guilt of our wrongdoing and has offered us friendship with God. We take refuge in the mercy of God not as cowering criminals or fearful fugitives.
We come as loved individuals who are invited not to a shepherd’s tent for some temporary safety, but to the arms of a God who offers us eternal refuge.