What's in the Valley
What's In The Valley
Psalm 23.4 (NASB)
Life brings us to mountain top highs. Graduating high school is a mountain top high. Meeting your best friend is a mountain top high. Falling in love is a mountain top high. Getting married is a mountain top high. The birth of a child is a mountain top high. But just as there are mountain top highs, there are valley lows. Watching a loved one die is a valley low. Losing another just after that is a valley low. Seeing a relationship dissolve after you’ve given it all you’ve got is a valley low. The hardest reality in which mankind has to deal is that life is full of hills and valleys. Everybody wants the celebration of the mountain top, but no one wants to deal with the valley low.
It all happens in the blink of an eye. One moment you’re up, the next moment, you’re down. ONE SUCH MOMENT THAT PEOPLE HAD THIS EXPERIENCE WAS APRIL 3, 1968 AT MASON TEMPLE CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST IN MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE. THIS MEETING HOSTED A PROLIFIC AND PROPHETIC VOICE IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. HE WENT DOWN TO MEMPHIS, BY WAY OF ATLANTA, GEORGIA TO STAND IN SOLIDARITY WITH BLACK SANITATION WORKERS WHO WERE ON STRIKE, FOR AN EVENT THAT HAPPENED JUST TWO MONTHS PRIOR, WHEN TWO BLACK SANITATION WORKERS WERE KILLED BY A MALFUNCTIONING TRUCK. THESE BLACK CITY EMPLOYEES DEMANDED THAT THEIR NEW FORMED UNION BE RECOGNIZED, TO HAVE BETTER SAFETY STANDARDS AND MAKE A DECENT LIVING. THE KEYNOTE SPEAKER FOR THAT EVENING ARISES TO GIVE HIS FINAL ADDRESS, ON THIS SIDE OF ETERNITY. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, STANDS TO DECLARE “I’VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAIN TOP…AND I’VE LOOKED OVER, AND I’VE SEEN THE PROMISED LAND. I MAY NOT GET THERE WITH YOU….” THIS ASSURANCE THAT, AS SAM COOKE SAID, “A CHANGE IS GONNA COME,” MOVED THE MARGINALIZED PEOPLE OF THESE DISUNITED STATES TO FEEL AS IF THEY WERE ON THE MOUNTAIN TOP. THE NEXT MORNING, THESE SAME PEOPLE MOVE FROM THE MOUNTAIN TOP, TO THE VALLEY BENEATH IT. APRIL 3 WAS A DAY OF HOPE, BUT APRIL 4 WAS A DAY OF DEPRESSION. THE PEOPLE HAD TO COME TO GRIPS WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES’ HEADLINE, “MARTIN LUTHER KING IS SLAIN IN MEMPHIS….”
SOME OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND BELOVED PASSAGES IN THE BIBLE ARE FOUND IN THE POETIC SECTIONS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. CHRISTIANS THROUGHOUT THE AGES HAVE TURNED TO PSALMS, FOR EXAMPLE, FOR ENCOURAGEMENT IN DIFFICULT TIMES, AND THEIR SPIRITS HAVE BEEN LIFTED AND THEIR HEARTS REFRESHED BY THE COLORFUL AND POWERFUL POETRY OF THE PSALTER. BELIEVERS HAVE SOARED ON THE WINGS OF EAGLES WITH ISAIAH, AND HAVE RECEIVED THE TRAGIC, HEARTBREAKING DESTRUCTION OF JERUSALEM WITH JEREMIAH. INDEED, THE POETRY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT HAS A WAY OF RESONATING WITHIN US – IT CAN REACH RIGHT DOWN INSIDE AND VIBRATE WITHIN OUR OWN SOULS, SPEAKING TO US QUIETLY BUT POWERFULLY. THIS PHENOMENON IS UNIVERSAL. REGARDLESS OF AGE, EDUCATION, OR CULTURE, CHRISTIANS AROUND THE WORLD CHERISH OLD TESTAMENT POETRY, ESPECIALLY THE PSALMS.
-- J. SCOTT DUVALL
This, the 23rd Psalm, where we pause for our discourse, is the most known and loved of all the Psalms. It has been aptly called “…THE PEARL OF THE PSALMS, WHOSE SOFT AND PURE RADIANCE DELIGHTS EVERY EYE.” Psalm 23 is the John 3.16 of the Old Testament, for the preacher and the pimp know it alike. Psalm 23 is one of the first scriptures we are taught to memorize in Sunday school, it is often the sermon text for the funeral, read as comfort in the pastor’s office for counseling, and is the guest of honor at the wedding. In fact, Psalm 23 is so well known, some of yall recited the whole thing before I even finished verse 4. As well-known as this Psalm is, it cannot be sung by everyone. It is not the party without an invitation. It is the personal testimony of the believer, it is the Psalm of trust. Psalm 23 teaches a healthy dependence on God, to produce a healthy independence to the world. Knowing this, CHARLES ALLEN, in his work GOD’S PSYCHIATRY, wrote, “IF PEOPLE WOULD REPEAT PSALM 23 SEVEN TIMES BEFORE THEY GO TO SLEEP EACH NIGHT, WE WOULD RARELY SEE AN EMOTIONAL BREAKDOWN.” Psalm 23 has been called the cure for anxiety of the idealized self. This is a rising phenomena amongst peoples thanks to social media. It’s the concept of imagining what we should be, must be, ought to be, in order to be acceptable to other people. The idealized self is the romanticizing of super humanity.
When this Psalm opens, we are presented with God as our shepherd. JOHN R. W. STOTT informs us, “THE CHRISTIAN CANNOT READ OR SING THIS PSALM WITHOUT THINKING OF JESUS CHRIST, WHO DARED TO REAPPLY THE METAPHOR FROM JEHOVAH TO HIMSELF.” JOHN 10.11 records Jesus saying, “I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD; THE GOOD SHEPHERD LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE FOR THE SHEEP.” This is not the only time we see this in the New Testament: HEBREWS 13.20 says Jesus is the GREAT SHEPHERD, 1 PETER 5.4 calls him the CHIEF SHEPHERD. We know what Scripture calls him, but is he your shepherd? Do you have a relationship with the living God. My personal testimony relates to that of the one who said, “IF HE BE A SHEPHERD TO NO ONE ELSE, HE IS A SHEPHERD TO ME. HE CARES FOR ME, WATCHES OVER ME, AND PRESERVES ME.”
When you find yourself in life’s valleys, remember the one who is your shepherd offers his peace, his presence, and his protection in the valley.
Verse 4 is the shift in the narrative. David moves from talking to us about God (3rd person) to talking to God about God (2nd person). In the first three verses, we see, as DON WILLIAMS summarizes, “GOD FEEDS US WITH HIMSELF, PROVIDES HIS SPIRIT TO QUENCH OUR THIRST; RENEW OUR SOUL AND GUIDE OUR STEPS.” Verse 4 pulls us from being in green pastures, receiving nourishment, and drinking from still waters, receiving refreshment, to now we are in the valley. I graduated high school, class of 2016, in Channelview, Texas on Houston’s east side, with Heisman finalist, Mr. Jalen Hurts. Throughout high school, I would hear some of my Latin friends talk about a place called “the valley.” They referenced the Rio Grande River valley, which is situated neatly along the US-Mexico Border, where many of them would visit family who lived there. This place, the valley, seems to sit lower than its surroundings. That is how life pulls us. Sometimes life makes it seem that we are lower than those around us.
There is some bad news about the valley: just because you have faith in God does not mean that you will not find yourself in the valley. JOB, testifies to this, when saying, “FOR MAN IS BORN FOR TROUBLE, AS SPARKS FLY UPWARD” (5.7) Bad does not just happen to bad people, it happens to all people. Let me warn you, don’t look down on someone, now because they’re in the valley. Today, its them, tomorrow, it could be you. There is only one man who lived without sin, his name is Jesus, son of the Living God. But, there is no man who lived without trouble. HEBREWS 4.15 says: “WE DO NOT HAVE A HIGH PRIEST WHO CANNOT SYMPATHIZE WITH OUR WEAKNESSES, BUT ONE WHO HAS BEEN TEMPTED IN ALL THINGS AS WE ARE, YET WITHOUT SIN.”
I have three principles to share and I’ll take my seat.
FIRST WE SEE:
I) GOD’S PEACE IN THE VALLEY.
Look at the text, it says, “EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I FEAR NO EVIL.” VERSE 3 advises us that God “GUIDES ME IN THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS FOR HIS NAME’S SAKE.” Then in verse 4, David says that he is in the valley. Sometimes God will lead us into dark and vulnerable places to clean out what shouldn’t be. Don’t despise your valley moments but investigate them. And even in the trouble of the valley, you can have peace.
Sheep would occasionally follow their shepherd through some rough and scary terrain, but the sheep would continue because their shepherd was there, and he was in control. That’s the way you and I need to be. No matter where life takes us, we can go because God is leading us, he is our good shepherd, and he is in control. The text calls this place “THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH.” One translation calls it “THE DARKEST VALLEY” (NRSV). Another translator calls it the “SHADOWIEST OF SHADOWS.” We have no reason to fear, for the shadow is just a shadow. MATTHEW HENRY advises, “IT IS BUT THE SHADOW OF DEATH; THERE IS NO SUBSTANTIAL EVIL IN IT; THE SHADOW OF A SERPENT WILL NOT STING NOR THE SHADOW OF A SWORD WILL KILL.” We can have peace in the midst of life’s valleys, for there is nothing a shadow can do to harm you.
Not only do we notice God’s peace in the valley, but it is because of
II) GOD’S PRESENCE IN THE VALLEY.
Watch the text, David exclaims, “EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I FEAR NO EVIL, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME.” The very presence of God is woven into the fabric of this psalm. His presence is shown in verses 1-3 as the shepherd who leads. It is shown in the intimate act of providing for his people in the midst of adversity in verse 5. In verse 6 it is shown in our remaining with him forever. Here, in verse 4, his presence is shown in the midst of our darkest moment. “THOUGH WE ARE IN THE PLACE OF ULTIMATE RISK, WHERE THE DARKNESS PROTECTS THOSE WHO DO EVIL AND DEATH CASTS ITS SHADOW, OUR FEAR IS ECLIPSED BY THE PRESENCE OF GOD” (DON WILLIAMS). That is the blessedness of the Christian life, we are never alone. That’s the promise made clear to us in HEBREWS 13, where the writer shows the promise, “HE HIMSELF HAS SAID, ‘I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,’ SO THAT WE CONFIDENTLY SAY, ‘THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID’” (5-6).
THE CLOSING OF 2019 AND THE OPENING OF 2020 SAW A MASS EXODUS OF COLLEGE AGED PEOPLE FLOCKING TO ATLANTA, GEORGIA. THEY CONVERGED ON THE MERCEDES-BENZ STADIUM, NOT TO WATCH THE NFC SOUTH’S NUMBER 2 RANKED FALCONS DEFEND THEIR POSITION, BUT TO GATHER AND WORSHIP GOD. SOME OF THESE MORE THAN 65,000 PEOPLE SPECULATED IF THE COMPOSER BEHIND THE “JESUS IS KING” ALBUM WOULD BE PRESENT TO LEAD WORSHIP WITH HIS, NOW FAMOUS, SUNDAY SERVICE CHOIR. OF COURSE, KANYE WASN’T THERE. ONE ATTENDEE SUMMARIZING HER THOUGHTS ON THE EVENT SAID “KANYE DIDN’T SHOW, BUT JESUS DID.”
That is the guarantee we have in every moment of our lives. Kanye might not show up, but Jesus will. Your boo, your bae may forsake you, but Jesus will. You mother and father may never come through for you, but Jesus will. Professors may be nowhere around, but Jesus will. Your best friend might not show up, but Jesus will. In everything you go through, Jesus will be there. All I want you to know, if you hear nothing else, you will never go through life alone. God is with you. That’s what the hymnwriter grabs to when saying, “I NEED THEE EVERY HOUR, MOST GRACIOUS LORD; NO TENDER VOICE LIKE THINE CAN PEACE AFFORD. I NEED THEE EVERY HOUR, IN JOY OR PAIN; COME QUICKLY, AND ABIDE, OR LIFE IS VAIN.”
JAMES MONTGOMERY BOICE comments, “WE ARE NEVER SO CONSCIOUS OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD AS WHEN WE PASS THROUGH LIFE’S VALLEYS.” Indeed, there are some gathered today who feel that God has forsaken them in the valley, but those who have trust in God often find that God draws nearer to you in the valleys of life.
Verse 4 teaches us that God provides peace through his presence in the valley, but lastly, we see:
III) GOD’S PROTECTION IN THE VALLEY
Can I prove it to you? David, the shepherd boy turned sweet Psalmist of Israel, says, “EVEN THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I FEAR NO EVIL, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME; YOUR ROD AND YOUR STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.” Look at the objects that the shepherd carries. He has a “ROD AND STAFF.” These are the basic tools of the shepherd, like a pen a writer or a wrench to a mechanic. Traditional church teaching says that this was one item, but a more thorough study shows that they are two separate tools. In one hand, the shepherd had a “ROD.” Think of the rod like the Billy Club that cops used to carry in the ‘70s and ‘80s. the rod was used to protect from external dangers. The shepherd would use the rod to beat off the natural enemies of the sheep. He would use his rod to handle anything that would seek to disrupt the flock. That’s even true of our shepherd, PSALM 121 reminds us, “THE LORD WILL PROTECT YOU FROM ALL EVIL” (V7).
Not only is there the protection of the rod, but there is also the protection of the staff. The rod protects us from stuff around us, but the staff protects us from stuff within us. Sheep are dumb animals. And, let’s be honest, there are some dumb people. They just wander just to wander. ISAIAH 53 likens us to the sheep, when saying, “ALL OF US LIKE SHEEP HAVE GONE ASTRAY, EACH OF US HAS TURNED TO HIS OWN WAY” (V6). The staff has a crook on it. If needed, the shepherd would hook onto the sheep’s head to readjust its view, so it doesn’t wander where it doesn’t need to go. That’s what God does for us. He doesn’t just protect us from what’s around us, but he protects us from us ourselves. That ought to be the prayer of all of us, “LORD PROTECT ME FROM ME.” David advises us that he is in the valley, but he is not afraid, because his shepherd is there, and his protection comforts him.
David, I told you, opens this Psalm with showing us that he has a personal relationship with God, who provides for the physical and spiritual needs of his people. He shows that its on the basis of God’s reputation that he leads us to fulfill his will. Literally, God cannot lead us wrong because his name is on the line. Here, in verse 4, David changes our perspective of the valley. But the story shifts, again. In verses 1 through 3, David talked to us about God. In verse 4, David begins to talk to God about God. In verse 5, David tells us about God preparing a table in front of his haters. That ought to make any Christian happy. You will eat in front of the folks who said you weren’t going to make it. You’re going to eat in front of the very folks who P R A Y E D for your downfall. You’re going to eat in front of some folks who P R E Y E D on your downfall. Text says that God anoints his head with oil. God literally pours out his blessing on him. God will continually pour his blessing out on your life. Notice, he says, “MY CUP OVERFLOWS.” That’s the promise that God gives, he pours out his blessing in our life. He doesn’t stop when the cup fills; he pours it out over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
David finishes his song of trust by showing a promise. Verse 6 closes this psalm by declaring God’s faithfulness through every day and throughout eternity. You can count on God daily! Everything in life may fail you, but God won’t fail you. Asaph highlights this truth in PSALM 73, when saying, “MY FLESH AND MY HEART MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER.” David, knowing this, still says that goodness and mercy are twin attributes of God. SPURGEON calls them “GOD’S FOOTMEN” that follow God’s children every day. Goodness on it’s own isn’t enough. Goodness guards the steps, while footmen guard the stumbles. You need goodness to help you stay on your feet and walk in the will of God, but you need mercy to grab you when you’ve fallen down.
You can count on this both throughout your life and beyond your life. The text says, “SURELY GOODNESS AND LOVINGKINDNESS WILL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE, AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER.” The closing statement of this psalm show us that when the Lord embraces you, he will never change his mind about you. The original language suggests that David will remain in God’s presence “FOR THE LENGTH OF DAYS,” which literally suggests that for all of his natural life he won’t abandon his shepherd. But, a proper reading of the Old Testament is through the finished work of Jesus in the New Testament. In the New Testament, we find that we can remain in God’s presence, not just for the length of this life, but through all of time because of mercy. Can I tell you about mercy?
Mercy stepped from eternity into time. Mercy stepped from royalty into poverty. Mercy stepped from glory into the womb of a teenage mother. Mercy stepped into Bethlehem, stepped into Nazareth. Mercy stepped into the temple and taught the scribes. Mercy stepped on top of water to save a drowning Peter. He stepped into Bethany. Mercy is the one who was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was given an unfair trial.
Mercy is the one who stepped up the Via Della Rosa, through the city of Jerusalem. He stepped up Calvary’s mountain. They put a crown of thorns on his head. They put a nail in his hands. They shoved a rivet in his feet. They pierced him in the side. Mercy died, on that old rugged cross. He died until the moon dripped red in blood. He died until the sky dimmed its eye. He died until the soldier said, “Ya’ll we had it wrong, for ‘SURELY, THIS MUST BE THE SON OF GOD.’” They took Him down, thinking it was all over. They put Him in Joseph’s borrowed tomb. They put guards there thinking it was all over. They sealed it, thinking it was all over. Mercy stepped out the grave on resurrection ground. He looked around, took a good deep breath and bellowed out, “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth.”
And it’s because of goodness and mercy that we can make it through life’s valleys.