THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
It was a warm spring weekend at the end of April 2005. I had been incredibly busy for four months. In the studio and at church, the demands of ministry had required more of me than I had to give, and any capacity I’d once had for compassionate ministry had shriveled up in the pressures of the season. I hadn’t spent time alone with my Creator for months. His Word had become foreign to me. I was still teaching it, but I hadn’t listened for a long time. As a result I’d become spiritually stale in faith and deed. Akin to a dead man washed ashore after a shipwreck, I needed reviving. I needed new life breathed into me. To be brought back to life. To be rescued and revived.
My wife willingly gave me blessing to take a three-day silent retreat at the completion of an album that had consumed me for so long.?Ç¬† I drove northward from the Twin Cities towards Inspiration Point Bible Camp near Fergus Falls. I brought no music. On the drive up I sought to recall passages of scripture that I had memorized in years past. And while when speaking or teaching I occasionally find scripture as accessible as though I had a photographic memory, that afternoon heading west on Interstate 94, in the spiritual comatose nurtured by my apathy, all I could remember were the words of the 23rd Psalm.
Psalm 23. The foremost psalm of comfort and consolation. Undoubtedly the most well-known Psalm, if not the most loved, across all cultures and generations in the history of the world. In brilliant poetry Israel’s King David identifies the Lord as our Shepherd, and we as His sheep. That afternoon as I drove, I flipped open a little NIV just to make sure I was getting the verses in the right order.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
Paths of righteousness… Sounds like the right road to be on. Sounds like it goes someplace good. If the journey makes a man’s life, this is the journey by which a life is made good. The path is righteousness, and I would assume it leads to righteousness, as well.
There are three things we can know about this path from these verses: 1) Who leads us on it: It is the Good Shepherd, the Lord, who takes us down this road. It is He who directs our steps and keeps us on this road – on this road, and not another. 2) Why we’re on it: The Good Shepherd has put us on this road for His purposes – for His name’s sake. This is important to Him. He’s got His reasons. 3) Where it goes…
Did I get the order right? Verse four comes after verse three, right?
“He leads me on 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 thou art with me…”
I had parked my car at the bottom of Inspiration Peak at the tail end of my three-hour drive. It was an hour before sunset, and I felt a good hike up to the second highest peak in Minnesota might be a good thing to do before checking into camp for the night. The hike was harder than it had ever been before. I was so easily winded. I assumed I was merely out of shape.
A half hour later at the top of what the Ojibwe call “Rustling Leaf Mountain” I sat down on the backrest of a wooden bench to watch the sunset. It was warm up there. And windless. There were no leaves rustling when it first occurred to me that the paths of righteousness in David’s Psalm lead through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This is where the Good Shepherd leads His sheep. This is where the Paths of Righteousness must go.
I silently cried sitting there that evening, watching the sun go down on what I felt was another passing season of my life, as I knew somehow that this truth had deep and painful implications for me – indeed, for any sheep who was in the Good Shepherd’s care.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death did not sound like a good thing to me. Three words converged into one moniker maliciously dripping with negative implications.
Four years earlier I had gone backpacking with three other guys for a week in the Utah desert. We’d hiked five miles into a little valley called Hackberry – seventeen miles from the nearest highway – and set up camp at the base of a narrow canyon.
During the day we would hike up and out of the canyon into the high places. There we could see for miles, and it was beautiful. But in the middle of the canyon, there wasn’t much to see but the gray, rocky canyon walls. In the valley, there was no reference point, no horizon?Ç¬† – there was no way of knowing where we were. Without a guide or a good map, one could easily get lost in the valley.
Another thing about the valley is that there was so little light. While the days at that time of the year were near fourteen or fifteen hours long, the sunlight reached the valley floor for only six to seven hours each day. And when the sun did shine into the valley, it was a stifling heat, stale and breathless. But most of the time, it was dark and cool, a constant shadow. Not shade. Shade is good. This was shadow. A blocking of the sun.
I guess there was at least one good thing that could be said about that valley – there was water there. We set up camp next to a stream in the middle of this valley. More specifically, right next to a spring that fed the stream. This was the freshest water one could find in that desert. We’d fill our canteens every morning there in the valley before heading to the high country for the day.
I’ve heard that this was also often true of the valleys in the country where David was a shepherd as a boy. The freshest pools of water were in the valley. That’s one of the places a good shepherd would bring his flock for water. To drink elsewhere would be risking contamination or disease.
There’s something else I remember hearing about those valleys in David’s day – they were dangerous. It was a dangerous place to be. Thieves and beasts lurked in those shadows. Wolves lay in wait for the unattended sheep or traveler walking through the valley alone, posed to attack their prey when there’d be no one near to help or to hear the cries.
No, I do not think I like The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’ve come to intimately know something about this Shadow and its valley. Something that is suggested by the valley imagery and implied by its name. And something that has been experientially proven to me.
As I sat on that hill that evening watching the sun set – as I was catching my breath from the hike up the path – a cancerous tumor the size of a man’s hand was spreading its fingers over every vital organ in my chest, threatening to choke out my life in a matter of months.
I would find this out just a few weeks later. And the subsequent chemotherapy necessary to rid my being of this cancer would change the landscape of my life for at least the next two years. I could tell of four specific occurrences in which death loomed so near I shivered in its shadow. It was all I could see. And I would have to tell you that I was afraid. I was afraid mostly for my family. Who would care for them if I were to leave this world so long before them?
While many might legitimize this fear in terms of genuine love and concern, I have seen it to be in me a lack of trust. Could I trust our Good Shepherd to do here what I could no longer do if I were dead? Could I trust Him enough to agree with Him when He said it was my time to go?
King David did not quiver in this shadow, and he has left his God-inspired poetry as a clue for us as to how this was so for him. He tells us why he did not fear, and why we need not fear, as well.
“Even 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.”
In the darkness of the shadow of the valley, the sheep may not be able to see the shepherd, but it could feel the end of the shepherd’s staff nudging it along, guiding it first this way, and then that, keeping the sheep on the path, near the shepherd, and out of harm’s way. And though not knowing much (why they were there, where they were going) the sheep would know that if there was the shepherd’s staff, then there was also the shepherd.
We do not have a physical rod or staff to guide us in this life, but neither are we sheep. We are people. And just as a rod and staff would provide guidance and security for a sheep in the shadows, the Word and the Spirit do the same for us in our darkest seasons.
The Word of Christ and the Spirit of Christ testify to the presence of Christ, who evoked this imagery when He spoke of Himself as The Good Shepherd. It is through these means – the Word and the Spirit – that God seeks to communicate to us still that He is with us, and our valleys are no surprise to Him. This rod and this staff tell us that God is here, He knows what He is doing, and we can trust Him to work His good through this bad thing.
There was one other significant thing that God did for me (and in me) that weekend up near Inspiration Peak. The evening I left the camp I stopped my car where the gravel road leaving Inspiration Point met up with the highway. There was one book I had brought along that I hadn’t found the time to read, and fortunately for me, the author of this book had included a CD of himself reading the book. Convinced that it was alright if I listened to something other than music, I put the CD in my stereo and pulled onto the highway.
The book was by Minneapolis Pastor John Piper. It was poetry – a four-part poem on the life of Job called The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God. As a work of art I consider it to hold the potential of a classic. And as balm for the soul, I consider it one of the more foundational works in fortifying my faith in the strength and goodness of God.
I drove the backroads of central Minnesota for forty-five minutes that evening in a life-changing blurr. With the sun already set, the moon rising high, the windows down and tears blurring my vision, I drove slowly, turning onto whatever road seemed most conducive to the solitude I needed to fully absorb the story I was being told.
Job’s story spoke so deeply into my being that God could be trusted. And that God was so good, and so strong, that His good purposes would be accomplished – not merely in spite of Satan’s rage – but even in and through Satan’s efforts to destroy whatever God has made and is making good.
Redemption is something God does. No one does redemption like God. He alone can take something absolutely awful and take hold of it for the absolutely best possible outcome. It is for this reason that in this season of Lent we remember and honor Christ on the Cross. For on Calvary, God brought that which is absolutely good through that which was absolutely awful. Christ, with our sin on His body, hanging upon our cross, was forsaken by God so that we need never be removed from God’s life-sustaining presence. Because of Christ we can always say, “the Lord is with us.”
And In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the Lord in anguish, crying out to His Father on the eve of His descent into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He prays with blood and tears for another way to the other side of this valley. Yet being it was clear to Him that His Father was leading Him on this Path of Righteousness as He always had, and that this Path went through the Valley, Jesus spoke His resolve in these words, “Not my will, but Yours, be done.”
So God in Christ, our Good Shepherd, knows exactly what it is like to want a way out, to ache for a better way. God gets it. He understands. Yet in the perfect display of trust which followed – His body broken and His blood spilled out – our Good Shepherd not only taught us trust, but fulfilled trust for us.
In faith and in the sacraments we bind ourselves to Christ. We remember His suffering and His obedience. We remember His trust in following His Father into the Valley and to the Cross. And we bind ourselves to Him. I need this. I need communion. If I am to walk the path into the valley I need more than the faith I can muster, I need His. I need to commune with The Good Shepherd. I need Him with me. I need Him in me.
There is one last vital thing we must remember about valleys, and it is so obvious that we can too easily take it for granted. It is demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection. It is implied in the language of the 23rd Psalm. And it is the substance of the hope that keeps us walking in the Shadow of Death, whether that death is the death of a relationship, a dream, a career, a loved one, our health, or our bodies.
The vital thing we must remember about valleys is that valleys lie between high places. Though the path of righteousness leads into the valley, it does not end there. It goes through. The Shepherd is with us through the valley. There is an end to this struggle.
“For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:31-32).
“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all Grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (I Peter 5:10).
There is a view on the other side of the valley that will be worth all our sorrow. To see it, God must first heal our eyes, and He does this in the Shadow of the Valley. God has things to tell us on the other side that we cannot hear unless our ears are healed, and He does this in the Silence of the Valley.
The Word and the Spirit, our Shepherd’s rod and staff, assure us that “the end of a matter is better than it’s beginning.” Though the Good Shepherd may lead us into The Valley of the Shadow of Death, He does not leave us there. The path goes through. We must remember that just as Christ is no longer on the Cross or in the Grave, we are travelers – visitors – in the Valley. Not residents, not citizens.
“For our citizenship is in heaven…”
It is the High Countries to which we belong. It is there from which we have come, and it is there to which we are going.
“And [we] will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”