THE SHEPHERD WHO DISPELS OUR FEARS
When was a time you were really afraid. I'm guessing we all have been through experiences that made fear well up within us. Such experiences start when we are quite young. For instance, from somewhere came this idea of the boogeyman. I don’t know if this creature is known and feared in all countries, but in the US where I am from, most all children know about the boogeyman.
The boogeyman was mean and ugly and wanted nothing more than to frighten and hurt small children. Although as a child I never saw the boogeyman, I was quite sure that he lived underneath our basement stairs. I hated when I had to go downstairs for some reason by myself.
When we get older, we still may be paralyzed by made up fears. We may be reluctant to take a risk because we're afraid something bad might happen. What if I accept a job in another town but I don't make any friends there? What if I take a trip to another part of the world and I get sick? What if I agree to do something at church I've never done before and I fail? Sometimes we're afraid of what might happen, though it might not.
And then there are fears that are far from imaginary; they are based in real life experiences. Maybe once we or a loved one faced a serious illness, and we feared it was the end. Or maybe our family has a history of a particular illness, and we fear it will eventually strike us as well. Maybe once we got lost and we were afraid for we found ourself in a very unsafe neighborhood.
We all have experienced fears of one kind or another. In Psalm 23 God offers us hope in the face of fearful situations. We have been working our way through this magnificent psalm, and today we come to a very familiar line: "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." If the Lord is your shepherd and you are His sheep, you will have a source of courage to overcome your fears.
In speaking of fear, David pictures a valley for us. We may wonder what is fearful about a valley, for when we think of a valley we likely envision a lush, green meadow with some scenic hills gently rising up on each side, and maybe a clear stream slowly meandering through the valley. It's very peaceful, kind of a postcard scene. But that's not the kind of valley David had in mind when he wrote this psalm.
The valleys David was familiar with in ancient Israel were more like deep, sharp, and rugged chasms. They were narrow with steep, jagged sides. They were dangerous places, especially for sheep. A sheep might lose its footing or a rock might give way causing the sheep to fall, perhaps breaking a leg or something worse. Hidden among the rocks and shadows of the valley could be snakes ready to strike, or wild animals such as wolves or mountain lions ready to pounce on a defenseless sheep. Valleys were dangerous places for the sheep, especially if darkness covered the valley, hiding the dangers present.
David knew that in life we sometimes face circumstances that are just as dangerous for us as those steep valleys were for his sheep. Maybe we are more familiar with the wording " Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," but it is better translated as "the darkest valley," even as our pew Bibles, the NIV, render it. The valley of deep darkness would include death, but there are other dangers besides death that confront us and threaten us. For us, the dark valley may be a time of serious illness, or a boss who continually belittles us, or having a teenage child who is living a rebellious lifestyle, or betrayal by a business partner, or a marriage that is falling apart. The valley is a dark place, and there are more than a few dangers in the valley.
The truth is, the valleys are part of life in this fallen, broken world, just as they were for the sheep in ancient Israel. In the springtime the shepherd would have his flocks graze in the lowlands. But with the summer heat the snow higher up in the mountains would melt, leaving behind fresh green grass. So the shepherd would have to take his sheep to higher elevations, climbing up the treacherous and dangerous slopes of the valleys and ravines to green pastures. For the sheep, traversing the valleys was part of the normal course of life.
David was likely thinking about the times when he, as a young shepherd, would lead his sheep through the valleys and up the canyons and ravines. He remembered the dangers that posed to his sheep, and how the sheep stayed close on his heals for the protection he offered. Perhaps David still had some scars on his arms or legs from fending off wild animals in the valleys of deep darkness.
As he does throughout this psalm, David related the experience of his sheep to that of God's sheep, human beings like you and me. We all at times have to make our way through some dangerous passages. Sometimes we have the mistaken notion that if we have received Christ as our Savior, if we're trying to live a godly life, God will spare us from all trials and challenges in life. But Scripture tells a different story. The saints in the Bible often had to deal with crushing circumstances, and sometimes that was directly because of their obedience to God. No one is spared the darkness and dangers of the valleys.
Certainly David had more than his fill of dangerous and even life-threatening situations, with everyone from King Saul to the Philistines to even his own son Absalom trying to kill him. Yet David knew that even in the midst of dark and threatening valleys, the Lord was leading him, the Lord His shepherd would be with him and protect him, so he did not have to be afraid.
It's helpful at this point to think for a moment about the kind of courage a sheep needs, for to fear no evil in dark and threatening situations requires courage. When facing a dangerous and threatening situation where is the courage of the sheep located to deliver it from fear?
Think about this: a sheep does not need courage to fight its enemies. All the courage in the world will not enable a sheep to be victorious against even the weakest of lions or slowest of wolves. The sheep will always lose that battle. What a sheep needs is courage to trust the shepherd. When it senses a predator nearby, it looks to the shepherd, and is confident in the shepherd's strength and care. When it is climbing up a steep and slippery slope of the valley, it's courage lays in trusting the shepherd to lead it safely. And that takes courage - to trust rather than to panic.
That's the kind of courage we need also. Jesus has promised that He will never leave or forsake us, that He is with us always. The fact is, often the enemies we face are greater and stronger than we are. At such times, the wise thing to do is to entrust ourselves to the care of our Good Shepherd. We look to Him for protection, and we trust Him for guidance as to how to navigate this dangerous situation. It doesn't mean we do nothing, but we look to God to be our strength and guide as we trust in His wisdom and love.
Whatever dark shadows are surrounding you right now, whatever dangers you are facing, take courage and trust the Good Shepherd. The Lord knows all about them. He will never abandon you. He will be your strength, and He will give you His peace that passes all understanding.
Of course, the darkest valley we face is the valley of death, whether that is our own death or the approaching death of a loved one. Most people fear death. It may terrify us. It may make us angry, as we feel it is not fair. We may try to deny death, to cover it up in some sense because we are too fearful to face it head on. It's no wonder, for Scripture tells us that death is an enemy, and even those who put no confidence in the Bible as God's word would agree with that.
David knew all about this dark valley, as numerous times his life was in jeopardy, both as a shepherd protecting his sheep and also as a military leader and king of his people. Yet David could face even this enemy with courage, for he knew he didn't face it alone; God his Shepherd was with him. “You are w/ me.”
David was so convinced of God's presence and faithfulness that at this point in the psalm he switches pronouns. Up until now he has been speaking about God in the third person: "He makes me lie down, He leads me, He restores my soul, He guides me." In other words, David has been talking about God. He has been declaring to others how wonderful God his Shepherd is.
But now David addresses God personally as he changes to second person pronouns. "Though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." Now David is talking directly to God. David enjoyed an intimacy with God, and it was this intimacy that really came to the forefront and gave David encouragement when he walked through the dark valley. In the valley David talked directly with God - “You are w/ me.” - for he knew God was with him. What a difference it makes knowing that God is in the valley with us! That is what we can experience as we cultivate our relationship with God and come to know Him deeply.
You can address God in this personal way only if you have a deep and personal relationship with God, if You have come to know God's character and have experienced His faithfulness. Then you can not only speak the truth, but you can speak the truth with conviction. This is what David does. “You are w/ me.” He had faced many enemies in his life, including the enemy of death as on a number of occasions his life was threatened. And he was convinced from his own experiences that God was with him. Even in the darkest valley he would fear no evil. Why? Because David was confident in his own strength and cunning and ability? No, that is not where his confidence was. He would not fear because the God of all creation, the God of unlimited power and unending love, was with him.
And so God will be with us even in our darkest moments and most fearful times. God will be with us because that is His nature. He is our Good Shepherd. As our Good Shepherd, Jesus even laid His life down for us. This doesn't mean everything will always work out to our liking, for this is a fallen, broken world where evil abounds and no one is immune from that. But God will not abandon us, and His ultimate will shall come to pass. Even though we all must face the dark valley of death one day, we know that death is a defeated enemy. Jesus Himself faced death, and He came out victorious on the other side, and as I Cor. 15:57 assures us, God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
David wrote, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley." David didn't simply say, "Even though I walk into the darkest valley," but he said, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley." To walk through means we emerge on the other side. The shepherd didn't lead his sheep into the dangerous valley so they could stay there, but he led his sheep through the valley because there was something better on the other side.
So when we face the darkness and dangers of the valleys, we can be assured that God's purpose is to lead us through it to something better. As a result of going through that dark valley, perhaps our faith will be strengthened or our character refined. Maybe we will become more compassionate and understanding of others going through turbulent times. It could be that God will use such difficulties to strip away from us false gods we have been trusting in and clinging to so we can trust more fully in Him.
So as those who have trusted in Jesus, we have nothing to fear when walking through the dark valleys. We need not fear even in the face of death, for in one way or another we will walk through it. Either God will bring us healing or protection, and thus we are spared from death as we walk through that threatening circumstance and emerge with renewed strength and faith. Or when that time comes, as it will for all of us, that our earthly journey is ending, there again we emerge on the other side of the valley and find ourselves in the very presence of God, and there we will rejoice and delight forever.
And when the valleys we walk through are not as serious as the valley of death, we have the same confidence that God is with us and so He will help us walk through the valley. That trial or challenge is not a dead end street; we won't remain there forever. Whether it's the pain of a broken relationship, or the disappointment of not getting into our first choice for a university, the despair of losing our job, or the devastation of financial failure, God will help us emerge on the other side. And the result of that will be we will grow in faith, our character will be transformed, our compassion for others will increase, our wisdom will deepen, our priorities will be reordered, and we will have the sure conviction that God is always with us.
It's like the Andre Crouch song Through It All:
I thank God for the mountains, and I thank Him for the valleys,
I thank Him for the storms He brought be through;
For if I'd never had a problem
I wouldn't know that He could solve them,
I'd never know what faith in God could do.
Through it all, through it all,
I've learned to trust in Jesus, I've learned to trust in God;
Through it all, through it all,
I've learned to depend upon His word.
David could have written that song, because that was his experience, and it is the experience of all of us. We all go through valleys of darkness, but we can trust in God that He will be with us, working on our behalf, transforming our character, and deepening our faith.
Then David goes on to describe the comfort he feels even when facing the darkest and most dangerous valleys. In the first place God is with Him. Second, God has the strength and ability to protect him. "Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." The rod and staff symbolize God's power and love.
The rod was a wooden club about two feet long with a round head at one end into which the shepherd pounded sharp bits of stone or metal. With that club the shepherd could successfully beat back an attacking animal. The rod symbolized the power of the shepherd.
As we've seen in pictures, the staff was a longer stick bent at one end in the shape of a hook. With that he could pull to safety a lamb that had slipped down a steep slope or stepped into a hole, or to pull back the branches if the sheep became entangled in a thicket of bushes and briars. The shepherd's staff represented his love and concern for his sheep.
The rod represented God's power, and the staff stood for his compassion. Together they symbolized God's commitment to protect His sheep, His people, and thus they provide us with comfort. We can be confident that no challenge is too great for God, no valley so dark that the light of His presence cannot penetrate.
And the fact is, it is really only in God's power that we can trust. Scripture reminds us that we are in a spiritual battle, that we fight not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of darkness. Against the evil one, we are no match in our own strength. So Eph. 6:10 reminds us, "Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power." The courage we need is to really trust in God, in His power and His care. And truly, sometimes that takes courage.
Of course, sometimes we're rather afraid of God's power. After all, power can be a frightening thing. In many religions as well as mythology, divine power often is a cause for fear, for it comes in the form of lightning bolts being hurled from the heavens. In other words, divine power is associated with punishment. And we all know we've done more than enough things to deserve God's punishment. But as Haddon Robinson writes:
"...David's Shepherd and our Shepherd is as tender as He is powerful....He cannot use His power outside His love, just as He cannot exercise His holiness apart from His grace. God's might is at the service of His heart. The enemies of the Shepherd may fear the rod and the staff, but the sheep receive comfort from them. They know these weapons will be used only in their defense."
God’s rod and His staff, His power and His compassion, bring us comfort, even in the darkest valley.
In addition to trusting in God's power and compassion, David knew he could also trust in God's wisdom. As the shepherd led his sheep through a treacherous valley, he knew the potential dangers that lurked there - a rockslide, snakes hiding beneath the rocks, wild animals looking down from their perches higher up the slopes. Nothing would catch the shepherd by surprise.
We can have that same assurance, for as God declared in Is. 46:10, "I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come." God knows the future as well as He knows the past. Nothing catches God by surprise. So there is no trial we may face, no evil that can threaten us that God is not fully aware of and fully prepared to help us deal with it. No wonder David said he would fear no evil, for God is both aware of the danger of that evil and God has power over it. So, as we trust in God we can be assured and comforted in all the dark and threatening situations of life.
Phillip Keller writes:
"As Christians we will sooner or later discover that it is in the valleys of our lives that we find refreshment from God Himself. It is not until we have walked with Him through some very deep trouble that we discover He can lead us to find our refreshment in Him right there in the midst of our difficulty."
That's true, isn't it! When everything in life is going smoothly and all our circumstances are pleasant, we can easily be oblivious to God. It's when we are facing challenges, maybe even pushed to the limit, that we become keenly aware of our need for God. And that is when we likely turn to God and God becomes real. Then we know His presence, faithfulness, and love.
We will all go through some dark valleys in life. When we have placed our faith in Jesus, when we have entered into a relationship with the Good Shepherd, we need never fear even the darkest valley. The valley still may be difficult, but He is with us in the valley and all things are under His control. He will lead us through, accomplishing His good purposes for us even in the darkest valleys.