“The Ruts of Righteousness” (Psalm 23:5 sermon)

I am currently reading a biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of the Apple computer company, and it is a very interesting life story. Jobs was not a Christian, as some of you may know, but there are really powerful lessons, both good and bad, from his life that we can profit from. One thing he said that was very thought-provoking: that in the first half of your life, you make your habits — then in the second part of your life, your habits make YOU!

That’s an interesting thought. The habits that we make in our lives are indeed very important — and they CAN end up either making or breaking us. 

We mentioned last week that Psalm 23 was one of the best-loved passages in the Bible, as it talks about how the Lord shepherds us. But verse 5 of the Psalm has an interesting turn of phrase that can challenge us as we wrap up this Christmas season and begin a new year this week. David says there that the Lord “leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” That is a very familiar phrase to many of us, but it also has a deep meaning to it. 

The word “paths” here, according to the venerable Brown/Driver/Briggs Hebrew lexicon, means “wagon tracks”, the place where the wagons have gone before, leaving their hard, beaten-down path — we might well call them “ruts”!  Many of us have been on an old dirt country road, where there were just “ruts” worn in the dirt from the cars driving on it over and over. 

We often speak of “being in a rut” as a bad thing — and it can be, for sure. But the Bible shows us here that there are also some good “ruts” we can be in. When David says: “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake,” he’s talking about “good ruts.” He says the Lord leads him like a shepherd in “the ruts of righteousness.” So there are some “good ruts” we can be in: “Ruts of Righteousness.” Let’s think about some of the good “ruts of righteousness” for a few minutes:

First of all, just as a general word, It is instructive to us that David counts it a blessing to be led by the Lord in “the ruts of righteousness.” Many people in our day want to be “original,” and they often look down on “the same old thing” with disdain. Everybody today seems to want to be “new” and “creative.”  But David reminds us here that righteousness can be found in “the well-worn wagon tracks;” the “ruts.” “Ruts” can be good. If you think about it: ruts often exist for a reason: because that was actually the best way to go, and people kept following it! 

This especially applies to our faith. There are times when the drive of many people to be “original” and “creative” in Christianity actually leads them away from God righteousness paths. That doesn’t mean that we should never be creative, but we also need to realize that there are many times when it is best to stay in the old wagon tracks — “the wagon tracks of righteousness;” the “ruts of righteousness.” Many “ruts” are good. Lets think about some good “ruts” we can get in:

I. it’s good to be in The “rut” of sound doctrine.

Paul repeatedly tells Timothy in II Timothy that he needs to stay in “the ruts” of the sound doctrine he has been taught:

— He says in 1:13 “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me …”. He tells him in the next verse: “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”

He says, Timothy, the doctrine you have received is a treasure. Keep it.

He tells him that repeatedly in this book: he says in 3:14, “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings …” (the Bible) and he goes on to say, “All scripture is inspired by God …”.

So he keeps telling him: “Retain” those doctrinal standards I taught you. “Continue” in the scriptural teachings I gave you. He’s telling Timothy, STAY in “the wagon tracks,” the “ruts” of righteousness in your doctrine.

And that’s a good word for us today, too. It is important that we stay in the “ruts” of the true, Biblical doctrine we have been taught. As I mentioned before, our society values “creativity” and “innovation,” and Americans especially want what is “newest and best”: the newest and best phone; the newest and best car, and so on. But when it comes to Biblical doctrine, what is new is NOT best!  There’s an old saying: if you come up with some “new insight” from the Bible, after 2000 years of people reading it and studying it and teaching it, you can be pretty sure that new insight you have, is a WRONG insight!

I remember years ago when televangelist Benny Hinn made a big splash on a religious tv show, saying that God had told him that not only was there a Trinity, consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he said, “there are actually nine of them”: that each member of the Trinity also had a trinity — and then he proudly said something like: “I bet you haven’t heard that before!” NO; no one had ever heard that before — because it was WRONG! The Bible doesn’t teach that at all, and what he claimed was a “divine revelation” was actually a heresy. (And to his credit, in later years I understand he was confronted about this, and he corrected his error.)

But this is just an example: when it comes to theology, “new” is not good. I understand we like new things: new songs, new movies, new books, and so on — and sometimes it can be tempting for us to want something new in our Bible teaching and doctrine as well. Something may sound “new and exciting” to you when you hear it — but be careful of that. New is not good when it comes to theology. Stay in “the wagon tracks of righteousness,” in “the ruts of righteousness” when it comes to your doctrine.

Southern Baptists are from a perfect people, but I believe I can say with all confidence that we have one of the best, most Biblical statements of faith there is, in our doctrine in our Baptist Faith & Message doctrinal statement. (If you haven’t seen it, you can get a copy of it on one of the displays in our front foyer.)  The Baptist Faith & Message teaches sound, basic, historic Biblical doctrine, such as: 

— the authority of the Bible for everything we believe;

— it teaches that God exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 

— it teaches that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, the life, and the only way to heaven.

— it teaches that a genuine believer is held safely in the hand of God and can never be lost again.

It is a Biblical statement of faith; it is a statement of faith that you can have confidence is. There’s nothing “new and flashy” in it; but you don’t want “new and flashy” when it comes to Biblical doctrines. Stay in “the wagon tracks of righteousness” when it comes to your doctrine. It’s one of those “good ruts” we need to stay in.

II. It’s good to be in some “ruts” for daily prayer and Bible study.

— Jesus said in Matthew 4:4 that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We need God’s word more than we do our daily food. 

— Colossians 4:2 says “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it.”

As we’ve talked about for the last several weeks, getting into God’s word and prayer every day is one of THE most important habits we can get into in our lives. We need to get in that “rut” and STAY in it! God will speak to us if we will present ourselves before Him in His word; He will fill us with His Holy Spirit and pour out His power and answer prayers if we will pray — but He won’t do these things if we do not. We’ve got to get in, and stay in, the “ruts of righteousness” in God’s word and prayer.  

This is why we’re emphasizing “In the Word 2022” for the New Year. If you didn’t get a copy of the daily Bible reading guide which begins January 1, be sure to get one today. You want to have everything ready for next Saturday, and kick off the New Year right, by getting into God’s word and prayer, starting the very FIRST day of the year. Get into that “rut” and stay in it!

I had to laugh at Cheryl a few years ago. I’ve said before, Cheryl has one of THE most consistent Bible reading and prayer times of anybody I have ever known. I’ve told the story about how Michael when he was young pointed to the blue chair in the living room and said “That’s where Mama reads her Bible.” Cheryl is in some “good ruts” when it comes to reading her Bible and praying. But like everyone, there will come an emergency, or something, that will sometimes knock her out of it. So one year when we were living in Louisiana she set it as her #1 goal: I want to read my Bible every single day this year, without fail — not just “catch up” when I miss, but not ever miss one! She was just determined that is what she was going to do. But then when it came to December 31st we had all this busy New Year’s Eve stuff to do, and her birthday is on New Year’s Eve, and then sleeping in late New Year’s day, and things were so crazy and so hectic all day — and all of the sudden she wakes up on January 2nd with the horrible thought: “I missed my Bible reading!” On the FIRST DAY of the year! She’d already blown her #1 goal for the year on the very first day!  

So, let’s be sure we don’t do that. Let’s determine that we are NOT going to miss that very first day. But just like Cheryl did that year, it’s going to be easy to miss if you’re not careful. If we are going to read our Bibles and pray next Saturday, January 1st, it will not happen by accident. You are going to have to purposefully plan to do it. Get that Bible reading plan. Have a specific time and place planned out where you are going to do it. Put a reminder on your phone, or whatever you have to do. (Maybe you’ll say, “As soon as that New Year rings in at 12:01, I am going to do my Bible reading for January 1st” — that would be a super way to start the very first minutes of the New Year. You do it however God leads you to do it. But  be sure you get into the “rut of righteousness” of spending time with God in His word and prayer on the very FIRST day of the year on Saturday — and then STAY in that “rut.” 

It’s one of THE best “ruts” you can be in: the “rut” of meeting God every day in His word and prayer. 

III. There are many OTHER “ruts of righteousness”: more than we have time to cover in much detail, but let’s quickly look at a few:

A. It’s good to be in the “rut” of going to church.

Hebrews 10:25 says we are not to forsake our assembling together, as is the habit of some. That verse says that some people have gotten into the “habit,” the “rut” of not attending worship with other believers. 

We’re seeing that in America today. I read one survey some time ago that said that the decline in church attendance is not because so many fewer people are attending — in fact, it said the total number of people who attend church is roughly the same as it has always been. But it said the difference is that the people who DO attend church, are attending less regularly than they used to. Maybe they used to go 3 or 4 times a month, but now it is only 1 or 2. Add that up over millions of people and that’s a lot of empty spaces in churches. And of course COVID over the past couple of years has complicated that too. 

And I understand taking reasonable precautions; we’ve said repeatedly we need to let people make the decisions they feel led by God to make in their response to COVID, and don’t judge others about it. But IN all that, let’s be sure we don’t get out of the “rut” of going to church. And I’m afraid that HAS happened, all over the country.  

But it is so important that we stay in that “rut” of going to church. We need it personally, and those we worship with need it from us a well. That verse in Hebrews 10:25 goes on to say, don’t forsake your assembling like some do, “but ENCOURAGE one another” — it says you need to go to church, both to be encouraged — AND to encourage other people. So it says it’s not even just about YOU: it encourages OTHER people when they see you there in church. And consequently it can DIScourage other people when they do NOT see you there. It’s just such an important “rut” to be in, of attending church regularly. I hope we will all make it our goal to be in the “good rut” of going to church every Sunday morning. 

B. It’s good to be in a “rut” of tithing and giving to the Lord.

Proverbs 3:9 says “Honor the LORD from your wealth, And from the first of all your produce.” Taking the first 10% of what God gives you, and giving that back to Him, is a really good “rut” to be in.

I have shared before that our son Michael is in his first year in a new job, and he is in the process of learning to budget and spend his money. I was thrilled the other day when he called to check in with Cheryl & I (which is another good “rut of righteousness” for kids to be in!), and along the way he mentioned that he had set an automatic payment to be made to his church from his paycheck every month. I was excited to hear that. It is so easy NOT to give to the Lord, so it is great if you can get into a “good rut” in it, whether it is an automatic payment like Michael did, or just the habit of making out your first check every month to the Lord to show that He is first, or however you want to do it. But there is a great blessing in being in the “rut” of tithing and giving to the Lord. 

C. It’s good to be in the “rut” of family time

Ephesians 5 says, “Husbands, love your wives.” Someone said you spell love, “T.I.M.E.” It takes time. Quality time means time. One of the best things Cheryl & I committed to when we first began ministry was to set aside Fridays to spend together. Sometimes people will say something like, “I know Friday is your day off Bro. Shawn,” and Cheryl will say, “Uh-uh, it’s not his day off, it’s his FAMILY day.” I don’t go off and play golf by myself on Fridays, we go and do something and spend time together that day. We need that.

But this isn’t just for pastors. Every marriage needs this. You need to keep “dating” your spouse. You need to have regular, consistent time that you spend together.

Let me say this: in all my years as a pastor, in talking with various couples about difficulties in their marriages, I have never yet talked to a single couple who was having problems, who said that they had set aside a regular time to date or spend together.  I think that says a lot. Get in the “rut” of spending time regularly with your spouse. It’s one the best “ruts” you can be in.  

D. It’s good to be in the “rut” of exercise.

Almost every day for about the past two years, Cheryl gets up at 6:00, has her Bible & prayer time, and then goes out to walk two miles with our next door neighbor. She’s just in that “rut.” But hey, that’s a great “rut,” isn’t it? 

It’s not as important that we exercise than it is that we spend time with the Lord in His word and prayer, but it IS an important thing to do. I Timothy 4 says “bodily discipline IS of limited value.” It does help us to live longer, better quality lives, and hopefully serve the Lord better and longer. So pray about getting into a “good rut” of exercise this coming year. 

And we could go on and on with examples and applications. There are lots of “good ruts” we can get in. Ask God’s Spirit to show you some of the“good ruts” you need to get into in this year. 

IV. Getting BACK into a “rut of righteousness”

But let me add this last point: what happens if you DO get out of a good rut? What should you do?  Get back in!  You were in that “rut” once and you got out of it — well with God’s help you can get back in it again too. That’s really what “repentance” is: you are going one way, and decide to turn around and go another way again. And God’s Spirit will help you do that. 

Several years back I started translating a verse in Psalms every day from the Hebrew Bible, just one verse, but I did it every day, and over time this took me about a third of the way through the Book of Psalms. I remember I even said something about it to someone: “This is one of the best habits I ever got into!”, and it really was; it gave me such good insights into God’s word, and it didn’t take that long, just one verse a day, but over time it really added up. 

But you know — and this is another good lesson for us — it only takes ONE day that you miss, to begin to stop a habit. And then you add just another day, then just another day — and soon you don’t have that habit any more. You’re “out of the rut.” And that’s what happened to me with translating those Psalms. I don’t even know when it happened, but I do remember that one day I looked up and thought: “Hey, I’m not translating a verse in Hebrew from Psalms every day any more!” I couldn’t recall the particular moment it happened, but one day it did — and then it became the next and the next, and I got out of the “rut” and routine of doing it, and I was out of that really good “rut” for probably a couple of years I guess. Then this last year I thought: “You know, translating those verses in Psalms was one of the best things I ever did. I need to get back to doing that again.” And so one day last year I starting doing it again. And I am enjoying it so much every day; it is so rich. But the thing is, I had gotten OUT of that “rut of righteousness,” but then I just decided to get back INTO it again.

And you may need to do that with some area of your life too. There may be some area of your life where you’d say, “I used to be in a really good ‘rut of righteousness’ in this certain thing — but I have gotten out of it. And God’s showing you today that you need to get back INTO it again. Maybe it’s one of these things I mentioned — or maybe it’s something different. Maybe the Lord just brought it up to your mind like He did my Psalms, and you’re going, “You know, I used to do ____, and I am not doing it any more. I need to get back to that.”  You can get back in that “good rut”! You were in it before; and God can help you get back into it again. 


Let’s bow our heads for a minute, ask God to show you two things:

  • What is a “good rut” I need to get into in 2022 — whether it’s Bible reading or praying or going to church or whatever.
  • Then ask Him to show you if there is a “good rut” you need to get BACK into in 2022 — maybe something like me, that you “used” to do, but somehow you stopped.

Pray: “Lord, help me get back into this ‘good rut’ that I need to be in. Help me to get back into the ‘ruts of righteousness’ on this.” And God will help you. He wants you in it more than you do.

Let’s seek God for “the ruts of righteousness” He wants us to be in, this year …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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