There are places in Scripture that are powerful, so deep, that to recite them is to experience them. Psalm 23 is one of those places. As one scholar said, "The psalm itself is green pasture; the psalm itself is still water; the psalm itself restores my soul." Hear it again in the joyous voice of a child, with a little help from dad.
Psalm 23 is very personal. There are no references to "we" or "us" or "they," but only "my" and "me" and "I" and "You." This is David's testimony, his personal experience with God. I and other pastors have come to this passage in almost every funeral preached. It is precious to us, a balm to our wounded souls. And what makes this a constant friend is that it covers all of life. With simple beauty, it speaks of green pastures and still waters as well as dark valleys and enemies and adversities.
But what comforts us and helps us is the psalm's confidence. David really believes this about God. We realize as we linger over these words that what David writes is not poetic exaggeration or theoretical theology. He has experienced God in these ways, heard His voice, followed His lead, felt His care. Beneath the beauty of his words there are solid convictions, formed in the crucible of crisis.
I reason I know these things to be so about a man who wrote 1000 years before Christ is because he has left us clues right here in this psalm. Notice that in the first three verses, David refers to God in the third person: "The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me lie down . . . He leads me . . . He restores my soul."
Then, in v. 4-5, David shifts, referring to Him in second person: "I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me . . . You anoint my head with oil." And then, he closes by returning to third person: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Why does David switch from talking about God with 'He' to talking to God with 'You,' and why does it happen in v. 4? Why didn't he just go on to say, 'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for He is with me; His rod and His staff, they comfort me'?"
May I suggest that the change "He" to the more intimate "You" happens in v. 4 precisely because it's there he speaks of the valley he has walked. He has felt the shadows closing in. Verse 4 describes the crisis points in his life. And in those times, something deep happened between him and God.
You've noticed it too, haven't you? We're more prone to talk about God when we are in the green pastures and more prone to talk to God when we're in the dangerous ravine. In the light, we are prone to wander off in pursuit of greener grass. But in the dark, we hug His knee.
David changes from comments about God to communion with God because during his valley time, he stayed ever so close to the Shepherd, never taking his eyes of Him. He had experienced God in a way there that had ushered him toward intimacy with the Almighty Shepherd.
As we continue our study of psalms for when life hurts, I invite you to a familiar oasis where we will see that God is closer than you think in times of crisis. My prayer this morning is that God so imprint His truth in your heart that you will find your confidence in Him rise above the storm clouds in your life, even as David did. Take a few moments with me this morning to see David's confidence in times of crisis.
I. God allows time in the valley
In the first four verses of Ps. 23, David takes the gentle picture of a shepherd with his sheep to describe the relationship God has with us and we with Him. Everything makes sense in our understanding of a shepherd leading his flock to green grass and calm waters. Then we get to v. 4, and it doesn't fit. The valley of the shadow of death conjures thoughts of a dangerous situation where a sheep's life is in jeopardy unless the shepherd is alert and attentive.
But why would a sheep be going through such a place? Not because he strayed off in sin; that is not the point here, because the shepherd is pictured as going with the sheep not snatching him back to the pasture he left behind. No, the reason the sheep is going through the valley is because the shepherd lead him there.
The connection between vs. 3 and 4 confirm this: The path through the valley is also one of the paths of righteousness in which God leads. "He guides me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me . . . "
But why would a good shepherd who would lay down his life for his sheep lead a lamb into a valley filled with danger and death threats? There's only one possible answer: "To get to some better place!" Philip Keller is an Australian shepherd whose wonderful little book A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 includes this observation about these barren valleys:
"The shepherd knows from past experience that predators like coyotes, bears, wolves, or cougars can take cover in these broken cliffs and from their vantage point prey on his flock. He knows these valleys can be subject to sudden storms and flash floods that send walls of water rampaging down the slopes. There could be rockslides, mud, or . . . a dozen other natural disasters that would destroy or injure his sheep. But in spite of such hazards he also knows that this is still the best way to take his flock to the high country. He spares himself no pains or trouble or time to keep an eye out for any danger that might develop."
When you're walking through some unfamiliar valley and the shadows linger . . . When you have cancer and have to decide whether it will be chemotherapy or some other way . . . When you're trying to decide as a matter of Godly stewardship whether to take your money out of the market or let it ride... When your finances are tight, and you are taking on yet another job to make ends meet, remember this:
Your Shepherd has appointed even this hard time as one of His paths of righteousness. He is leading you through this valley for reasons that probably won't be apparent. But rest assured, He is taking you to the high country, where the sun is warm and the grass is lush. Every valley is pathway to something better. As Psalm 84:11 says, "No good does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly." Or as Paul put it, "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom . 8:28). The valley isn't good, but the Shepherd is. He knows the way.
II. The Shepherd has you covered
David tells us how to be fearless in adversity. He tells us that even in the valley of the shadow of death, he didn't dread the distress he would face or cringe in the face of crisis. How do you fight fear when you don't know what's going to happen next and your imagination is working overtime ? How did David do it? David tells us his confidence came from three sources:
A. He stayed in God's presence
In v. 4, David says, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." First, he speaks of God's nearness, His presence. When you step into your valley, and it's so dark you can't even see the path ahead, and you the possibility that there are predators and enemies laying in wait for you, your Shepherd has something He wants you to hear: I will be with you. Don't turn to drugs or resort to drink or find some other substitute that you think will help you gedt through this valley. All you need is your Shepherd.
Hebrews 13:5b-6 says it like this: "He has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." So we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?"
Writer Kenneth Wilson tells of growing up in Pittsburgh. "That house in which we lived on the side of one of Pittsburgh's hills was three stories high in the front and four in the back. The bottom layer was the cellar and the top was what we called the third floor, really a finished attic, the ceiling of which was cut into shadowed geometric shapes by dormer windows. Up there were two bedrooms, a hallway, and a mysterious storage room for trunks that always smelled of mothballs and history. Our family slept there, because the second floor was usually rented out for a tenant to help pay the rent.
What was unnerving for Kenneth was that, as the youngest, he had to go to bed first, braving that floor of dark bedrooms. "That bed in that room on the third floor seemed to be at the end of the earth, remote from human habitation, close to unexplained noises and dark secrets.
At my urging, my father would try to stop the windows from rattling, wedging wooden matchsticks into the cracks. But they always rattled in spite of his efforts. Sometimes he would read me a story, but inevitably the time would come when he would turn out the light and shut the door, and I would hear his steps on the stairs, growing fainter and fainter. Then all would be quiet, except for the rattling windows and my cowering imagination.
Once, I remember, my father said, "Would you rather I leave the light on and go downstairs, or turn the light out and stay with you for awhile?" . . . [I chose] presence with darkness, over absence with light. Isn't that not what we really want most in our valleys—the assurance that Someone is there? Kenneth L. Wilson, Have Faith without Fear (Harper & Row, 1970), p. 54; from Timothy K Jones, Prayer's Apprentice (Word, forthcoming)
There is no valley, no matter how dark, that you will go through alone. He will not leave you.
B. He saw God's power
A shepherd's rod was a two-foot club made of oak, with a rounded head that was whittled from the knot of the tree and had sharp bits of metal pounded into it. This club was used to defend the flock against attacks. It pictures the shepherd's power, wielded against overpowering enemies. David said he had no fear in adversity because of the comfort of God's power, protecting him from that which would ruin him. And you need not fear. Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. (1 John 4:4).
C. He experienced God's leading
Your staff . . . comforts me, he said. He was referring to the shepherd's crook, with its hook on one end. A good shepherd would use it to guide the sheep, lest they stray away. Just a gentle tap of the staff on a lamb's side would move them back in the fold. And the crook could gather up a sheep from a place where it might have fallen. David felt comforted that his Shepherd was guarding his steps, making sure that he makes it through the darkness safely.
David was supremely confident, not only about his present circumstances, but of grace in the future that would see him all the way home. He believed that valley times were appointed for His good. He learned things about God that could be learned no other way in the deep ravines of life. He stayed close, trusted in God's protection and guidance all the way. All because he could say, "The Lord is my shepherd."
Oh my friend, when you find yourself weak, in the dark, uncertain of the future. When all the color has drained out of life, and your soul is downcast, look up. Fix your eyes on Jesus, your Good Shepherd. Stick close to Him. Trust that He knows the way through this valley and will see you safely through. Believe that He has good reasons for taking this route, even though it is hard and unfamiliar. And hold on to the truth that there is something better waiting on the other side of this valley.