It’s pretty difficult to write about a psalm that is so well known and so much loved. What more can be said, you may wonder, about words that have given strength to generations of people in the midst of trouble and hope to those who are beginning to struggle? Well, may I just simply direct your attention anew to a few things?
How do you imagine “the valley of the shadow of death”?
I suppose many of us would immediately picture a bleak and frightening landscape charged with unknown threats. When I lived in Germany (stationed there with the Royal Air Force), I used to find those vast German pine forests oppressive and vaguely threatening. It was something to do with their stillness and the way, even in the fullest sunlight, there was always a dark heart to them just a hundred yards or so off the track.
However, let’s turn this on its head. Perhaps what we should concentrate on in the phrase “valley of the shadow of death” is the transitory nature of the created world. Sometimes things are all the more beautiful exactly because they are temporary. The blossom that appears briefly on a tree tells us what point we have reached in the spring or summer. It is all the more beautiful because we know that it will last, at its best, only a short time. Hence, perhaps we can imagine the psalmist’s valley as a very beautiful place indeed, the most perfect realization of God’s creation, but touched in every respect with inevitable change. Our part in this is to thank God for what surrounds us but not to stop, not to try to hang on to what is by its nature ephemeral, but to continue on in pilgrimage to the One who never changes.
It is Christ, after all, who is our Shepherd. Our task, as those in his care, is simply to follow. But how difficult that simple thing appears! We are the most wrong-headed sheep imaginable. We seem convinced that we know the way we need to go with only occasional reference to our Shepherd. It’s the problem of free will. God does not expect us simply to follow orders. We are valued far too much for that and have been given the supreme gifts of self-awareness and a moral sense. What is required is to make choices according to our redeemed nature; that is, to discern the purpose of God working in our lives and to set ourselves in harmony with Christ.
Let’s think of the curious image of the table (verse 5). This is not designed, surely, to make one relax, sitting down in the presence of one’s enemies to have a meal. Surely this is guaranteed to interfere with the digestion! We didn’t mention that even though the valley of the shadow of death might be very beautiful, there is still danger within in it. After all, the serpent lurked in the beauty of Eden’s garden. We are constantly surrounded by enemies, but not necessarily human ones. Christians, while on life’s pilgrimage, are never free from the offer of false choices, false directions, spiritual precipices, and dead ends. For me, the image of the table—God conferring honor on us as members of the divine household—is a demonstration of power and grace. It is the victory of the cross made plain in our own lives, to the rage and confusion of all who would wish to destroy us, whether human or spiritual foes. This is the significance of the anointing—sharing in the chrismation (or sacrament of anointing) of God’s Son, whose very name means “anointed one.”
There’s movement and stillness in this psalm. The movement is of pilgrimage, setting aside with thankfulness the temporary and pressing on toward the permanent. Especially it means not being tempted to wander off the path through the valley, blazed by Christ himself, to an unknown fate in the shadows. The stillness comes from the blessed realization that God has made us members of the divine household. We sit with Christ at the table where he takes the bread and pours the wine. So nothing really can hurt us in a permanent way as far as our eternal destiny is concerned. Certainly our enemies can make it pretty hot for us (especially if we let them), but that particular battle has been fought and won on the hill of Calvary. With this marvelous assurance in our pilgrim’s backpack, we can march on, knowing that we “shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
To whom do you instinctively turn when troubles arise: to your own mind and powers or to Christ your Shepherd?
Loving Shepherd, be patient with my wanderings and bring me joyfully into your heavenly fold. Amen.
excerpt from: My Strength and My Song: A Year With the Psalms by Simon Peter Iredale. Copyright©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.