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A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 #7

Through the valley of the Shadow of Death

                     A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23  #7



YEA THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY
OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH ....



     FROM A SHEPHERD'S point of view this statement marks the
halfway stage in the Psalm. It is as though up to this point the
sheep has been boasting to its unfortunate neighbor across the
fence about the excellent care it received from its owner on the
"home" ranch throughout the winter and spring.
     Now it turns to address the shepherd directly. The personal
pronouns "I" and "Thou" enter the conversation. It becomes a most
intimate discourse of deep affection.
     This is natural and normal. The long treks into the high
country with their summer range begin here. Left behind are the
neglected sheep on the other side of the fence. Their owner knows
nothing of the hill country - the mountain meadows to which these
sheep will be led. Their summer will be spent in the close
companionship and solitary care of the good shepherd.
     Both in Palestine and on our western sheep ranches, this
division of the year is common practice. Most of the efficient
sheepmen endeavor to take their flocks onto distant summer ranges
during summer. This often entails long "drives." The sheep move
along slowly, feeding as they go, gradually working their way up
the mountains behind the receding snow. By late summer they are
well up on the remote alpine meadows above timberline.
     With the approach of autumn, early snow settles on the
highest ridges, relentlessly forcing the flock to withdraw back
down to lower elevations. Finally, toward the end of the year as
fall passes, the sheep are driven home to the ranch headquarters
where they will spend the winter. It is this segment of the
yearly operations that is described in the last half of the poem.

     During this time the flock is entirely alone with the
shepherd. They are in intimate contact with him and under his
most personal attention day and night. That is why these last
verses are couched in such intimate first-person language. And it
is well to remember that all of this is done against a dramatic
background of wild mountains, rushing rivers, alpine meadows and
high rangelands.

     David, the psalmist, of course knew this type of terrain
first hand. When Samuel was sent of God to anoint him king over
Israel, he was not at home with his brothers on the "home" ranch.
Instead he was high up on the hills tending his father's flock.
They had to send for him to come home. It is no wonder he could
write so clearly and concisely of the relationship between a
sheep and its owner.
     He knew from firsthand experience about all the difficulties
and dangers, as well as the delights, of the treks into high
country. Again and again he had gone up into the summer range
with his sheep. He knew this wild but wonderful country like the
palm of his own strong hand. Never did he take his flock where he
had not already been before. Always he had gone ahead to look
over the country with care.
     All the dangers of rampaging rivers in flood; avalanches;
rock slides; poisonous plants; the ravages of predators that raid
the flock or the awesome storms of sleet and hail and snow were
familiar to him. He had handled his sheep and managed them with
care under all these adverse conditions. Nothing took him by
surprise. He was fully prepared to safeguard his flock and tend
them with skill under every circumstance.

     All of this is brought out in the beautiful simplicity of
the last verses. Here is a grandeur, a quietness, an assurance
that sets the soul at rest. "I will not fear, for thou art with
me ..." - with me in every situation, in every dark trial, in
every dismal disappointment, in every distressing dilemma.

     In the Christian life we often speak of wanting "to move
onto higher ground with God." How we long to live above the
lowlands of life. We want to get beyond the common crowd, to
enter a more intimate walk with God. We speak of mountaintop
experiences and we envy those who have ascended the heights and
entered into this more sublime sort of life.
     Often we get an erroneous idea about how this takes place.
It is as though we imagined we could be "air lifted" onto higher
ground. On the rough trail of the Christian life this is not so.
As with ordinary sheep management; so with God's people, one only
gains higher ground by climbing up through the valleys.
     Every mountain has its valleys. Its sides are scarred by
deep ravines and gulches and draws. And the best route to the top
is always along these valleys.
     Any sheepman familiar with the high country knows this. He
leads his flock gently, but persistently up the paths that wind
through the dark valleys. It should be noticed that the verse
states, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death." It does not say I die there, or stop there - but rather
"I walk through." ..... 

     I was keenly aware of this consolation when my wife went to 
"higher ground." For two years we had walked through the dark
valley of death watching her beautiful body being destroyed by
cancer. As death approached I sat by her bed, her hand in mine.
Gently we "passed" through the valley of death. Both of us were
quietly aware of Christ's presence. There was no fear just a
going on to higher ground.
     For those of us who remain on earth, there is still a life
to live here and now. There are still valleys to walk through
during our remaining days. These need not be "dead end" streets.
The disappointments, the frustrations, the discouragements, the
dilemmas, the dark, difficult days, though they be shadowed
valleys, need not be disasters. They can be the road to higher
ground in our walk with God.
     After all, when we pause to think about it a moment, we must
realize that even our modern mountain highways follow the valleys
to reach the summit of the passes they traverse. Similarly the
ways of God lead upward through the valleys of our lives.
     Again and again I remind myself, "O God, this seems terribly
tough, but I know for a fact that in the end it will prove to be
the easiest and gentlest way to get me onto higher ground." Then
when I thank Him for the difficult things, the dark days, I
discover that He is there with me in my distress. At that point
my panic, my fear, my misgivings give way to calm and quiet
confidence in His care. Somehow, in a serene quiet way I am
assured all will turn out well for my best because He is with me
in the valley and things are under His control.

     To come to this conviction in the Christian life is to have
entered into an attitude of quiet acceptance of every adversity.
It is to have moved onto higher ground with God. Knowing Him in
this new and intimate manner makes life much more bearable than
before. 

     There is a second reason why sheep are taken to the
mountain/tops by way of the valleys. Not only is this the way of
the gentlest grades, but also it is the well watered route. Here
one finds refreshing water all along the way. There are rivers,
streams, springs and quiet pools in the deep defiles.
     During the summer months long drives can be hot and
tiresome. The flocks experience intense thirst. How glad they are
for the frequent watering places along the valley route where
they can be refreshed.
     I recall one year when an enormous flock of over 10,000
sheep was being taken through our country en route to their
summer range. The owners came asking permission to water their
sheep at the river that flowed by our ranch. Their thirsty flocks
literally ran to the water's edge to quench their burning thirst
under the blazing summer sun. Only in our valley was there water
for their parched flesh. How glad we were to share the water with
them.

     As Christians we will sooner or later discover that it is in
the valleys of our lives that we find refreshment from God
Himself. It is not until we have walked with Him through some
very deep troubles that we discover He can lead us to find our
refreshment in Him right there in the midst of our difficulty. We
are thrilled beyond words when there comes restoration to our
souls and spirits from His own gracious Spirit.
     During my wife's illness and after her death I could not get
over the strength, solace and serene outlook imparted to me
virtually hour after hour by the presence of God's gracious
Spirit.
     It was as if I was being repeatedly refreshed and restored
despite the most desperate circumstances all around me. Unless
one has actually gone through such an experience it may seem
difficult to believe. In fact there are those who claim they
could not face such a situation. But for the man or woman who
walks with God through these valleys, such real and actual
refreshment is available.
     The corollary to this is that only those who have been
through such dark valleys can console, comfort or encourage
others in similar situations. Often we pray or sing the hymn
requesting God to make us an inspiration to someone else. We
want, instinctively, to be a channel of blessing to other lives.
The simple fact is that just as water can only flow in a ditch or
channel or valley - so in the Christian's career, the life of God
can only flow in blessing through the valleys that have been
carved and cut into our own lives by excruciating experiences.
     For example, the one best able to comfort another in
bereavement is the person who himself has lost a loved one. The
one who can best minister to a broken heart is one who has known
a broken heart.
     Most of us do not want valleys in our lives. We shrink from
them with a sense of fear and foreboding. Yet in spite of our
worst misgivings God can bring great benefit and lasting
benediction to others through those valleys. Let us not always
try to avoid the dark things, the distressing days. They may well
prove to be the way of greatest refreshment to ourselves and
those around us.

     A third reason why the rancher chooses to take his flock
into the high country by way of the valleys is that this is
generally where the richest feed and best forage is to be found
along the route.
     The flock is moved along gently - they are not hurried.
There are lambs along which have never been this way before. The
shepherd wants to be sure there will not only be water but also
the best grazing available for the ewes and their lambs.
     Generally the choicest meadows are in these valleys along
the stream banks. Here the sheep can feed as they move toward the
high country.
     Naturally these grassy glades are often on the floor of
steep-walled canyons and gulches. There may be towering cliffs
above them on either side. The valley floor itself may be in dark
shadow with the sun seldom reaching the bottom except for a few
hours around noon.
     The shepherd knows from past experience that predators like
coyotes, bears, wolves or cougars can take cover in these broken
cliffs and from their vantage point prey on his flock. He knows
these valleys can be subject to sudden storms and flash floods
that send walls of water rampaging down the slopes. There could
be rock slides, mud or snow avalanches and a dozen other natural
disasters that would destroy or injure his sheep. But in spite of
such hazards he also knows that this is still the best way to
take his flock to the high country. He spares himself no pains or
trouble or time to keep an eye out for any danger that might
develop.
     One of the most terrible threats is the sudden chilling
storms of sleet, rain and snow that can sweep down through the
valleys from the mountain peaks. If sheep become soaked and
chilled with a freezing rain, the exposure can kill them in a
very short time. They are thin-skinned creatures, easily
susceptible to colds, pneumonia and other respiratory
complications. I recall one storm I went through in the foothills
of the Rockies in early summer. The morning had been bright and
clear. Suddenly around noon enormous dark, black, forbidding
clouds began to sweep down over the hills from the north. A
chilling wind accompanied the approaching storm. The sky grew
blacker by the hour. Suddenly in mid afternoon long streamers of
rain and sleet began to sweep across the valley. I ran to take
shelter in a clump of stunted, wind-blown spruce. The rain soaked
me through. As it fell it cooled the whole country. The rain
turned to sleet, then to commingled snow and hail. In a short
time the whole mountain slope (in mid Julyl) was white and
frozen. Ominous darkness shrouded the whole scene. The sheep
sensed the storm approaching. Perhaps the flock would have
perished if they had not raced away to find shelter in the steep
cliffs at the edge of the canyon.
     But in these valleys was where the grass grew best and it
was the route to the high country.

     Our Shepherd knows all of this when He leads us through the
valleys with Himself. He knows where we can find strength, and
sustenance and gentle grazing despite every threat of disaster
about us.
     It is a most reassuring and reenforcing experience to the
child of God to discover that there is, even in the dark valley,
a source of strength and courage to be found in God. It is when
he can look back over life and see how the Shepherd's hand has
guided and sustained him in the darkest hours that renewed faith
is engendered.

     I know of nothing which so stimulates my faith in my
heavenly Father as to look back and reflect on His faithfulness
to me in every crisis and every chilling circumstance of life.
Over and over He has proved His care and concern for my welfare.
Again and again I have been conscious of the Good Shepherd's
guidance through dark days and deep valleys.
     All of this multiplies my confidence in Christ. It is this
spiritual, as well as emotional and mental exposure to the storms
and adversities of life that puts stamina into my very being.
Because He has led me through without fear before, He can do it
again, and again, and again. In this knowledge fear fades and
tranquility of heart and mind takes its place.
     Let come what may. Storms may break about me, predators may
attack, the rivers of reverses may threaten to inundate me. But
because He is in the situation with me, I shall not fear.
     To live thus is to have taken some very long treks toward
the high country of holy, calm, healthy living with God. Only the
Christian who learns to live this way is able to encourage and
inspire the weaker ones around him. Too many of us are shaken up,
frightened and panicked by the storms of life. We claim to have
confidence in Christ but when the first dark shadows sweep over
us and the path we tread looks gloomy we go into a deep slump of
despair. Sometimes we just feel like lying down to die. This is
not as it should be.

     The person with a powerful confidence in Christ; the one who
has proved by past experience that God is with him in adversity;
the one who walks through life's dark valleys without fear, his
head held high, is the one who in turn is a tower of strength and
a source of inspiration to his companions.

     There are going to be some valleys in life for all of us.
The Good Shepherd Himself assured us that "in this world ye shall
have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the
world" (John 16:33).

     The basic question is not whether we have many or few
valleys. It is not whether those valleys are dark or merely dim
with shadows. The question is how do I react to them? How do I go
through them? How do I cope with the calamities that come my way?

     With Christ I face them calmly.

     With His gracious Spirit to guide me I face them fearlessly.
I know of a surety that only through them can I possibly travel
on to higher ground with God. In this way not only shall I be
blessed, but in turn I will become a benediction to others around
me ho may live in fear.

                             .................


To be continued


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