Psalm 23 – Part 4
As we continue our series on Psalm 23-one of the themes we’ve been looking at is the idea of journeys. So as we’re on the cusp of summer-does anybody have any good journeys coming up? Anybody going somewhere exciting on vacation-or traveling somewhere new? Anybody wish they were going somewhere fun this summer-but don’t think they are? Is there anybody who doesn’t want to go anywhere-but just stay right here-that here’s good and you’re fine staying put? Most of us are hardwired to love traveling and exploring new places-that going on journeys is part of who we are. So I want to highlight two distinct types of journeys-and the first is the mountains. Who’s gone to the mountains and journeyed to the top? This could be the mountains upstate like the Catskills or Adirondacks-or the Smokey Mts in TN or the Rocky Mts in CO-Dave is hiking Mt. Rainier this summer. I really want to go to Mt Washington in NH. And maybe you hiked up, drove up, took the train up or a cable car-but there’s something amazing and exhilarating about reaching the top. We love that feeling of accomplishment and looking across the sweeping views for as far as the eye can see-at least if it’s a clear day. One of the most disappointing moments in life was when Monica and I were in Switzerland and we took the mountain train to the top of the Jungfrau peak-one of the highest in the Alps-and the moment we got off the fog and the clouds were so thick we could hardly see our hands in front of our faces. We sat at the restaurant with the panoramic views and imagined how great it would be if the fog lifted-which it never did! Wow-bet that’s incredible out the window! Now a year ago-we went with the family to Bear Mt-not nearly as high as the Alps-but it was a clear day and at the top we saw that awesome view of the NYC skyline in the distance. Or several years ago my brother and I hiked up Enchanted Rock in TX (again not all that high) but at the top you get these amazing views of the Hill Country just outside of Austin with all the cactus’ and scraggly trees. Unfortunately since it was TX it was blistering hot and all I had for my brother and I to drink at the top was a couple of cans of warm Mt Dew in my backpack! Not the most refreshing when you’re dying of thirst-which is a fact he still reminds me of these days, saying he almost died at the top! Hey Jim-got any more warm Mt Dew! But hopefully at some point in life you journeyed to the summit and had that mountaintop experience which is unlike anything else.
What about the opposite? What about the other type of journey which is the valley down below? Here’s a picture of the lowest place in North America-and it’s Death Valley, CA-pic1. Look at that-hot, dry parched land with the sun beating directly down-talk about blistering heat! Anybody been here? And if so-has anybody done any hiking after 10am? Because look at this warning-pic2. And don’t even think about bringing your dog! Death Valley has recorded the hottest temperatures on planet earth-apparently it got up to 134 degrees in 1913! That’s why this guy showed up when the temps were a bit chillier-pic3. Would anybody enjoy posing for that picture? He might think warm Mt Dew is great! But Death Valley is a massive expanse of emptiness with little to no shade-and the least amount of rainfall-the average is 2 inches of rain-a year! Hot and dry to the nth degree-pic4. Look at that-53 miles through nothing until the museum! Not a single tree or building on the horizon! Now for some of you that might sound great-getting away from all the hustle and bustle of life to a place of stillness and solitude-truly hitting the open road. But for others, this might be the last place on earth you’d want to travel to-as it’s nothing but extreme heat and emptiness-just brown, barren land as far as the eye can see. And yet I wonder whether all of us have traveled to a place like this spiritually. That at one point or another in life we’ve come to this place of barrenness and emptiness, where we’re parched and weary inside, our souls dried up and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of hope on the horizon. We all agree that mountaintop experiences are amazing-but sometimes-oftentimes-it’s the valley where we find ourselves, and we wonder how we made it here, how the journey brought us to a place like this.
This is exactly where we’re going this morning as we continue our series on Psalm 23-but instead of it being Death Valley National Park, we’re talking about the hard and painful Valley of the Shadow of Death. Ps 23:1-3. Now the refreshment and blessing of green pastures and still waters is where we want to be-and as we follow the Lord He promises to take us there. David isn’t saying maybe you’ll get there-he’s telling us that our good Shepherd will take us there-but sometimes the road isn’t as straight as we’d like, sometimes the journey isn’t as quickly as we’d hope. Who’s been on a long car trip wondering if you’ll ever reach the destination? When we travel back to visit family in IA going through the wilds of PA on I-80 never seems to end, will this state ever be finished-but we’ve got to go through it to get home. And it’s the same in life-not enduring PA-but going where we don’t want to go. Our good Shepherd leads us to green pastures and still waters-but sometimes the journey there goes through the valley first.
And that’s what David goes on to describe-Ps 23:4. There’s a lot to unpack in that verse-but I want to start by recognizing what this valley is. And it’s clear that it isn’t a pleasant place-rather it progressively gets worse as the phrase continues. It’s the valley-not the mountaintop with wide-open spaces and breathtaking views-it’s the low spots, the ravine way down there-the deep and dark places where the mountaintop seems like a distant reality. It’s the valley of the shadow-and nothing good ever happens in the shadows. When it comes to the literal shepherding images-the shadows were where the bandits and wild animals would hide out in order to steal or kill the sheep. For sheep it’s the equivalent of walking down a dark alley or a dark path at night. Anybody have the experience of camping when it’s nighttime, you’re in your tent-and you realize you need to head to the bathroom one last time before going to sleep. And 2 things always seem to happen-the bathrooms are forever away from where you set up camp-and the batteries in your flashlight don’t seem to work (I suppose you can use your phone) but it’s this long, dark walk at night through the path in the woods where the light of the moon is casting dark shadows across the trees-and you’re just slightly on edge not knowing what’s in the wood-every little snap and creak of a stick makes you jumpy and nervous-and every horror movie you ever seen vividly comes to mind. Who’s out there? That’s what the sheep are experiencing in this place-the uncertainty of who or what is lurking in the shadows. Because the thinking is-this could be the end of me-I’m a goner! It’s the valley of the shadow-of death. This is the place where you think-I won’t get out of here. I won’t survive this. I’m not making it through this. Now for the sheep that’s the real threat of a hungry lion or bear lurking in the shadows ready to devour them for lunch. But for you and me this image speaks just as loudly because we’ve all gone through situations where we didn’t think we’d survive or make it through. And that could certainly be a life or death health crisis where you didn’t know if you’d live or make it through the surgery or get to Christmas. That the valley of the shadow of death literally had death lurking at the end. But that could also be lots of other situations in life that were so hard, so challenging you didn’t think you’d survive it or get through it. Maybe it’s your job where you’re in over your head, everyone around you is just waiting for you to mess-up and you have no idea how you’ll survive it or succeed. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s fallen apart and you don’t think you’ll make it through another day dealing with the loss or the accusations. Maybe it’s a struggle you’re facing, a pain you’re experiencing, or suffering you’re enduring-and you think-This is it. This is where I’m stuck in life-there’s no way out, no hope, No matter where I go or what I do-it just gets darker and more difficult around every corner. I’m never getting out of this rut or escaping this valley. So Pt1:Definition: It’s a dark, dire, uncertain, threatening, perilous, this could be the end of me place. Have you been there before? Are you there right now? I think we’ve all experienced moments like this in life we didn’t think we’d get through.
So what do we do? How do we survive the valley of the shadow of death? Can we survive the valley of the shadow of death? Do we need to resign ourselves to misery and ruin? Grin and bear it? Grumble and complain? Collapse in fear? If we’re honest, those responses are our default mode. We tell ourselves-I’m stuck, this is it, I’m done for, life is over! If you’re a pessimist-the valley of the shadow of death will magnify that. And even if you’re an optimist-the valley of the shadow of death will try you and test you like you’ve never been tested before. If there was ever a guy who endured this valley it was Job. Remember him-the guy who literally lost everything-his health, his wealth, his livestock, his home, his children, even his wife-all in an instant. Here’s what he said to God-Job 10:20-22. That’s it-I’m a goner. I’m done for! Now if you read Job’s story He’s not done for. God will reveal Himself to Job in some incredible ways-showing Job how great He is-restoring Job to a better place than ever before. But initially-his gut reaction is this-cease and leave me alone, Lord. He’s saying-Let me wallow in my misery and try to scrap by with whoever joy I can muster up in this terrible place. Just go away from me. And God in His graciousness didn’t heed Job’s words and leave him alone-and won’t for you and me either.
Back to Ps 23:4a. Pause there-because we’re going to ask why in a moment. But I want you to hear those first 2 words-even though. When do we say that? Is it when we’re excited about something? Even though I have to eat steak and lobster tonight, I can’t wait to come home and watch tv. Even though I have to take a 10-day cruise in the Bahamas, I’m really looking forward to getting back to work. No it’s the opposite! Even though I have to work long hours, I can’t wait until I’m leaving for that 10-day cruise. We say even though about something we don’t like. Even though is about enduring something we don’t want to endure. Even though is about dealing with something we don’t want to deal with-because there’s something else carrying us through-there’s hope and there’s help out there. And that’s exactly the case here-Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death-which sounds terrible to me, which I’d rather avoid at all costs because I may never get through it. Even though I walk through this awful place-I will fear no evil. We said we would ask why in a moment-but that phrase even though prompts our first response-Pt2:Our Response:It’s not the destination, but a part of the journey.
It isn’t where you’re forever stuck or have to remain. If the journey of life is like the railway, you’re not boarding a train that says valley of the shadow of death at the front. The conductor doesn’t say-Everybody off-train stops here-valley of the shadow of death-please remember to take all your belongings and exit at the back. It’s not the destination, it’s only a place along the way. And we have to tell ourselves that-because how often do we think that the valley is where God has dropped us off to stay. That we’ve made too many mistakes in life, sinned too much, made Him made at us-so now we’re here stuck in this miserable valley to stay, never to leave. That your pain is permanent, your heartache will never be healed, your trials will never stop. But that’s not what Psalm 23 says. Look at how Job describes the difference between this idea of journey versus destination in one of his better moments-Job 23:10. The testing is the journey, being refined like gold is the destination. Or James 1:2-4 NIV. That’s the destination-being mature and complete-the journey is the trials of many kinds. But we mix it up all the time. Or we think that taking one foot is the valley is wrong-get out, fix it, solve it, be done with it and avoid it at all costs-instead of calmly and confidently going through it-which is exactly what we’re called to do-Ps 23:4-and we said we’d ask why-for you are with me. There’s hope in the midst of the valley, there’s light in the shadows and darkness-because your Good Shepherd is with you! And that makes all the difference! He may not instantly fix it-but He’s always with you.
And I want you to notice the broader context of this statement-Ps 23:1-3. And last week we highlighted how it said He 4 times. Following the Lord isn’t about what we have to do-but what He’s done for us. And yet when we continue reading look at how the word switches-Ps 23:4. And it’s you throughout the rest of the Psalm. In those moments of journeying through the valley of the shadow of death-the Lord is no longer a distant He out there. You don’t have to cry out-Come help me, Lord. Instead you can confidently declare-You are with me-because He’s already there! And that’s Pt3:Our Response:It’s not where you are, but who you’re with. That is a huge difference-because how much time do you spend in the valley worried about where you are? How often are you looking around and getting all freaked out by your circumstances, scared about what’s up ahead, worried that the walls are closing in and you’re going to get stuck? Or are you looking at who you’re with? The surroundings or the Savior? Remember what happened to Peter on the stormy sea? As He was looking to Jesus he was literally walking on water, doing what is totally impossible but completely possible through Jesus. Amazing-until what? His focus shifted. His eyes turned away. Instead of looking straight ahead at Jesus, he looked down at his surroundings, down at the stormy seas-and then he began to sink. And it’s no difference for us-doesn’t matter if it’s the stormy seas or the shadowed valleys. What defines your confidence isn’t where you are, but who you’re with. It’s not whether you think you’ve got this, but it’s knowing that He does. Because why? Again we keep asking this question-but it’s so important. Why does knowing that Jesus is with us give us confidence to dispel our fears? Because of what He does.
Take a look at the last image in Ps 23:4. Jesus doesn’t come empty-handed! Your Good Shepherd doesn’t chase after you through the valleys only to realize He doesn’t have what He needs. Jesus comes prepared to protect you, guide you and fight your battles for you. One commentary I was reading called his rod and staff-his club and crook. I love that! He’s got a club to fight off the wild animals and His shepherd’s crook to lead you through the dark and windy path. So often we wonder if we have the right tools, the right skillset, or the right training and education-and those things are important-but at the end of the day our trust isn’t what we’ve brought on the journey or put in our pack-but what He’s brought to protect us-his club and his crook. And David himself-the writer of this Psalm gives a vivid example of this very thing from his shepherding days. Look at how he describes the way he protects the sheep-1 Sam 17:34-35. Talk about a courageous shepherd! Anybody brave enough to grab a lion by his beard and smack him? Or use your club and hit him? If I’m one of David’s sheep there’s nothing I have to fear if my shepherd is willing to do that! He’s not telling the sheep to fight off the lions and bears themselves-he’s fighting for them. All they have to do is trust in him. Fear can be replaced by confidence and comfort. And it’s no different for us-Pt4:Our Response:It’s not a place of paralyzing fear, but of quiet confidence. What if that was true for you? What if that was your response in the valley-not paralyzing, run away at all costs type of fear-but a quiet, steady confidence that your God will fight for you; that your Shepherd will protect you? Look at Exodus 14:13-14. The Israelites were told to be a people of quiet confidence as they stood next to the Red Sea. They didn’t need to fear the thundering Egyptian army-they just needed to wait and watch, to stand firm and trust in their good God. David says the same thing as he faces the thundering giant Goliath-1 Sam 17:37. What Saul says in jest, the Lord does-He’s with David, He protects David, He strengthens David to fight who everyone else fears-and that’s exactly what He does for us! The Lord’s presence and protection in the valley is far stronger than anything we fear-Ps 23:4.
What if that was true of your life? What if you experienced the Lord’s protection and comfort in the valley, instead of being paralyzed with fear. What if you trusted in your good Shepherd-knowing that He uses His rod and His staff to fight for you and save you? And in a far lesser way I experienced that this past week as I saved a wild animal. It wasn’t a sheep, I didn’t grab a lion by the beard and punch it-but I saved a bunny. And instead of using a rod and staff, I used a pair of pliers. There was this bunny stuck in our chainlink fence. Through one of the openings half his body was through but his bottom half was too big to get through-so he was totally stuck and frantically shaking! Our dog alerted us to this problem as he stood there barking at this stuck bunny making him shake with fear all the more! So I tried pushing his behind through the fence-but it was too large to get through. So I grabbed a pair of pliers to widen the opening for him in the fence. And I’d never heard a bunny squeal before-but this one did. And I kept saying calm down little bunny as I was pulling on the fence-as if the bunny understood me! And even after I made the opening wider-I had to get one of his back legs untangled from the fence before he finally dashed off in safety. And as I thought it about afterwards I realized how much we’re like that bunny. He was totally helpless and would have died if I hadn’t intervened on his behalf. What kind of bunny tries to go through a tiny opening in a fence-what a dumb thing to do! He was completely stuck from his own doing. And yet how often are we totally stuck from the dumb things we do? How often are we helpless and caught from the foolish decisions of our own sin? And unless someone far greater intervenes-we’re left shaking and squealing until we would otherwise die. But we have a good Shepherd who doesn’t leave us stuck in our sins. We have a good Shepherd who looks past all of our foolish, sinful, stubborn mistakes and intervenes on our behalf-rescuing us with His rod and His staff. Even more than that-rescuing us with a cross. Pt5:Our Response:It’s not what destroys me, because He defeated it for me.
Here’s what this all funnels towards-Jesus is not only with us in the valley of the shadow of death-He literally experiences that death for us so we wouldn’t have to. What should have destroyed us, what should have been our death, becomes His instead. Remember-John 10:11, 17-18. And that was totally necessary because of our sins. The wages of sin is death. Death is the just penalty our sins deserve. Death is our eternal destiny, the place where we’re forever stuck unless someone far greater than us intervenes-and that’s Jesus. And where did His death occur? In the deepest and darkest valley our world has ever known-Luke 23:44-46. Jesus died and thereby defeated death so you and I could be forgiven, set free and live. He is able to go with you through the valley of the shadow of death because He literally experienced that death and darkness for you. This valley isn’t the end, it’s not what destroys you-it’s only a place you go through-because your good Shepherd has come to save you. John 11:25-26. That’s where the journey ends-not the valley of the shadow of death but eternal life in Him! Do you believe that? Have you trusted in your Good Shepherd? That’s where it begins-a relationship with Him!
Psalm 23 – Part 4