The 23rd Psalm begins with warm tones and rich images. David has taken a brush and palette and painted a beautiful scene including green meadows and calm pools of water. It is pastoral and tranquil; the kind of place one would desire as a respite. But the landscape changes in verse four, where the contour shifts from peaceful to ominous.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
This is an interesting selection of words that merits a brief description. In Bible times, shepherds would move their flocks from pasture to pasture to keep them from over taxing a particular field. This transition was not just part and parcel to the daily feeding of the flock. It also involved seasonal shifts. Flocks were moved to adjacent fields in season. They were also moved to higher or lower altitudes to accommodate the change of seasons. During these season changes, a shepherd may have to lead his sheep through a valley. The valleys of Palestine that David references are not like the valleys of the Midwest. The paths leading down into those valleys would be steep and rocky. The base of the valley would be bordered by steep, rocky cliffs. Those rock formations could possibly contain wild animals, bandits, snakes, or poisonous weeds. Danger lurked behind every cleft and boulder. Because of the steep walls, little direct sunlight would touch the valley floor. Even in daylight, vision was less than optimal. Shadows would appear, shifting with the movement of the sun. Because the Hebrew language has no device for superlatives (e.g. good, better, best), the words have a poetic ring. In English we would say that the valley was filled with the darkest shadows. But David could only write of “the shadow of shadows.” Or, as we know it in English, “the shadow of death.”
What can we take away from this verse regarding the valleys that are dark and filled with frightening shadows?
First, I believe its important to note that adversity, regardless of the size or scope, is temporary. I love David’s hopeful optimism as he declares that he’s passing THROUGH the valley. He doesn’t believe his experience will be permanent. Sometimes when we face adversity, or even the mere threat of loss or pain, we feel as though there is no end and that we have little if any hope. Our adversity, whatever it may be, is temporary. How can David be so confident that there is a limit to his suffering? After all, each of us knows of someone who faced a challenge that lasted up to the point of death. I believe David viewed his adversity as a temporary condition versus a permanent state because he viewed it through the lens of eternity. Paul would agree with such sentiment. In 2 Corinthians 4:17, Paul described his suffering as a “light and momentary affliction compare to the surpassing weight of God’s glory.” In other words, Paul knew that death was not the final experience of life. What ever he faced was temporary because he had all of eternity beyond the end of his physical existence. So do we. Our adversity is temporary. Remember, it takes two mountains to make a valley!
Second, Psalm 23:4 reminds us of God’s comforting presence with us during our moments of adversity. I think its important to observe the change of pronouns in this verse. Up to verse 4, David spoke about God. “He makes me lie down.” “He leads.” “He guides.” But in verse 4 David spoke directly to God. “You are with me.” God’s position has also changed from one who goes before as a guide to one who walks beside as an escort.
I recently read about a psychologist from a major university who did a study on pain tolerance. He discovered that a person could keep their bare foot in a bucket of ice twice as long with a person in the room as the person who had their foot in the bucket of ice in isolation.
So what valley are you facing?
A valley of death?
A valley of disease?
A valley of debt?
A valley of divorce?
A valley of doubt?
A valley of discouragement?
A valley of depression?
No matter what your valley is, you do not walk through it alone. God is with you. Our challenge as persons of faith is not to find the courage to face our adversity. Our challenge is to find the courage to trust God.
Trusting God always does more to eliminate fear that trumped up courage. I’ve said in previous posts that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). And when the fear of God is absent from our lives we become enslaved to lesser fears. David’s reverential respect for God was greater than his concern for his adversity.
Finally, when walking through your valley escorted by God, remember that he is in charge. He is in control. God is not only present, He’s armed. “His rod and his staff” bring comfort to our struggling hearts.
In Bible times, the rod was the shepherd’s weapon. It was a club carved from wood that was approximately 24” long that was carried on the shepherd’s belt. Like a mace, it had a head on one end with bits of metal or rock embedded in it. The shepherd could use it as a club or could throw it at any threat out of arm’s reach.
There is a play on words here in the Hebrew language. The same word used for rod is the same word that is also used in the Old Testament for scepter. I believe the message here is that God is not only in control, he’s also just in his rule. Our lives are not spiraling our of control as we a prone to think. God is in control.
All of this discussion about adversity begs one obvious question. If God is in control, why does he lead us to the valley to begin with? Couldn’t God just keep us up on the mountain top?
The first real vacation my wife and I took was to Colorado. A friend who had a cabin near Steamboat Springs graciously allowed us to spend a week there. During our stay we spent an afternoon riding 4-wheelers up a mountain. As we drove along the path our guide pointed out various aspects of the landscape and periodically stopped so we could take snapshots of scenic views. We came to one particular stopping point and the guide explained that we had reached timberline. Timberline is the place that marks the highest altitude that vegetation can grow. As we sat there we could look down the mountain and see the trees and greenery. As we looked up the mountain all we saw was rock. The scene was beyond description. And the lesson was this: the growth is in the valley. Mountain tops are beautiful The air is crisp and clean, and you can see with great clarity. We love mountain tops, literally and figuratively. But at the end of the day, the growth is in the valley. Valleys are important because that’s where we develop character. And, that’s where we learn to truly trust God.