Peace in the Valley

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. –Psalm 23:4

With the vivid “green pastures” and “still waters” the Psalmist has painted a beautiful word picture for our minds. But these words arc more than a beautiful picture; they bring a beautiful truth, as well; God cares for His sheep.

But the sheep have other experiences. For every quiet, green glen with its still, smooth brook there are many steep, rocky passes through which the sheep must be led by the shepherd as they return to their fold. Knowing this, the Psalmist writes the words we consider.

Likening our Christian pilgrimage to the journey of the sheep from day to day as they are lead by the shepherd, he says: Many arc the dangers in life and hard is the Christian pilgrimage in this world. Yes, God leads us to quietness and refreshment but He then leads us on through the hard, dark, distressing times, as well. Yet, David says, even in darkness, even in distress, there is peace. There is peace in the valley.

Peace! Oh, how comforting this thought is to us, and especially when we experience the dark valleys of many shadows. Even though we are in the very midst of trouble, we need not fear; He is with us!

• David writes, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” What is he saying? He says, “To me belongs comfort in spite of what I experience in life.” To illustrate his paint, once again he uses the imagery of the sheep and the shepherd.

What a contrast we see as we turn to this verse! The quietness and peace of rest and refreshment are over. The heat of the noon has begun to ebb and the shepherd cans his sheep to come. Suddenly, the path turns leaving behind abruptly the luxurious green pasture and the quiet resting place. Ahead is a nightmare of rock, rushing waters, and darkness even in the brightness of afternoon. Though the sun is still high, it is hidden from view and even the light rays no longer penetrate the deepest recesses. Down, down the rocky path plunges into the deep, yawning gorge . Through this gorge the sheep must pass. Behind, in the pasture the heat of the day was waning, but here it is oppressive still. The atmosphere is filled with the flying dust caught in the little whirlwinds.

What does the darkness hide? What lurks in the shadows? Careful! There’s a reptile that had crawled out into the sun now gone, to warm itself. Now, with the darkness it brings a deadly threat to our well-being. Caves and caverns opening onto the treacherous path arc lurking places for wild animals. Besides, we, along with the sheep, must take care that we are not victims of those sudden drops which come unseen. Indeed, as we go with the shepherd and his sheep we are in the valley and it is a valley aptly called: the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Don’t think the sheep are unaware of this, either. These woolly creatures hate those forbidding gorges filled with reasons for fear. Sheep are shortsighted, and the shadows don’t help their sight. Then, there are the forbidding roars of wild beasts which are all the more terrifying in the wilderness. Tremble: that’s what they do! But they are not petrified with fear. The shepherd is there; he is with them. There is peace in the valley!

• As David speaks these words. he speaks for the Church—those whom God has loved in Jesus Christ—and he is saying that we may be assured of peace in our valleys, too. And we are called to pass through many valleys in life.

There is, first of all, that valley called death—the cessation of physical life as we know it. For the Christian there is comfort in knowing with the Psalmist Asaph, “I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:23, 24). How soothing it is to know that in that hour of death the Christian can say, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . .” There is pence in that valley called death.

There are other valleys in life. David calls them valleys of shadows.. SHADOWS. A shadow tells us that something is present which obstructs the light. The Biblical view of life is that we live in the midst of death. This death obstructs our spiritual comfort. David reminds us that, in all of life, death’s dark shadows lurks. We know it most clearly in the valley experiences. And everyone of these valleys is in some way related to Adam’s sin.

Yet, in these valleys, David says, we must claim peace for “He is our peace.” Don’t object, saying, “David’s experience and mine are vastly different. Maybe he could say that he knew peace, but I simply cannot say tllat. David’s suffering just was not as mine.” But David knew the hatred of men. Saul was no friend of his. Others rose up against him. David went through the valley of losing a loved one. True, it was the child of a sinful marriage and it was the working out of God’s judgment on him, but it was a loved one, nevertheless. There were David’s valleys with his children, also. What a valley Absalom proved to be! Now, do you think that your valleys are unique? No, David suffered and knew the shadows, even as we.

• True, the valleys are not easy places to be, for there because of high rising mountains. the sunlight is all but blocked out. Sometimes we moan about Our situation in life; we complain about our lives. We think that the valleys are cruel. We cry out that they are hard and desperately unfair. But, oh if we would only stand back and take an overall view, how different things would seem. Stand near a brilliantly colored tapestry. One color stands out so offensively and glaringly that you would like to remove it. Well, then, stand back and look at the whole masterpiece and you will see how essential that color is. Without it the design is incomplete; with it the design is a joy to behold. The valleys of our lives are much like this: close up—hard; afterwards—a joy.

But as we move through these valleys there is peace. God gives us the strength for that moment. True, in weakness we often despair, but He has said, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Remember that Elijah went forty days and nights in the strength of the food that God gave him. In like manner, we may go on, for our shepherd is with us. Through the darkness we hear Him even as He spoke to the disciples on the troubled sea: “Fear not. It is I.”

• Peace in the valley . . . What a comfort! But why is there peace? David says, “I will fear no evil; . . . Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

Already we .have seen the sheep apprehensively contemplating the valley. Yet, the mere presence of the shepherd brings peace. As he goes before these creatures, he carries the badge of shepherding—the crook. This familiar instrument tells them that their shepherd is there. They are consoled; they feel secure; their’s is peace.

David calls this “the rod” and “the staff.” In many ways it is used for the good of the sheep. When they grow remiss, with it he prods them along; when they are in trouble, it becomes a hook to free them; when wild beasts come nigh, it protects them.

Besides the presence of the crook, in the darkness there is peace because the sheep hear his voice. Strange sounds and strange shadows make them become skittish and restive. Then the shepherd walks among them and he speaks. They love his voice and his presence.

There is peace. The sheep can take courage. They will be led through the valley. Beyond the darkness of the valley will be more green, luscious turfs of grass, and more rest! The valley’s darkness is only for a time, and their shepherd is with the sheep. Never has he failed them. They can trust in the midst of the unknown.

And we who are Christ’s are sure of protection, even as the sheep. Christ is our Shepherd and everything that a shepherd does for his sheep, He does for us . .  . and more. He, Himself, has carried the sting of death. Now, though death’s shadows hover over us, the sting of death is forever gone in Him. He protects and keeps us.

Can we know peace in the midst of the darkness of adversity, in the midst of the trials that come to face us? To this, perhaps you reply with a sorrowful “No.” You know the wolves of temptation, the serpents of the Devil. You even know wolves, as it were, in sheep’s clothing. The lion roars, also, seeking whom he may devour. There are precipices of temptation; but there is peace in the valley. He is with us! Christ, our Shepherd, comforts us by His Word and Spirit.

Could it be that we are fearful in the midst of the valleys because, in the sunlight, we act as sheep without a shepherd or as sheep who would be emancipated from the shepherd? If this is true, of course, we will not know peace. We need Him in the sunlight as well as in the shadows!

• Thomas Goodwin, the great Puritan, wrote: “I have known men who came to God for nothing else but just to come to Him: they so loved him. They scorned to soil themselves with any other errand but just purely to be alone with Him in His presence.” This is how we who love God must live: delighting simply to be with Him. What is more, this will be our desire at all times. Then we will heal the Shepherd’s voice as He speaks to us. Then we will know peace in the darkest valleys.

This does not mean that we will avoid the valleys. Some would portray Christianity as an end to all trouble here in this life. This is a false presentation of the Gospel, to say the least. David knew that there were valleys, and dark ones at that; but David knew that for God’s child there was comfort. There is something beyond this wilderness; and that “something” is there in Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep.

These valleys of life and our pilgrimage are not dead-end canyons. Through them He leads us, being with us at all times, even when it is a most hazardous journey. It is hard today? Maybe tomorrow will be hard, too. Maybe, even the day after will be difficult. Yet there is an end, and finally we will be there, no more to know the darkest valleys of an earthly pilgrimage. It was John Bunyan, that great devotional writer, who put it this way to his sorely distressed congregation as he wrote from the Bedford jail: “Farewell, my dear children. The milk and the honey lie beyond this wilderness.” How true for God’s dear children.

Jerome M. Julien is pastor of the Faith Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan.