The Inescapable Shadow
Shepherds love their sheep, and with good cause. They are an important source of revenue, and require constant monitoring to insure they aren’t lost, wounded or attacked by predators. The job would be a bit easier if sheep were highly intelligent, but in God’s wisdom He gave them a simple aptitude. This both frustrates the shepherd and nurtures his heart of compassion, as he invests in his flock.
Some have speculated that David wrote the 23rd Psalm as he guarded sheep on a hillside near Bethlehem. At the very least we can presume this was his inspiration for this popular passage of scripture.
The psalm’s first portion transports us to a fertile green pasture and a calm watering hole where sheep can drink unmolested. Once full and refreshed, the shepherd leads them down a peaceful path to their next destination. As we read David’s description we can almost hear the birds singing overhead and feel the cool, gentle breeze on our face. Perhaps you have seen this scene depicted on a church bulletin where Jesus is leading a flock of happy sheep down a winding path along a lush countryside.
David’s word picture leads us into the presence of God, for He is our true Shepherd, guiding us in righteousness and forming us into shepherds in our own fields of service. The very thought of this journey and the joy we share with our Creator makes us smile.
Unfortunately, the tone of David’s psalm changes abruptly. The pasture becomes a jagged maze of fallen rocks and the calm waters a torrent carving its way deep into a canyon floor. A shadow drifts into the valley, making the rocky path more ominous, and the bird’s songs are displaced by an eerie whistle whipping past the canyon walls. We find ourselves in the “shadow of the valley of death.”
I spent several summers on the farm as a young boy and we had names for places we frequented, or chose not to frequent. There was “Scoops place” where we bought our cold cokes and “Mary’s store” owned by a distant cousin who sold us balsa wood airplanes. Then there was “old Mrs. Murphy’s”, a farm-house that looked a little haunted in the dark. We stayed clear of Mrs. Murphy’s.
So when I read about David’s “shadow of the valley of death” my gut tells me there was such a place near the hillside where he watched over his sheep. This might not have been the official name, but David and his friends all knew the valley. They avoided it like the plague, but on occasion, when the grass was spent in their pasture, they had to pass through it.
My guess is you have a similar valley. All humans have that place where their hearts sink in despair and the way looks uncertain. Sometimes we enter the valley by choice and often we fall in, or are driven in, and once there are prone to panic. No one in their right mind would enter such a place if they had a choice. Bandits lurk there, hiding behind craggy rocks to surprise innocent travelers. Animals scavenge the valley floor in search of an easy kill. The way is deep and uninhabited, and those who go there often pass alone.
At this point I must tell you a piece of information that might trouble you. If you want to disregard it, or refuse to believe me, I will understand. I am convinced God sometimes purposely allows us to enter the “shadow of the valley of death”, either for our own good, or because He has chosen not to intervene in certain events in our lives. God didn’t create the valley, but He might use it for our own welfare, and He certainly will never leave us there unattended.
If you have attended a Christian funeral, you have probably heard Psalm 23 used to comfort those who are grieving. Every part of the psalm applies to loss, but this phrase about the “shadow of the valley of death” connects on a different level. While David may not have been thinking specifically of death when he wrote these words, they certainly depict our experience as those left behind. Grief feels like a deep valley and the shadow that envelops us clouds our vision of hope. Hope remains, and the comfort of God is never far from us, but our feelings tell us otherwise.
Unless we precede all of our loved ones, or Jesus comes back, we will fall under the shadow of grief. For those who live without hope in Jesus, the weight is almost unbearable, but even for those who know the Savior, there is pain. Pain is a result of separation, and our unquenchable desire for life to go on as it has forever. We are also confused by the veil that separates this reality from the other, and while we trust God’s Word is true, it is hard to find comfort in something we cannot see.
However, the Shepherd has not left us, and His presence sustains us. His rod and staff comfort us. In defiance, He places a feast before everything and everyone who might defeat us, including the great enemy death. All the while, He anoints our heads with oil and fills our hearts to overflowing with His love and grace. Is the valley deep? Yes. Is it dangerous? Absolutely! But there is nothing under the shadow that cannot be conquered by a good God. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)
We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. In fact, if we are in Christ, we have already taken up residence. And as long as we live in His presence there isn’t a valley in this world we can’t make it through.