Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4
Experiencing the valley of the shadow of death is common to all of us and not just physical death. There are many types of death in our lives.
The death of a lost relationship.
The death of losing a job.
The death of losing our mental faculties.
The death of financial security.
The death of success.
The death of a dream.
Each one of these types of losses can leave us exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And that exhaustion leads to a vicious cycle of worry, doubt and fear. And these lead to poor choices and shortsighted decisions which leads to hanging out in the never-ending valley of death much longer than we ever dreamed possible.
And then we wonder, “How did it ever come to this?”
David had his share of “valley of death” experiences. Some were his own fault (think Bathsheba). Some were the jealousies of others (think King Saul.) Some were family problems (think Absalom). Some were career related (think Philistines). And some were lost relationships (think Jonathan). And when he reflected on all these valleys he could say, “I will fear no evil.” and the reason for this was because “You are with me.”
When we need comfort or we want to comfort someone else and reach for this Psalm, I think we stop reading or reciting right there, at Psalm 23:4a. We are very glad to know that through whatever valley being experienced, fear does not have to be part of that experience. And we comfort each other with reminders of God being in the valley experience. That’s great! Right?
Yes, of course, right! No fear and all God! That’s what we need! But do we take all of the One True God? Or do we really want the god we’ve made up in our heads? You know the one!
The one that gives us big hugs and says, “That’s okay. You can keep on doing this sin and I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” We want the god that gives us everything we ask for; even to bless our plans for disobedience. We want the god that we can bargain with; “You know, god, if you do this and get me out of this jam, I won’t go near a frat party for a whole month.”
We want the god that will just hurry up and show up and change our circumstances and get us out of this horrible wretched valley. We want the god that wouldn’t let us get in this valley in the first place and it doesn’t matter that it is my fault that I am stuck there. We even want the god who will zap the “enemies” who put us in this valley: the mean mother-in-law, the overbearing boss, the bully at school, the drunk driver, the thief. They don’t need any kind of god’s mercy. It is not deserved.
Being human, I would imagine that sometimes even David wanted a god like that.
But, when he looked at the history of his life and could see it as the True God ordained it, David came to the conclusion that it was The Shepherd’s rod and staff that brought the greatest comfort and peace in the valley AND provided the only way out of the valley. Seems quite the paradox, doesn’t it? A shepherd with rod and staff in hand bringing the most comfort and surety to his stubborn and wayward sheep. How can that be?
The LORD Shepherd has a rod and staff. They are called the Holy Spirit and the Bible. But here’s the thing. We have to take all of the Holy Spirit; His comfort, His peace, His joy…and His conviction and correction. We have to take the whole Bible, not just the parts that make us feel good or that we fully understand (who can even do that and claim we know the full mind of God!).
We don’t like the rod and staff of The Shepherd because we think it hinders our fun in life. We think it keeps us from obtaining our idea of success and having the American dream. And we would be right on those points! God is so much greater than just having fun though He is no spoil sport. And His ways are not our ways which is a very good thing. And the American dream has absolutely nothing to do with having a life that is full and rich and meaningful.
The Shepherd uses His rod and staff to keep us close to Him. He uses them to keep us from wondering back into the valley of the shadow of death when He is trying to get us out of there. He lovingly uses His Word and give us The Comforter (Holy Spirit) to help us see as He sees; to give us hope and increase our faith when all seems lost. But even The Shepherd can’t do all of this if we reject the Holy Spirit’s guidance, if we pick and choose what we want to believe in the Bible and what we want to obey. The One True God will not force us out of our valleys, nor will He deny His deity and supremacy over all creation, which includes each of us.
The Shepherd is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! It is He who has made us and not we ourselves. (Psalm 100) It is He who laid the very foundations of the universe and gives us breath and life. (Psalm 103) And it is He who sent His only begotten Son to save us! (John 3:16) Did Jesus go to the cross and suffer the death we deserved just so we could keep on living in the mire of our willful ways and in our sin? God Forbid! (Romans 6-8)
When we forget all these things and try to manipulate our own way in life whether on a mountain top or in the valley, we think we know better than God. That keeps us far from the reality and wonder of Psalm 23.
Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather the lambs
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes. Isaiah 40:11