The Dark Valley

Walking with the God through the valley of the shadow of death. This is the second instalment of a three part series examining Psalm 23. Read the first post here.

Psalm 23 is one of the pinnacles of Scripture. It is a beautiful psalm of praise, birthed out of the psalmist's clear elation and security in their experience of God's provision and grace. It is full of praise, joy, 'goodness and love.'


Yet lest we imagine that Psalm 23 is a naive take on life, within this reflection on God's goodness and blessing, there are still answers to be found about when life's circumstance just doesn't seem to add up with what we think of God.


Suffering in the Darkest Valley


A speaker at a seminar I attended a while ago pointed out something interesting which really stuck with me. The oldest book we have copies of from the Old Testament is the book of Job. Essentially, the book of Job is the oldest book of the Bible, the first time God decided to speak to humanity through divinely inspired Scripture.


And what is the message of Job? It's a story about a very righteous man who suffers immensely for no good reason and is never told exactly why. Job is called 'the greatest man among all the people of the East,' 'blameless and upright.' In a rather mysterious account, a host of angels accompanied by 'an adversary' come before God and the adversary challenges Job's faithfulness to God as only a product of his immense wealth and prosperity. God accepts this challenge and lets this Satan (Hebrew word for adversary, used to refer to God when he apposes Balaam in Numbers 22:22) do as he wishes to Job and his life so long as he doesn't harm Job himself in the process.


Quickly, Job's life falls apart; his vast livestock are killed and his wealth destroyed, his family members die of disease and sickness all around him, and he's left alone and desolate. His 'friends' come along and tell him that the reason for his suffering is because of some sin he must've committed, even though he's done nothing wrong! At the end of the day, he cries out to God in despair and confusion and God basically says, "Are you God? No. So you can't understand, get over it." In the end Job remains faithful to God and his life is restored. He dies a loved and wealthy man surrounded by many descendants.


What?! Sure it works out okay, but Job's life sounds awful! He suffers and loses everything, and for what? The book of Job is deeply theological: why do people suffer, even those faithful to God? The first time God decided to speak to people through Scripture was a story about someone who suffers profusely for no good reason and never finds out why. There is a lot to be said in that.


The Staff and Rod


Verse 4 reads, "Even through I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me." In their excitement and praise of God's goodness, the psalmist reveals that things for them right now aren't necessarily the best - far from it, they walk through 'the valley of the shadow death.'


Life is full of dark valley's: career choices don't go quite as you planned when you were a kid; financial issues weigh down heavily on your lifestyle options; maybe family members have fallen sick or relationships fail which you wish had worked out, but didn't. Apart from death, suffering is almost the one thing humans can hope to expect in this life.


Yet despite the psalmist's situation, they 'fear no evil.' What? They fear no evil? They are content even in this dark valley where shadows and evil lurks, waiting to snatch them up?


Paul puts it even more strongly in his letter to the Philippians, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:12-13).


Reading over this recently, the gravity of Paul's words struck me once again - we can learn to be content in every situation? Really? That is something you can just pick up? Yet that is Paul's claim: in Jesus, we can really learn to be content is every situation. When a wife leaves a husband to be with another man, when a single mother is killed in an accident by a drunk driver, when the world seems to fall apart we are promised contentment and peace in the face of anything the world may throw at us.


The practicalities of how that happens may be a bit different however, than we might imagine. The psalmist writes that their confidence comes from the 'rod and staff' of God, who guides them through the darkest paths.


The rod and staff are instruments of discipline and control over sheep. They require the humble submission of the sheep, but when they relent from their own stubborn ways, their shepherd cares for them in all they might need.


Coming Home


Are you tired of the dark valleys? Are you at the end of yourself, exhausted by trying to pretend you have control over this life which is so unpredictable? As God's rod and staff work their way through your life, you will find yourself truly free, comforted as this psalmist was. Submit to his ways, and find yourself free! Not free away from things as this world likes to imagine, but truly liberated from yours and others' shortcomings and the destruction they bring, free to dwell in your true home, the house of the Father prepared for you.


So great is this work of the Good Shepherd, that even in the presence of our enemy's, he prepares a table, a feast for us to enjoy! There is a place for you at his table, stop fighting and come home.


We might not always be able to make sense of suffering and pain in this life. Yet know this, there is a different way to live, one where you are promised peace and everlasting life. “We live as strangers in a strange land, travellers on the way, not at home here but testifying to the reality of the future rest that has invaded our lives and urges us on to its ultimate completion at the ‘day of Christ’.”


Amen.

Andrew is currently studying to become a Youth Pastor at Carey Baptist College. He loves coffee and loves to chat - if any of this stirs something inside or you have thoughts to contribute, you can contact him at andrewclarkhoward@gmail.com.


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