The Valley and the Pasture
This Sunday is “Good Shepherd Sunday” when we read Psalm 23 and a Gospel lesson from John about Jesus being the “good shepherd.” Psalm 23 is, of course, the favorite of the Psalms, due in part at least, I think, to the bucolic vision. Green pastures, still waters. A table spread before me in the presence of those who trouble me. Goodness and mercy following me all the days of my life. All sounds pretty great!
But right in the middle is something very different. Just one verse. The valley of the shadow of death! Who wants to be there? Perhaps we hear the promise that God is with us in the valley, and focus on the promised comfort. But why are we in the valley of the shadow of death at all in the midst of this lovely vision?
The structure of Hebrew poetry is typically that the middle is the locus of meaning. If we want to understand what this Psalm is about, it seems we need to understand this verse. The Psalmist, presumably King David, is in the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps he wrote this Psalm while running from King Saul, who sought to kill him? Perhaps he is just thinking of some other time when he seemed to be surrounded by death, or by other dangers which threatened to crush him.
The Psalm promises the presence of the Lord with him in the valley. We all know that valley from time to time, and the Lord is with us! Davis speaks of the “rod” and the “staff” of the Lord bringing comfort. The rod was a defensive weapon that would be used to ward off attacking animals, while the staff was used to direct the sheep and sometimes to snatch them out of trouble, like a well or a hole. In the midst of trouble, the Lord defends and guides.
Knowing this truth, we can then understand the surrounding promise that the valley does not last forever and our God will bring us to a wondrous place. It is David’s confidence in the Lord’s defense and guidance that allowed him to also trust in the vision of what the Lord would bring. If we do not trust the Lord in the valley of the shadow of death, will we truly trust Him to bring us to the green pastures and still waters?
We learn that trust only in the valley, but when we learn to trust there, we can know the joy and comfort of the green pastures.
This column was published in the April 22, 2018 issue of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the full issue.
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