Scripture: Psalm 23: 4; Isaiah 43: 1-2
Date: August 24, 2014
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” I suspect that those are some of the most familiar words of scripture. Even those who never set foot inside a church, are familiar with them because they are almost always a part of the funeral ritual. They are words of great comfort and assurance, promising the presence of God in the midst of some of the most difficult moments of life; those in which we try to cope with death and grief. When most people think about the 23’’ Psalm, these are the words that first come to mind. But I suspect that David had something more in mind when he wrote them. I don’t think he intended them just to be words of comfort and strength in times of death, but also words of hope and life. And once again, they are words that find their origin in the relationship between the shepherds of Israel and their sheep. Now in the winter and spring, shepherds would graze their flocks in the lowlands near where the Jordan River drained into the Dead Sea. The rains of winter would replenish the pastures and provide for good grazing. But as spring turned into summer, rain became scarce and the temperatures often approached 120 degrees and so the pastures dried up, leaving the sheep with nothing but brown stubble to eat. And so at some point in early summer the Shepherd had to move the sheep the 12 or so miles from the lowlands around the Dead Sea to the highlands near Bethlehem and Jerusalem where the temperature was more bearable and the moisture was more plentiful in the summer months. Now to take the sheep from the lowlands to the high country, the shepherd had to take his sheep through one of the deep valleys of the wilderness of Judea. These valleys were deep and narrow. Hebrew writers called them “places of darkness.” There are some places in these valleys that the rays of the sun never reach. These are the places that David calls the places of dark shadows. It’s the same word that is translated in this Psalm as the “shadow of death”. The prophet Amos used the same word to describe the impenetrable darkness that existed before creation. And Job uses the word twice: once to describe the complete darkness of a mine shaft, and then later to describe the “black hole that is the abode of the dead.” And Matthew says that when Jesus was on the cross, “total darkness came over all the land.” In his classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan captures the essence of the phrase when he describes a place that is as “dark as pitch” that is inhabited by “hobgoblins, . . . dragons of the pit, and fiends.” It is a way he says that is “set full of pits, pitfalls, and deep holes.” And in the center of the valley is “the mouth of hell”. And as the fictional Pilgrim made his way into the valley, Bunyan writes: There was on the right hand a very deep ditch. . .on the left hand, there was a very dangerous quag, into which, if even a good man falls, he can find no bottom for his foot to stand on. And Bunyon says: Into that quag King David did fall, and had no doubt therein been smothered, had not He that is able, plucked him out.
Now here’s what we know about sheep. As I’ve indicated before, sheep are very nervous animals. They have many fears and anxieties. And perhaps their greatest fear is fear of darkness. Because it is in the darkness that the predators come out. And so they relied on the shepherd to get them to a place of safety before the darkness fell. Usually a sheepfold with walls with thorny branches on top to keep the animals out. And once the sheep were settled in, the shepherd would light torches all around the walls and build a fire at the entrance to chase away the darkness and give comfort to the sheep so they could rest. And so Jesus says that not only is He the good shepherd, but for His sheep, He is the light of the world.
Well, as a Shepherd, David had done that many times himself and I suspect this is what he has in mind, when he writes about the comfort of knowing that God is with us even in the midst of such dark valleys. You see, we usually associate these words with the end of life, and think about the “valley of the shadow of death” in more spiritual rather than geographical terms, but when David wrote these words, he had in mind real places that he himself had traveled many times. These were the deepest valleys of the Judean Wilderness through which he had traveled, and in this Psalm he was reflecting on a life in which there had been many journeys through such valleys, both physically and spiritually. In the wilderness of life there are many dark valleys — many valleys that were filled with the shadows of death for both the shepherd and the sheep. And for the sheep to survive — to get to good pasture on the mountain tops — the sheep and the shepherd had to go through those valleys together. David Roper writes:
The valleys symbolize those dreary days of loneliness and despair when we say with David, “No one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my Iife’ when no one seeks us; no one asks about us; there are no cards or letters; the phone doesn’t ring; no one seems to care. I remember talking once with a lady who had been diagnosed with and was being treated for cancer. And she said to me, “You know what the worst part of this disease is? I feel so alone.”“What do you mean?” I said. “You’ve got so many friends. You’re not alone.”“Oh,” she said, “they called or came by at first, but as I got sicker and sicker, most of them stopped coming to see me or even calling me. I know it’s not because they don’t care about me, it’s just that nobody wants to be confronted with death. And I’m dying.”
Yea, though I walk through the valley. When a loved one dies, our friends and family rally around us. In those first days, there is always someone there. We’re never alone. But in time, everyone gets on with their life and there inevitably comes that moment when we are alone with our grief.
In one of his books, Max Lucado says this:
Sorrow is hard to bear. It’s hard to bear because not everyone understands your grief. They did at first. They did at the funeral. They did at the graveside. But they don’t now; they don’t understand. Grief lingers. As silently as a cloud slides between you and the afternoon sun, memories drift between you and joy, leaving you in a chilly shadow. No warning. No notice. Just a whiff of the cologne he wore or a verse of the song she loved, and you are saying goodbye all over again.
Yea, though I walk through the dark valley….
Just as there were many valleys in the wilderness through which the shepherd and sheep must pass, so it is in life. We are confronted with many dark valleys. One writer, in commenting on life’s valleys, says:
The path by which God takes us often seems to lead away from our good, causing us to believe we’ve missed a turn and taken the wrong road. That’s because most of us have been taught to believe that if we’re on the right track God’s goodness will always translate into earthly good: that He’ll heal, deliver, and exempt us from disease and pain; that we’ll have money in the bank, kids who turn out well, nice clothes, a comfortable living, and a leisurely retirement. In that version of life everyone turns out to be a winner, nobody loses a business, fails in a marriage, or lives in poverty. But that’s a dream far removed from the (truth) that God’s love often leads us down roads where earthly comforts fail us so He can give us eternal consolation.
David is telling us that sometimes the path of righteousness will lead through dark valleys and it is in those times that the sheep must trust the shepherd even more.
So for a few minutes this morning we need to think about what David had learned in the valleys of his life, because in a most profound sense, our lives are defined by the lessons we learn in the dark valleys.
The first thing that David tells us is that it is in the valley that he really learned who God is. Think about this 23rd Psalm. In the first three verses, David tells us about God. The Lord is my shepherd . . . . He makes me lie down in green pastures. . . . He restores my soul . . . He leads me in paths of righteousness. But with this fourth verse, David changes his tone. Instead of talking ABOUT God, now he talks TO God. When I walk through the valley, I won’t be afraid, because you are with me. In other moments of life, it might be enough to know about God, but we will not get through the dark valleys unless we truly know God, unless we have a relationship with Him, unless God is present with us. I believe that of all the promises God makes to us, the greatest promise is the promise of his presence. To Moses, whom He called to shepherd his people in the wilderness, God promised My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. And God promised Jacob when everyone else was seemingly against him, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. And to Joshua, who was chosen to be the shepherd of Israel after the death of Moses and lead them into the promised land He promised so I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you. David knew that the only thing that could get the jittery sheep through the dark valley was the presence of the Shepherd. They followed his voice. They trusted him, especially in the valley of death to lead them through. And so Isaiah offers us words of comfort for our times in the dark valley when he shares these words of God: Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand… when you pass through the waters, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. This fourth verse is the incredible promise of His presence no matter where life may lead us. And though we believe that God is present with us always, it is often in the dark valley that we truly come to know and trust His presence. Because it is in the darkest valleys that friends fail us, that marriages fall apart, that families divide, that our health wanes — but the shepherd remains faithful, ever vigilant. Leading the sheep along narrow and treacherous paths, protecting them from the enemies. David understood that the dark valley was the great equalizer — that even the top rams feared the darkness there and drew as close to the shepherd as possible. And when the darkness was overwhelming, when the sheep could no longer see their way, it was the voice of the shepherd that led them. Even though the darkness overwhelms me, David wrote, You are with me. I feel your presence. I hear your voice. The desolation of the valley escalates our need for, and our love of, God. Richard Foster writes: God becomes a reality when He becomes a necessity. The dark valleys make God more real to us than ever before.
But it is more than mere presence that David discovered in the valley. He also found protection. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Every shepherd carried a staff, which was a long stick that had a hook on the end. The hook was used to gather in the sheep that had strayed. Sometimes a sheep would slip off of the path and slide down an embankment and get lodged in a crevice. The shepherd would reach out with his staff and grab the panicked sheep with the hook and pull it to safety. The touch of the staff would assure the sheep of the presence of the shepherd and calm it, so that it could be pulled to safety. And the shepherd also carried, tucked into his belt what David calls a rod. The rod was a heavy club. Often times the shepherd had pounded stones into one end of the rod, making it a lethal weapon. Now the rod was often made from the offshoot of an olive tree. And he or she used it to fight off the animals, and sometimes the humans, who sought to prey on the flock of sheep. The Shepherd’s rod was their only protection in the dark valley. The word that is often translated offshoot or rod is the root of the word Nazareth. And Isaiah picks up on that imagery when he says in one of the more familiar of the Christmas passages that the Messiah will be from the offshoot or rod of Jesse’s tree. Jesse was the father of King David. The implication is that the Messiah will protect and comfort the people even in the darkest of valleys. David is saying that the sheep must trust the shepherd to lead them through the darkest valleys. The shepherd’s rod was their protection. The shepherd was their only hope. I remember several years ago, being called to the hospital with the news that an elderly church member, Walter, had had a stroke. Walter had been married to Sarah for more than fifty years and they were completely devoted to one another. You never saw one without the other. By the time I arrived at the hospital, the decision had been made to transport Walter from the Harrodsburg hospital to the UK Medical Center in Lexington. Sarah insisted on riding with him in the ambulance. So I told her that I would meet them there. On the way, Walter had another stroke. And when he arrived, there was very little hope that Walter would survive. And I remember sitting with Sarah in one of the consultation rooms in the ICU waiting room. Sarah had just finished telling the doctor not to put Walter on life support. That he wouldn’t want that. That they should just let him go. And I glanced out at the ICU waiting room. Family had not yet arrived. And inside that consultation room, it was just Sarah and I. And after the doctor left, we sat there for a few minutes. And then Sarah asked me, “Am I doing the right thing?” And I told her that I believed that she was. And then she said, “I know it’s right for Walty. But I don’t know what I’m going to do. I feel so alone. I don’t know how I can make it without God. What do people do in this situation, who don’t have God?” David knew the answer to that. He knew that without the shepherd, the sheep would perish in the dark valleys. But in the Shepherd they found comfort and hope and assurance.
And then David knew that in the valley, we tend to focus on the darkness, but that the Shepherd is always looking ahead to the light. That though we may be lost and frightened and hopeless, the Shepherd has been this way before, and He will lead us through. In reflecting on this, a pastor writes:
We’re inclined to fix on the valley, and its pain, but God chooses to look forward and anticipate its effect. He deals with our hearts through disappointment, grief, and tears, weaning us from other loves and passions and centering us on Him. We learn to trust Him in the darkness; when all that is left is the sound of His voice and the knowledge that He is near (even though we may strain to see Him at times), when all we can do is slip our hand into His. These are times that wean us away from that tendency to live by feelings rather than by faith in God’s unseen presence. The dark days cause us to enter into a very special relationship with our Lord. (When we say) as Job said: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” There are glimpses of God that can only be revealed when earthly joy has waned.
The presence of the Shepherd is the promise and assurance that the darkness will not overwhelm us. The promise of better pastures ahead.
Which leads us to the final thing we need to understand about the dark valleys. And that is, that the sheep must pass through the valleys to reach the mountain top. There was no other way for the sheep to get from the burnt out pastures near the dead sea to the mountain pastures that surrounded Jerusalem, except to pass through the valleys. And though the shepherd did not want to lead them there, he had no choice. David knew that, and so he does not offer these words as a nice platitude to see us through tough times, but rather he offers them as a testimony for the people of faith. Throughout history, God has led faithful people through dark valleys to His mountaintop. The story of the Exodus, is the story of God leading the people through a generation of valleys, but on the other side was a land flowing with milk and honey. To a people in captivity and exile, the promise that on the other side of dark valleys, would be restoration and renewal. And He led His own Son through the valley of the shadow of death, a shadow created by a cross, but followed three days later by a mountain of glory, resurrection, new life. In the fifteenth chapter of the story of the exodus from Egypt, we pick up the story of this incredible journey, immediately following the miracle that happened at the Red Sea. Moses had led the people three days into the desert beyond the Red Sea, and when they got to a place called Marah, their water ran out. Just three days removed from the parting of the sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army, the Hebrew people already found themselves in a dark place. And they began to talk against Moses and speculate on returning to Egypt, where they at least had water to drink. The shadow of death fell on them. But Moses led them through, and those that followed, came to an oasis, a place called Elim. Now the scriptures describe it this way: They came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and three score and ten palm trees, and they encamped there by the water. The valleys in our life are dark places, places where hope nearly dries up, and our souls thirst for joy and purpose and love and happiness. But for those who follow the Shepherd through the dark valleys, there will be an oasis, where living waters flow without ceasing and God’s grace feeds us until we never hunger again.
Anna sang earlier these words:
Even though the journey’s long and I know the road is hard,
The one who’s gone before me will help me carry on.
And after all I’ve been through, now I realize the truth.
I must go through the valley to stand upon the mountain of God.
You may be in a valley time in your life. Let me just say, that you don’t have to walk there alone. There is a shepherd who is ready to lead you through to the good pasture that lies beyond. Follow Him. Let Him lead you. Because though you walk through dark valleys in this life, you don’t need to be afraid. Because God is with you. Won’t you trust Him. Won’t you give Him your heart and life today.