PSALM 23: Walking in Dark Valleys

Ps 23:4 "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me..."

This Psalm is very personal. So far we have read about "MY shepherd," how he "leads ME," and he "restores MY life." It is almost as if we (a sheep) were bragging to other sheep about the awesomeness of "OUR shepherd." But now, it gets even more personal as we discuss how "I walk," and how "I will not fear" because "YOU are with me."

A Routine Trek

This verse in Psalm 23, from a shepherd's perspective, likely describes the long trek up the mountains that shepherds take their sheep on. By late in the summer the sheep are likely up on remote alpine meadows above the timberline and as autumn approaches the flock is forced to go down to lower elevation before spending winter on the ranch.

W. Philip Keller states that, "During this time the flock is entirely alone with the shepherd. They are in intimate contact with him and under his most personal attention day and night"(1). It has been said by wiser people than I that in those moments/seasons, characterized by this Psalm as "darkest valley(s)," that although God seems to be far away, our shepherd is actually very close with us. This is why we "fear no evil." This Psalm does not state that there is no evil, it does not claim that walking through these valleys will be a breeze, there may be potential danger, frustration, even pain. But our shepherd, THE shepherd, is with us. We are told that we "walk through the darkest valley," but it does not state that we stay or live in that dark valley.

Part of the Pilgrimage

To see this Psalm as a journey, or a pilgrimage, is to realize that the final location we find ourselves in is a good place, "dwell [ing] in the house of the LORD forever" (Ps 23:6). But in order to get to that place we must travel through "dark valleys." The sheep end up back on the ranch, a good place, home. A Christian saying is that people want to have "mountain top experiences," they want to climb to new heights or "higher ground" with God. These sayings express the progress people want to make as they deepen their relationship with God. Keller writes again, that "As with sheep management, so with God's people: one only gains higher ground by climbing up through the valleys"(2). Real transformation occurs as we walk through the dark valleys of our life. It is because of the fact that in these seasons God is with us, that we are, in these moments, under his most personal care, that we walk out of these valleys trusting him more and prepared for more of the journey.

Finding Life in the Valleys

Sheep are taken up the mountains by way of the valleys because this is the most well-watered route. Along these valleys there are rivers, streams, and quiet pools of water in deep defiles. This is not to take away from the potential dangers that these routes entail, nor is it to suggest that these seasons of darkness are welcomed or easy. But in these moments, when darkness seems to abound, our shepherd is close to us, and we discover what it is to be refreshed by "living water," by the presence of God himself.

In the book of Exodus Israel was crying out for water, so God told Moses to strike a rock and water gushed forth. God instructed Moses and said, "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it and the people will drink" (Exodus 17:6). To have Moses strike a rock on which God was standing on is, in a way, to judge God, to strike God himself. What happens when our God takes our place, when he is punished for our rebellion? Life giving water gushes forth. In the Gospel of John Jesus proclaims, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scriptures have said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" John goes on to inform us that, "Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive" (John 7:37-39). Once again, God is judged, crucified in fact, for our rebellion, and upon his death and resurrection we are given the "rivers of living water," the Spirit of God. 

These dark valleys are necessary parts of our journey as his flock. During these times he is closest to us, therefore we do not fear evil. We may encounter evil, and may experience pain, frustration, heartache, and sorrow, but this is not the final stop on our pilgrimage. Lastly, these seasons provide moments in the midst of darkness where we can be truly refreshed by living water, when we can truly experience the life giving and life transforming presence of God. This is a God who never leaves, and who gives of himself when we least deserve it. This is the character of the good shepherd.

If you find yourself in this season, or maybe you have been in this valley for a while, know that God is with you, he is closer than you realize. This is not the final stop on your journey. If you are coming out of this season reflect on it, pause and think of the ways you can now, in hindsight, see God's hand guiding and his presence being with you. Share this experience with someone who may be in the valley still.

 

(1) Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 68.

(2) Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, 69.

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