(I’m blogging on one of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm each day this week . . . you can start at the beginning with Verse One here.)
Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
I majored in English in college, so I wrote a lot of papers on poems and novels and short stories and so on. Vital to the analysis of a literary work was determining the “Central Idea,” the main theme or message the author was trying to convey. Sometimes that was difficult to determine and subject to debate.
Not in the 23rd Psalm. The Psalmist puts the Central Idea right in the . . . center.
In the original Hebrew, writes Luther Seminary Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker, there are 26 words before and 26 words after the Central Idea of Psalm 23:
FOR YOU ARE WITH ME
When my daughter was a little girl, she used to wake up in the middle of the night and cry out for someone to “Rub my back!” Her back may have been a little itchy, but her primary need was for someone to be with her. She did not want to endure the night shadows and sounds on her own. To have her back rubbed was to have someone with her. And not just any someone, but a parent who she knew loved and trusted her. Thus fortified, she could drift back to sleep (but woe to the parent who stopped rubbing and tried to sneak out before she was asleep!)
“Even though I lie in the darkest bedroom, I fear no monsters and ghosts, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME, your hands and your voice, they comfort me.”
Most of us have outgrown our fears of goblins jumping out of the closet or from under the bed. Our adult fears are more real . . . terrifyingly real. We fear financial failure and broken relationships. We fear incapacitating illness and especially the finality of death. We fear not just for ourselves, but for those we love. We fear our own helplessness, our impotence in the face of situations and circumstances beyond our control.
The world is a scary place. Dark valleys abound.
The Psalm’s picture of a dark valley springs from the shepherd and sheep metaphor. Picture a flock of sheep with their caretaking shepherd bedding down for the evening. They are in the same green pasture which before had been so inviting, perhaps surrounded by rocky hills. As the sun sets behind those ridges, light and vision fade. Predators may prowl in the gloom. Hungry animals as well as humans with nefarious designs strike under the cover of darkness. Death itself lurks there in the shadows.
But the flock is protected by the shepherd who is right there with them. He carries a rod, a weapon. It is not for clouting unruly sheep, but for fending off those who might do those sheep harm. And he carries a staff that guides the flock to safety and is a physical sign of his presence and his nurturing authority.
There is something else about that staff . . . It is shaped like the letter “J,” with a hook at the end. Sometimes despite the shepherd’s best efforts those silly sheep sometimes fall into holes. The hook allows the shepherd to pull them out, gently lifting them back onto the right path.
How much like those silly sheep are you and I? We fall into holes . . . sometimes through absolutely no fault of our own, sometimes into holes of our own making. But God keeps pulling us up and pulling us out. Over and over, we never really learn, at least not fully, to avoid the holes. But God never gives up on us and never stops lifting us up and out.
There is an honesty to the 23rd Psalm, an honesty that pervades the Bible. I told my congregation in a sermon a couple of weeks ago that this honesty is one of the reasons I keep believing that the Gospel is true.
This Psalm – and the Bible – describe the real world, the world as it really is.
Scripture does not paint a picture of a fairy-wonderland where everything works out and nothing bad ever happens to God’s people. No.
We’re given a warts-and-all picture of the world and especially of humanity. There are dark valleys and plenty of evil. There is no promise or program for avoiding turmoil and strife. Trouble will come to us in this sin-scarred world filled with sin-stained people (people like us!).
God doesn’t promise perfection. Our promise is God’s presence.
FOR YOU ARE WITH ME
The greatest gift of God’s presence is of course Jesus Christ, God as one of us, God with us.
We have Jesus’ no-matter-what promise to be with us always. “Even until the end of the age.”
There is no valley we will ever walk through that will be too dark, no evil we will ever confront that will be too diabolical, that we will not be able to know and to proclaim . . .