Probably all of us, at one time or another, have had to make journeys we would have rather avoided. That journey to the funeral of a loved one, to see a doctor when you know it wont be good news or home after you have been made redundant.
At the moment the whole world and us right here in Switzerland seem to be on a journey that we didn’t realize we were going to take a few weeks ago and would prefer not to be taking right now, the journey through a pandemic.
Right in the middle of perhaps the best known and most loved piece of poetry in the world Psalm 23, the Psalmist uses a powerful and vivid metaphor to describe a journey that no one wants to take describing it as “walking through the valley of the shadow of death”
“The valley of the shadow of death” is a poetic but powerful way of describing a crisis in life. An experience potentially filled with danger, despair, fear, anxiety and uncertainty. The original Hebrew phrase could be translated “the darkest valley” It can describe any deeply traumatic experience we go through in life. However, down the centuries most often this vivid phrase has been used by people to explain the experience of facing their own death or the grief that accompanies the death of a loved one.
It feels to me like what we as a nation and as a church are experiencing right now with Covid 19 is Psalm 23 a “dark valley” experience. There are so many uncertainties, so much anxiety and a great deal of very real danger connected to this pandemic. It certainly feels like the darkest valley the world wide community has faced in a long time and for those families who are personally touched by the Virus I am sure the “valley of the shadow of death” is a metaphor they understand all too well.
The good news is that Psalmist doesn’t just describe this journey we would rather avoid but tells us some vital truths about the journey that will help us make it. Specifically, He tells us it is,
An Unavoidable Journey … If you are human – there will be dark valleys in your life, they are unavoidable. No life is carefree or trouble free. At one time or another we are all going to have to take this journey no one wants to and walk through the dark valley. No one is immune or exempt. Jesus echoed what the Psalmist said about the inevitability of hard times, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” John 16:33 Both Jesus and the Psalmist are helping us be realistic about life, that it’s not all plain sailing. Dark Valley’s dont mean we have are being punished by God or we have been abandoned by God, they are part of life in a fallen world.
I think maybe in the Western world with our advanced medical care and technology we fooled ourselves into believing that we were beyond the reach of the kind of epidemics that’s broke out in the two thirds world or affected our countries in the past. COVID 19 has been a stark reminder of our own mortality and vulnerability and inability to control nature. Even with our technology and wealth here in the West we havent been able to avoid this journey through the Covid 19 Dark Valley. It should maybe be an experience that gives us some humility and increased empathy for those in other parts of the world that regularly experience epidemics.
A Survivable Journey … Perhaps the key word for us to grasp when it comes to these dark valley experiences from what the Psalmist says is “through.” He says he is going to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” The Psalmist says he is not going to be trapped in it or be unable to escape from the darkest valley. He is saying it is an experience, however difficult, that he is going to make it through. Every crisis in this life is ultimately temporary. We don’t know when it will be, but this COVID 19 crisis will eventually be over. The Psalmist knows he is going to survive this journey, he will make it through even the darkest valley. We can too.
The Psalmist is not claiming that he will make it through this dark valley under his own steam. This is not a case of “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” or for us to “look for the hero inside of yourself” to quote a well known song. Instead, he claims he will make it through the valley because of who will walk through it with him, the Lord, who is his Shepherd. “For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4
Here is what we need to know and hold on to in this time of anxiety. The promise of this Psalm is that in the darkest of life’s valleys we’ll find God our closest of companions. Why not pause for a moment to think about that?
I believe like David and countless others we’ll find, if we are open, that in the most difficult of life’s experiences that Divine intimacy can counteract human anxiety. God’s care means we don’t have to give into despair or be paralyzed by fear, His presence allows us to continue our journey in life.
I think this Psalm has been so precious to so many people down so many centuries because they have discovered in the midst of life they have experienced what it promises. The Psalm as a whole, promises that with the Lord as our Shepherd we will experience, rest, peace, guidance, companionship, comfort, protection, security, provision for our present needs and hope for our future. These are things that we are going to be able to testify that God has done for us as His people when this current crisis is over and we are through this dark valley.
None of this happens automatically. What this Psalm promises is translated into our experience when we learn to rely on the Lord as our Shepherd, relying on His presence with us, His protection of us and His provision for us, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
So the promise to you from God, is that with Him at your side, however dark the valley becomes, you will make it through to the other side. That hope extends beyond this life into the next, the promise is whatever ultimately happens, we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Not even death can rob us of God’s presence with us.