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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.
You  prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Psalm 23:4-5 ESV

Welcome aboard the voyage through the second post of Lent 2019 from His Own Heart Ministries. We’re so glad you’ve joined us!

This week, we step into the second installment of The LORD is My Shepherd. In case you’re new to series or would like a basic refresher, here’s where we’re headed together: we continue today with our journey that will lead us toward an amazingly, awesomely empty tomb on April 21. By the time we reach that celebration on Resurrection Day, it is the prayer of this blog that the words will filter into each reader’s heart, soul and mind some new and enlightening truths regarding our lives when Christ is Shepherd, namely that:

  • Jesus is the perfect Provider; He provides all needs for one’s soul.
  • Jesus is the perfect Protector; He defines and defends His flock.
  • Jesus is the perfect Promise; He delivers on His Word at any cost.

Watch for the theories above to click together as the following topics unfold:

  • The LORD is my Shepherd: Are You Pulling the Wool?
  • The LORD is my Shepherd: What Does That Make Me??
  • The LORD is My Shepherd: Oh No He DIDN’T!?!?!

For this week and next, we keep steadily focused on that first topic, Are You Pulling the Wool?

Last week, we discussed the shepherd-esque roles of Leader, Feeder and Healer that Christ provides to followers who accept through faith His identity as Son of God and Savior of the world. Today, we look at David’s reference to the provision of His rod and staff in our passage of focus.

Ready? Here we go. As we did last week – and will do in the future – let’s read together the ESV translation of Psalm 23:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters,
    He restores my soul.
He leads 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;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

Because this week’s post deals specifically with verses 4 and 5 of the psalm, I’ve highlighted that passage in bold italics for your convenience.

Okay, let’s look as those verses and consider what they reveal to us about the safety measures our Shepherd provides for His flock as well as the purposes those measures serve.

Look, if you will, at that first dependent clause of verse 4: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

What circumstances or mental images come to mind when you think of the valley of the shadow of death? Are those circumstances or images literal? Figurative? Experiential? Do they convey to you physical death? Relational death? Spiritual death? Is the valley a final destination or a means of getting from the proverbial Point A to Point B?

The truth is that any of the suggestions in the paragraph above can accurately describe one’s valley of the shadow of death because this valley references a place where some kind of a threat – a shadow – has stretched its clammy fingers across some area of its victim’s life to a point that the victim perceives him- or herself as being flat-out stuck in its valley.

Can we just make things real at this point for a moment? Because the truth is that if you’ve ever been in that valley (like I have), you know without a doubt and quite specifically what it is as well as what’s in it. It’s muddy; it’s murky; sometimes so dense that there’s zero visibility.

Get this: David is describing that exact environment when he talks about the valley of the shadow of death. One of the most exciting aspects of having access to Scripture in its original language is that it lets us pinpoint facts like this as much as possible. David’s phrase here, as rendered in its purest Hebrew form, translates as the valley of deep darkness.

Ever been there? You’re not alone, my fellow believer. Most – and I would even venture all –Christ-followers throughout history have gone through untold, unthinkable valleys throughout the course of history. Some valleys we dig with our own stubborn hands; others we enter unwillingly; none of them end up fun places to be.

But the thing is that, without exception, our Shepherd travels through these places with us and – if we let Him – He’ll use them to both strengthen us and draw us closer to His side.

Typically, a shepherd leads his flock of sheep through ravines and narrow, precarious slopes; but a shepherd also has to watch for caves and other places in the area that provide prime hide-outs for predators like wolves, bears, lions.

On the surface, it seems questionable – maybe borderline cruel – that any decent shepherd would intentionally lead his sheep through these environments. But remember those green pastures and still water we talked about last week? The sheep can’t get to the pastures or the water unless they pass through the ravines, over the slopes and by – shudder – the caves. Otherwise, it’s as impossible for them to reach the destination their shepherd has for them as it is for you or me to reach Christ’s destination without going through the valleys of our earthly lives.

As in all of God’s handiwork, though, there’s an upside for the sheep who follow their shepherd. You see, by traveling through those places, sheep come to know and trust the shepherd by the way he uses two traditional tools: his rod and his staff. For the purposes of our series, think of the rod as a type of billy club kept in the belt of the shepherd’s robe for easy access. The staff served triple duty as a walking stick plus a weapon against wild beasts plus a rescue tool for retrieving wayward sheep.

Pause here just a moment for a quick field trip to the Valley of Elah and the account of David and Goliath before moving forward (1 Samuel 17). Essentially, no Israelite wants to venture into what’s sure to be the life-ending valley of fighting this giant; so a young David steps up. He faces discouragement from the army and ridicule from his brothers, but keeps his focus away from man and stalwartly fixed on the God he knows:

Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God … The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine (1 Samuel 17:34-36).

The point of this field trip is to realize that when David speaks in Psalm 23, he’s speaking from personal, active experience. He makes the declaration of verse 4 because he’s been in the valley and knows the provisional effect a rod and a staff have on a sheep. He also knows that
fear dissipates for the believer who follows the Good Shepherd.

I will fear no evil, he says, for you are with me.  

Listen to what I’m about to say and take it to the proverbial bank: the one thing that truly dispels human fear is the presence of God the knowledge that he is willing and profoundly able to protect you and me from any and all threats. Your Shepherd carries the ultimate, unmatchable billy club and staff. And despite a lot of misplaced modern thinking, He’s not afraid to use them as He deems necessary.

So many of our fears are built around a fear of peers and situations rather than around a reverential fear of God. And in reality, that truth calls for a self-evaluation: do we honestly believe our God is powerful enough to do or stop anything he wants? We can comfortably say that we’ve reached that mark when we’re finally able to come to terms with this spiritual fact: whatever happens does so because God has allowed it and because He has a reason for it.

With that last sentence in mind, I’d like to suggest to you that – from a theological standpoint – verse 5 switches gears from a shepherd’s stance of defense for his sheep to one of offense against his sheep for the good of the sheep.

I know the suggestion sounds uncomfortable, but stay with me for a bit while we think through this.

Scholars often pinpoint David’s authorship of Psalm 23 to a period when he’s on the run from Absalom, his third son (see 2 Samuel 13-18). Absalom was evil and greedy – desiring, in fact, to thwart his father’s reign and take his place as king of Israel. Basically, he sabotaged David’s throne by circulating lies among the people, specifically convincing them the king didn’t care about their welfare or their concerns. In doing so, Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel (2 Samuel 15:6).

Absalom’s plan works so well that he stages a coup and takes over the kingdom, causing David to have to flee the palace and city in fear of his life. David ends up back in the wilderness, hiding in its mountains and – literally – its valleys. It’s quite likely that he took refuge in some of the same areas where he tended sheep as a young shepherd.

Please don’t miss the irony that this time, though, David is the sheep looking to God as Shepherd as his life is threatened by his own son. At one point he even has to climb down into a well and hide there.

Perhaps it was one night in that well that the divinely-inspired words of Psalm 23 were given to David by his Shepherd. We can’t know for certain if that’s the case, but it’s possible. In verse 5, David seems to be thinking of his time in Israel’s palace: the fine feasts with food and friends; the fragrance of the oil or the perfume worn during those feasts; the cup of good drink they had all enjoyed together.

So what is David’s point as he recalls these times and looks forward in faith to experiencing more like them? And what can you and I take away from that point? Importantly, I don’t see presumption or a push toward a health-wealth gospel of prosperity here at all. In David, I see a man – imperfections and all – who knows his God so well that he is certain of this if nothing else: even in the face of what seems certain death and danger and despair, the Shepherd is with him. If you can relate in the slightest way with David’s certainty, you hold in your hands a gift that’s worth its weight in gold: the undeniable existence of a divine comfort, a protection, a hope which no situation or enemy can overcome.

As we move into the final phase of this week’s post, let’s revisit the earlier reference that we can truly say we trust God when we reach for and grasp the following spiritual fact: whatever happens does so because God has allowed it and because He has a reason for allowing it. That seems a reasonable statement, right?

At least until God allows something that puts one of His children into a painful, horrific place. Terminal illness. Death of a soul mate. Unjust accusations. Broken relationships. Gaping emotional wounds.

Valleys of deepest darkness.

Right there in that valley: that’s where things get complicated, don’t they? Talk about a deep valley of darkness: picture yourself in David’s shoes trudging through this one. You’re a king chosen and anointed by God to lead his people. He has referred to you as a man [or woman] after His own heart (see 1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). And now, your beloved son wants to kill you and take your God-appointed position; you’re on the run in wild, dangerous territory; to top things off you’ve resorted to living in a well for fear of your life.

And apparently God just – like – let it happen. What do you do? What are your options?

Most of us anticipate the tough and trying seasons of life with as much excitement as sheep anticipate shearing season. In other words, we don’t like these times. As in, not at all.

Truth is, sheep don’t like to be sheared because, well, they don’t like being caught and held for any purpose. Come to think of it, neither do I.  But here’s the thing: sheep do like the end result of being sheared. And in a very real way, the shearing improves the quality of a sheep’s life.

The shepherd’s practice of shearing his sheep dates to the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis 31:19). It was carried out somewhat for profit bit largely as a matter of animal welfare. Left to itself, the fleece of a sheep leaves the animal prone to overheating; the fleece also gets dirty and attracts flies who lay eggs there. As a result, the hatched maggots create a serious health condition; left untreated, the condition will kill the sheep. And then there’s the fact that treatment for the condition isn’t a fun experience.

So in the long run, the sheep should probably be thankful that the shepherd cares enough about their health to purposely catch, hold and shear them. That conclusion – like it to not – begs a pointed question of both of us.

What about you? What about me? How do we respond to our times of shearing or other occurrences when our own Shepherd seems to have us stay in a valley we want to leave? Do we squirm? Struggle against His will? Pout? Pull away? Whine like toddlers? Throw an outright fit?

Or do we instead turn expectantly to Him, this Shepherd, for comfort and assurance as we serve Him in the valley and wait for His perfect will to play out? It’s this latter reaction that David chooses in Psalm 23. It’s also an example from which we learn that our Shepherd’s protection is sure, sustainable and profitable.

I thought of that last sentence a few weeks ago while reading the 2013 Zondervan release of Wounded by God’s People. If you don’t mind, let’s prayerfully, reflectively conclude this week’s post with an explanation of benefits rendered by our Shepherd’s pruning (aka shearing). Author and teacher Anne Graham Lotz says on pages 114-15 of the text:

You and I can delude ourselves into secretly hoping that a loving God will overlook the wrong that we, or others, have done if righting that wrong means wounding someone. We can falsely believe that a loving God will protect those He truly loves from this kind of hurt. We can buy into a prosperity message that convinces us that God’s desire for us is to live pain-free, carefree, happy lives.

Sometimes our view of God seems to be the same view we have of a genie. We think that if we rub Him the right way with prayer and faith, He’ll pop up and give us what we want. It’s a view that is drastically wrong. God’s purpose for us is not to make us healthy, happy, prosperous and problem-free. His ultimate purpose is to conform us to the Image of His own dear Son, that we might bear much fruit to His glory. And sometimes, in fulfilling that purpose, He allows us to be hurt.

There are times when the Divine Gardener cuts everything out of our lives except our relationship with Jesus. This kind of wounding not only hurts God, but it hurts us as well. Maybe you haven’t recognized it as pruning because it was an illness that landed you on a hospital bed, a termination from your job, a removal from your church position, a collapse from your church position, a collapse of your business, a rejection by your peers, a dream that hit a dead end, a calling-out or a dressing-down.

Whatever it was or is, the wounds of divine pruning force us to pay attention to our relationship with God because He’s all we have. And in the process, He strengthens our connection to the Vine, softens our hearts, and delights in our growth as our lives produce a greater harvest of spiritual fruit.

– Copyright 2019 Carole Anne Hallyburton. All rights reserved.