Psalm 23:1-6 1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 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. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Cassie’s testimony of deliverance this morning is so powerful because it speaks to the deep, deep comfort and peace that knowing God in a personal way can bring to a person’s life. No reassuring words, no bowl of ice cream no matter how large and with how many toppings, no warm blanket and Netflix marathon, can provide the comfort that knowing Jesus personally provides.
Notice in the first three verses that David is in testimony mode. He talks about God and the role God plays in his life. He talks about the relationship that he and God have and how God takes the lead in the relationship. He speaks about the satisfaction that comes to his life because God provides for him, God gives him rest, God gives nourishment to his soul, and God guides his life. This is a beneficial relationship for David because we see that where God guides, God provides.
Then there is a shift in verse four, however, from talking about God to talking to God as David says to God, “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.”
Why the shift? Couldn’t David have just kept on speaking as he was? Couldn’t he have just said, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for He is with me; His rod and His staff, they comfort me?” Here is what I think. David’s language changed because his mind went to the valley, his mind went to the dark times in life, and he was recalling how present, how empowering, how peace-filled he was because God had been with him.
Hear me this morning. When you walk through a valley with God, and you have the experience of His presence and you have the experience of Him protecting you, providing for you, and preserving your life in the valley, and then you have the experience of Him walking you OUT of that valley, it changes your relationship with God forever. It becomes intensely personal. God is no longer just God, but He becomes “MY GOD,” “MY SHEPHERD,” “MY DELIVERER” in a very intimate and personal way.
If God is leading our lives, if He is the Good Shepherd, if He is the one whose name is on the line in that verse about paths of righteousness for His name’s sake, why do we have to suffer? Why do we have to spend time in the valleys of life? Why does our faith have to be challenged by the darkness of the shadows that fall and try to obscure God’s presence? It is for this simple reason: There is a transformation that takes place in the valley that cannot happen on the mountaintop. There is a shift, a change, from knowing about God to knowing God in a personal and intimate way.
God will lead you into valleys so He can love you through valleys.
The path through the valley isn’t the path of destruction. It isn’t the path of despair. It isn’t the path of defeat. It is actually the path of righteousness described in verse 3. The valley can be the righteous path if you will allow it to serve God’s righteous purpose in your life.
Remember what Jesus said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11 That sounds very heroic. That sounds very contradictory to this passage. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for His sheep, why is He leading them into the valley? The valley isn’t the easy place. The valley is the place of shadows. The valley is scary. You can’t see clearly in the valley like you can on the mountaintop. Your perspective is minimized. Why would the Good Shepherd, the One willing to die for His sheep, lead them into the valley and call that a path of righteousness? The only possible answer is that the shift that takes place, the transformation in the relationship between the sheep and the Shepherd in the valley is worth it.
What is revealed to us about God in the valley times of life becomes precious. Like David, we don’t forget what God has done for us in the valley. There is a sweeter bond between God and us that is developed in life’s valleys, and it produces a deeper, more intimate walk on the other side of them. We see that here in the tenderness of David as he shifted his language from what God does to who God is to him in a very personal way.
You may know that David dealt with personal failure. He had an extra marital affair. He had someone killed to cover up the pregnancy that resulted. The baby born from that relationship passed away a week he was born. Those were major valleys. Those were dark times, but those weren’t the only valleys he dealt with. David was King of Israel, the mightiest man in the land, but his life was a valley life. The path to the Kingship was a rough path. It was filled with hardships, battles, and life on the run from people who were trying to kill him. That doesn’t sound like the path of righteousness, but God, who knows how these valley times grow us, was transforming the heart of David into a righteous heart. God was using the valley times to draw David close to His own heart.
David dealt with pain, trauma, and betrayal in his family. David had several wives and several children. One son, Amnon, raped his step-sister Tamar, creating rage in another brother, Absalom and leaving Tamar’s life full of trauma and scars. Absalom and Amnon’s relationship was destroyed, and they didn’t speak for two years. Absalom had Amnon killed, and then Absalom fled and stayed away for three years.
Absalom returned to Jerusalem, but not with good intentions. He conspired against his father to take the Kingship from him. He was successful in convincing the military and civil leaders of Israel that he, Absalom, should be the nation’s King. David found out that Absalom and his army were heading to Jerusalem to assassinate David, so David fled. Absalom actually moved into the palace and then slept with his father’s concubines to try to make a further statement about his power. It goes from sick to sicker, I tell you. Even through it all, David ordered his men to deal gently with Absalom and to spare his life. They didn’t listen, however and killed Absalom. When David got the news of Absalom’s death, through tears he lamented why it couldn’t have been him that had died instead of his son.
Would you agree with me that David had some valleys to walk? Dark ones. Losing children, being separated from your children, having your children separated from one another, watching one of your child suffer violence at the hands of another one of your children, dealing with the betrayal of a child who is trying to kill you and usurp your authority. . . these are all major valleys.
I absolutely believe these valleys were in David’s heart and mind when he penned the words we are studying today. David knew God was the Good Shepherd, even in the valley. I want to tell you three things this morning about valleys and three things about shadows as we move through the rest of our time.
In my valley, my God’s presence is enough. David said the reason he wasn’t afraid in the valley is because he was keenly aware of God’s presence. God doesn’t hide from us in times of trouble, but often we let the voice of God be drowned out by the voice of distress. We allow our ears to hear all that is bad, wrong, or could go wrong instead of giving our ear to the God who is present with us.
Hebrews 13:5b-6 says this: “He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
Writer Kenneth Wilson tells of growing up in Pittsburgh. “That house in which we lived on the side of one of Pittsburgh’s hills was three stories high in the front and four in the back. The bottom layer was the cellar and the top was what we called the third floor, really a finished attic, the ceiling of which was cut into shadowed geometric shapes by dormer windows. Up there were two bedrooms, a hallway, and a mysterious storage room for trunks that always smelled of mothballs and history. Our family slept there, because the second floor was usually rented out for a tenant to help pay the rent.
What was unnerving for Kenneth was that, as the youngest, he had to go to bed first, braving that floor of dark bedrooms. “That bed in that room on the third floor seemed to be at the end of the earth, remote from human habitation, close to unexplained noises and dark secrets.
At my urging, my father would try to stop the windows from rattling, wedging wooden matchsticks into the cracks. But they always rattled in spite of his efforts. Sometimes he would read me a story, but inevitably the time would come when he would turn out the light and shut the door, and I would hear his steps on the stairs, growing fainter and fainter. Then all would be quiet, except for the rattling windows and my cowering imagination.
Once, I remember, my father said, “Would you rather I leave the light on and go downstairs, or turn the light out and stay with you for awhile?” . . . [I chose] presence with darkness, over absence with light. Isn’t that not what we really want most in our valleys—the assurance that Someone is there?
(Kenneth L. Wilson, Have Faith without Fear Harper & Row, 1970), p. 54; from Timothy K Jones, Prayer’s Apprentice (Word, forthcoming)
In my valley, my God’s power is perfect.
David said he was comforted by the Shepherd’s rod that would protect him. The rod, the club a shepherd would carry would defend the sheep from attacks. The shepherd would overpower any enemy that came against the sheep. Listen, in the valley, if you walk with God and listen to Him, you won’t be ruined. You will be restored, rescued and re-made.
You don’t need to experience God’s power on the mountaintop. You don’t need to rely on God’s power on the mountaintop. It is in life’s valleys that you come to appreciate and depend on God’s ability to bring victory to your life.
We are told in Isaiah 40:31 that those who walk with God have an experience that even as they are walking, they are gaining strength. Listen, I remember three years and a month ago when God asked me to walk across Putnam County and I walked 69 miles in four days. Two of the days were over 17 miles. I’m not made for that kind of mileage. I am not made for that kind of journey. I did some training and prep, but I didn’t walk in my own strength. Many prayed for me, and God helped me, but many of you also took time to walk with me.
One day my sweet husband walked the whole day with me, and one day Pastor David walked the whole day with me. Many of you joined me for several hours. The presence of my church family on that journey was God’s way of saying to me, “You can make it.” And guess what? I didn’t lose steam on any day. Each mile should have taken something from me, but it didn’t. It energized me. It invigorated me. It gave me momentum. That is what life is like with the God of the Valley. His power, His energy, His help, will make it possible for you to walk into the valley, through the valley, and out of the valley, stronger than ever.
In my valley, my God’s comfort is real. David said that God’s staff brought him great comfort. The shepherd’s staff had a crook in it so the shepherd could gently pull the sheep to himself if the sheep was getting off track or to help a sheep up if it had fallen. It’s easy to get off track in the valley, for sure. In the darkness of the valley, God lovingly will pull us closer and closer to His side. It is comforting to know that Someone is looking out for us to make sure we don’t lose our way.
We need to allow God to comfort us in the valleys of life, but sometimes in the valley we allow ourselves to be comforted by things other than God. You’ve heard the “misery loves company.” Sometimes we try to find people who are valley dwellers and valley sympathizers and valley commiseraters so that we can all talk about how bad and dark our valleys are. I understand that we all can benefit from a shoulder to cry on from time to time or the support of a friend who knows what we are going through, but if the conversation doesn’t direct us to the God of the Valley and only focuses on the shadows of the valley and the darkness of the valley and the dangers of the valley, we need to find some new people to talk to.
Sometimes we look for comfort in a gallon of Ben and Jerry’s, in shopping for a new outfit, in drugs, alcohol, sexual encounters, or some other form of escape. God wants to love us deeply in the valley in order to transform us on the path of righteousness, but often we are being transformed by the presence of others and the things we turn to for escape.
Listen, when you are in the valley, that is the time to talk even more with the Shepherd. That is the time to make sure you stay on your knees. That is the time to dig into the Word. As you do those things, you will ensure you aren’t listening to the voices of the shadows and darkness that want to obscure God’s presence and voice in the valley, and when you do, you will experience a closeness with God that reminds you everything will be alright. You will make it. You are headed somewhere purposeful and meaningful. David knew he was headed to dwell in the House of the Lord, forever. It brought great comfort to him.
So David calls this valley the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Three quick things about shadows. First of all, Shadows aren’t reality. Shadows can make things appear larger and darker than they actually are. We have a habit of looking to the shadows to define our valley experience rather than looking to the Savior to define it. We shouldn’t do that. Shadows aren’t reality.
Second, Shadows can’t hurt you.
Donald Barnhouse was the pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church when his wife died and left him with young daughters to raise alone. He conducted his own wife’s funeral. It was while driving to that funeral that he realized that he had to say something to explain all of this to his girls, to somehow put in perspective for them something with which he himself was already struggling.
They stopped at a traffic light while driving to the funeral. It was a bright day, and the sun was streaming into the car and warming it. A truck pulled up next to them, and the shadow that came with the truck darkened the inside of the car. It was then that he turned to his daughters and asked, “Would you rather be hit by the shadow or by the truck?”
One of them responded, “Oh, Daddy, that’s a silly question! The shadow can’t hurt you. I would rather be hit by the shadow than by a truck.”
It was then that he tried to explain to them that their mother had died and that it was as if she had been hit by a shadow. It was as if Jesus had stepped in the way in her place, and it was he who had been hit by the truck. He quoted the familiar words of Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” http://www.preachingtoday.com/sermons/sermons/2006/september/valleyofdeathsshadow091106.html
It isn’t the shadows in the valley that are the problem. It is the fear we give in to when we focus on the shadows. Shadows can’t hurt us. We need to stop giving the shadows power over us.
Finally, Behind every shadow there is light somewhere. There are lots of hills and valleys in our beautiful state and depending on where you are traveling there may or may not be sunlight even when you think there should be. I know Thom has told me about a little holler here in our state called Davey, WV. It only gets sun like 6 hours a day even in the summer. It isn’t that the sun is shining, it is just that because of the deep valley that is surrounded by the mountains, there are shadows creating darkness. Listen, you can’t have a shadow without there also being light somewhere.
Jesus called Himself the Light of the World in John 8:12. We must keep our eyes on Him and not on the shadows in the valley. Remember, God is not only leading us into the valley, but He, the Good Shepherd, will lead us out.
Believers and non-believers will all go through valleys. The beauty of my valleys as a believer isn’t the absence of the shadows, but it is the presence of my Good Shepherd.
I don’t know what valley you find yourself in this morning. Some of you are dealing with major disappointment over the election. Your hurt, frustration and disappointment are real. Some of you have gotten bad health news, and you aren’t sure how you will put one foot in front of the other to keep walking. Some of you are dealing with valleys of loneliness, isolation and depression. Others are dealing with the valley of secrets that you are keeping in your marriage or between family members. Some are dealing with valleys of battle where you are having to defend what you believe or to prove yourself in some way. It can get exhausting. Some of you are in a financial valley where it just feels like you can’t make sustained progress. Many of you are walking through the valley of grief. Some of you have been living in the valley of decision, still running from God, still waffling between two lifestyles. I don’t know the name of your valley. But I do know this: God can be seen and experienced in the valley in transformational ways, ways that change not only the nature of your relationship, but the course of your life. Trust Him. Let God be your personal God in the valley through which you are walking. He will lead you out, and when you look back, like David, you will be able to say, “Even though I walk through the valley of whatever, I won’t be afraid because Your presence, God, makes all the difference.”