“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 right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I 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 my whole life long.” (Psalm 23)
At different times in my writings I have written on Psalm 23. Most writers who write about spirituality and faith issues have – several times. Sometimes one or another line or metaphor is highlighted. Others times the psalm as a whole is the focus. But there are only some many lines, and so many metaphors etc to be used as the theme. Sooner or later you are bound to repeat. And that was the challenge before me as I sat down to address this psalm once again.
I remembered another time, years and years ago, when I looked at this psalm. At that time I was writing monthly columns and sending them out to a circle of friends and family. It was something I had started doing back when we lived in Indiana, and I had continued doing it when we moved to the west coast. I do not remember why I picked on the 23rd Psalm to write on; perhaps it was appropriate to what was going on at the time. Mind you, this was 10 years ago – ancient history compared to now. Except, once again, I am sending my writings out into the ether-sphere – so to speak. At that time I was using the King James version of Psalm 23, and I suspect that was the motivation for the title I gave it – “Yea . . . Yeah!” Verse 4 in the KJV reads as follows, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” And the RCL does not stipulate one version over another.
So . . . what follows is what I wrote then. I have reused this reflection before, when I was writing a column for the “Third Way Cafe” website which is still in existence and is produced by Mennonite Media. The title for that posting on that website was “From Yea to Yeah!” But that was years ago too, and I no longer post on that website. I am using the same italics font that I use for scripture, simply because I am in a since quoting myself. So sit back, beloved reader, as I turn back years and listen to my “younger voice.”
Through my readings and study, I have come to understand that the phrase “valley of the shadow of death” does not just mean death itself, but also a place of deep gloom where “evil” seems to be all around. Think of a valley so deep that sunlight cannot reach it, and so narrow that there is no easy path. One must constantly step around or on top of stones that have fallen down from the high cliffs above. And the sides of the cliffs rise up so steeply that there is no way to climb them, so one must walk through them. And the surrounding rocks echo one’s own small footfall until you become afraid of the sound of one’s own steps. This is what I imagined when I read about “the valley”. But the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil”. Not fearing the evil that is real or the evil that is imagined.
There is a section in one of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia series where the main characters are walking through such a valley following Aslan. At first only one of the characters sees him and it is only through her persuasion and perseverance that the others continue. Eventually they all see him and are led through the valley safely. The Psalmist says, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Sometimes the “rod and staff” are physical objects. Sometimes they are people who are traveling the same way or the same path. And sometimes the rod and staff are feelings inside that tell you that you are not traveling alone.
For me, it does seem there is no way to avoid the “gloomy place” I am in. I must walk through it. The sides of my predicament are high. There is no way to climb over it or avoid it. And yes, sometimes I am “spooked” by my own footsteps. I have pondered much on my situation, and as new insights come, I tremble. But I know I am not walking this path alone. There are people along the way who are giving me comfort and strength. I have my Bible and my books of Christian meditations. I have the writing of this column to give voice to my inner thoughts, and to help me process it all. And I have the solace of the Lord that cannot be felt or touched, but is most assuredly there.
Many of us at one time or another have walked through such a valley. Perhaps it has been an actual death of a loved one. Perhaps it has been the death of a hope or dream. Or the death of a relationship. Perhaps it has not been death at all, but a dark place in our lives that we have had to work, and walk, through. Each of us has our own fears and times of testing. That is probably why this psalm is so well known, because it speaks precisely to those times. But this psalm does not say we can avoid these times or that we will be easily whisked through them. It says we need not fear, and we will not be alone.
So let our “yea” turn to “yeah!” Let us rejoice in all of the assurances that are found in Psalm 23. And, let us rejoice that our Lord is the good shepherd that will never leave us or let harm come between us and his love for us. For we are not promised that no harm will befall us, that there will no “valley of the shadow of death”. The promise is the comfort, the solace, the knowing that we will come through the darkness into light. And that light is the Lord our God who watches over us, always! Yeah indeed!!!!