Valley walking can be a great joy. We probably have favourite valleys. Each one capturing a mood and a sense of spirituality. I love the steep wooded sides of the Dart valley, dark but lightened by the bright foaming water of the river; or the wide peaceful green pastures of Dovedale. But then the valley narrows and the craggy sides steepen casting menacing shadows.
In Psalm 23 David draws upon his personal experience of Israel’s valleys or wadis. Following the rains they provide rich pasture land but they are subject to flash floods and when the sides become cliffs the pilgrim ways become places of danger from bandits, the mood changes completely.
Psalm 23 is often associated with comfort at funerals but that only truly makes sense if in the context of a life led by the shepherd. God as shepherd and his people as sheep led by him is a repeated image in the Old Testament. Isaiah 40.11 Jesus picks up on this, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.’ John 10.14 Crucial to Jesus shepherding is the notion of him leading, in contrast to modern shepherding, where sheep are driven with a harrying sheep dog pushing them forward. Where Jesus calls us to go he has already gone before.
The psalm contains three testimonies.
I shall lack nothing, vv1-3 and this is because he has provided plenty, (green pastures) v1 peace, (quiet waters) v2 refreshment, (soul food) v3 and righteousness (guidance along right paths.) v3
I will fear no evil as the joyous wide valley becomes harsher terrain, ‘shadow of death’ v4 is literally translated deepest darkness, which includes the darkness of death but also other life experiences. At such times God promises to draw particularly close with a rod to protect and a staff to support.
I will safely dwell even though I am surrounded by hostile circumstances and people. v5 Here David may well be drawing on God’s hand through the abundant hospitality provided by Barzillai when he was being pursued by Absalom. 2 Samuel 17.27-29 The psalm ends with assurance of God’s abundant blessing whatever our circumstances, be it in green pastures or dark valleys. This provision is life long, ‘all the days of my life, v6 and beyond this life into eternity, ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ v6 Jesus confirms this assurance with the words, ‘In my Father’s house there are many rooms … I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself.’ John 14.2-3
The Lord’s my Shepherd – Stuart Townend