While holidaying in Menorca, we were walking along the coastal path when it suddenly changed from being fairly level to a steep and rocky ascent, where trekking poles gave much needed support. This is how life can be. One moment we are walking in ‘green pastures and beside still waters;’ the next we are faced with looming cliffs casting dark shadows over a rocky incline.
This has recently happened to me – some ominous blood test results have resulted in a hospital referral. Shortly afterwards in just one day I received news of the death of two Christian friends and a cousin’s wife. Your particular circumstances will vary but at one or more times in our lives we must all pass through this ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ and where will we look for help? What will be our spiritual ‘trekking poles’ to give us support?
The psalms of David find an echo in the hearts of all who read them. That is because he had experienced all the various situations of life, rising from a humble shepherd boy to be a powerful king. He was sensitive and spiritual, yet occasionally, like us, overcome by sinful passions. Bold and positive, he also could become cast down in depression. Overall, he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), and wrote under the Spirit’s inspiration.
David was once hunted among the mountains by Saul’s soldiers, death lurking behind every rocky outcrop. In this predicament he would think back to when he defended his vulnerable flock of sheep from attacks by predatory beasts and so look up to heaven seeking help from God, his guardian shepherd.
David’s boyhood memories combined with his experience of being hunted to death in the mountains, are reflected in this psalm. He did not identify himself with belonging to the ‘flocks’ of the surrounding nations, whose shepherds were their idolatrous gods and deceiving prophets. His God was the Shepherd of Israel and he had a personal trust in him, calling him ‘my Shepherd.’ As believers, we also identify with and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as ‘the great Shepherd of the sheep’ (Heb 13:20; John 10:11).
How are we comforted?
In the twenty-first century, a person might look for comfort in eating their favourite food, then watching their must-see TV programme from their comfiest chair before heading up to their super-soft mattress. In contrast, David says that God uses his rod and staff to comfort us, keeping us safe as we proceed on our journey through the rocky ravine. The fact is, we are pilgrims on life’s journey and our eternal rest awaits us in heaven; we should not expect to experience it now, though there will occasionally be foretastes of this joy.
The shepherd would mainly use his rod to repel any beasts hungry to eat one of his precious lambs. We too need to be guarded from being plagued by unhelpful thoughts and fears. Paul, in a Roman prison, prescribes his remedy: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 4:6-7). Paul next advises us to think about things which are honourable, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. In this way, the rod which defends becomes the peace which delivers us from evil and fearful thoughts. Of course, God’s rod may also occasionally be used to teach a rebellious sheep a lesson and restore it to the right path. We would do well to search our hearts to make sure we are not cherishing any secret sin which could grieve the Spirit and diminish our sense of his presence and peace.
In Scripture, the staff generally refers to a walking stick, such as used by older people (Zech 8:4). In psalm 23 it refers to a shepherd’s crook, which can be used both as a walking aid and, because of its hooked end, to pull lambs out from thorn bushes where they had become entangled, or up from cliff ledges where they had become stuck, or ponds where they had become bogged down. It is a tool to rescue sheep when they have strayed into difficulty. Although the sheep would have no idea that this means of saving them was at hand, we know differently when it comes to God’s ability to save us from danger. Jesus said of his true disciples ‘I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost …’ (John 17:12).
Even mature believers can stray off the track from time to time, developing critical attitudes, becoming overbearing in church business, or succumbing to remaining sin. We need to keep a constant watch on ourselves, keeping an eye on our Shepherd and paying attention to his written and preached word. John exhorts us that, as many deceivers are about, ‘watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward’ (2 John 1:8). Jesus told his disciples to ‘watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation …’ (Mk 14:38). It is a great comfort to know that we have a heavenly Shepherd we can look to in prayer, who will pull us back onto the path which leads to our eternal home.
It is not easy to be at peace when we find ourselves in trying circumstances. Some believers seem to be naturally content and unflustered, even in severe trials. Others, myself included, find it is something that has to be worked at. Even Paul admitted that he had ‘learned in whatever situation I am to be content’ (Phil 4:11). If Paul had to learn to be content, it is no shame if we need to do the same. John Bunyan (1628-88) wrote of the Christian:
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.
We are engaged in a holy labour. The soul needs to be searched, the promises of God’s word pleaded in prayer and requests made to be graciously given those special seasons of experiencing the Saviour’s presence and peace which are not merely the results of self-persuasion.
Thoughtful visits from the pastor and other Christian friends are all part of God’s work using his shepherd’s staff. May all those who find themselves in the valley of the shadow, whether of death or another threat, find divine comfort and strength to continue to the journey’s end, when we will be able to say with Anne Cousin (1824-1906):
I’ll bless the hand that guided, I’ll bless the heart that planned
When throned where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.