Psalm 23 is a very beautiful chapter in the Bible. It reads:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in 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 you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
It is easy for us to say, yes Jesus, lead us to where the green pastures are. Take us to quiet waters of refreshment and peace. But the valley of the shadow of death… do we have to go there?
The “paths of righteousness” of the Lord are not just in the green pastures and the quiet waters of life. Part of the paths of righteousness is the valley of the shadow of death. For those of us who have said YES to Christ’s lordship, we live, echoing Philippians 3:10-11: I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
The death valleys are seasons when we feel suffocated by trial; as if death came upon us. And truly, death comes in so many shapes. There is physical death where sickness and accidents create a shadow of death. There is emotional death where we feel hopeless, depressed, and ensconced by fear. Our spirits also have moments when we feel so dead—oh, so very far from God, especially when we struggle with sin. We feel we cannot hear His voice anymore due to the pain or the intensity of our emotions.
It is for the sake of Christ’s name that we are led to paths of righteousness. We can embrace our whole lives—the good times and the bad times– as one holy encounter where our Savior does not leave us. He guides us even in the dark. Our Lord Jesus comforts us. There is nothing to fear because He is with us.
I used to think the rod and the staff of a shepherd were purely for discipline. But then I thought to myself: In a dark valley where sheep are terrified, what does a shepherd do with his rod and staff? Is it for spanking the already-distressed sheep? The whole trial may certainly feel like a spanking (especially if our hard-headedness caused us consequences; hence, the discipline), but how does a shepherd’s rod and staff comfort sheep in the dark?
Eyes have a hard time seeing when dark. I realized that the rod and the staff of a shepherd keep the sheep from straying off the path—yes, away from the cliffs at the edge of the valleys. It is the rod and the staff, too, that the shepherd uses to keep away all dangerous animals like wolves, coyotes and lions. How can the shepherd see? He has the source of light with him. In Jesus’ case, He is the Source of Light.
In the darkest of our trials, something else happens: the Great Shepherd dines with us. When we are weakest, we can stop, be still, and rest in Him. We can share a meal with Jesus. We can feast on His Word. Satan may be prowling around like a lion around us, but he is a defeated foe. The Lord’s CROSS stops Satan from being triumphant in our lives. We can behold Jesus’ face and His glory, and be guided by His eye. Only with Jesus can we traverse this valley of the shadow of death and come out of it in resurrection.
There is another very important principle found in the valley of the shadow of death. This is the place where Jesus anoints us. Note this: the anointing takes place in the valley of the shadow of death— not at the green pastures and peaceful waters. Why? The anointing allows us authority. It is here in the death valley where our own sinful nature dies as we take on the resurrected power of Christ to overcome the enemy of our souls. Victory is in His hands. The Lord sees the end, and it is always triumphant because He is triumphant.
No wonder our cups overflow.
We have a promise from God in this journey of pastures, water, and death valleys: Goodness and lovingkindness will follow us all the days of our lives. ALL the days? All the days—including the difficult, death valley days.
Whenever we find our lives pummeling in all directions, we can declare that God’s goodness and lovingkindness are with us. Our circumstances have to line up with the Word of God because the Word of God is truth. We do not allow our difficult, shadow-of-death circumstances to dictate truth upon us even if our eyes and ears see and hear otherwise.
We can therefore say with utmost joy: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”
Janina Marie Rivera is the Editor-in-Chief of One Voice Magazine, a teacher of world literature, and a student of the Bible. She enjoys reflecting on life’s curve balls and plateaus. She resides in the Philippines, the country known for people who smile a lot.