The Valley of the Shadow

Published 7:57 pm Friday, May 13, 2022

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We like to feel that people who speak on important subjects actually know what they’re talking about. Maybe you’ve listened to at least one TED Talk in the last few years. TED talks became all the rage a few years back. Persons regarded as experts of a sort would be invited to give tightly messaged and rehearsed talks on some subject or another.

Using the time strategically is important in a TED talk. But the beginning of the whole experience is actually knowing your subject well. We’ve all heard someone talk about something we suspect they aren’t actually an authority on. The feeling can even be a little fraudulent, when we’re honest enough about it.

If the person is mismatched badly enough with their subject, it can be painful to follow them. We find ourselves hoping for a merciful ending soon, both for them and for us as listeners.

Sometimes, a fraud isn’t all that tough to spot. Other times, though, we may be completely wrong. Maybe we start off not giving someone their due. But later, we’ll realize we were in the presence of real authority.

There is a classic social media meme. It involves a chicken standing in a parking lot. Sounds unremarkable so far. But when you look in the background, you notice that the building is actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken store. The caption is, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Psalm 23 starts out sounding a little too good to be credible, for some. This may well be the most beloved and oft memorized text in all of scripture. It uses beautiful, soft pastoral images that could make it sound as though the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Surely someone who might end up talking about death, and who would make the verbal allusion to having walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” wouldn’t use such tame word pictures. A keeper couched as a “shepherd” seems to promise constant safety. Yet we know that life does sometimes get to us. Life does sometimes strike blows that land quite hard.

While a conventional shepherd may never let their flock go without, I will occasionally find myself in a state of “want.” Then we hear of lying down in green pastures and next to still waters. These are gentle thoughts for so rough a journey.

This is a psalm attributed to David in tradition. Those inscriptions date back hundreds of years. In reality, we do not know who wrote psalms like this one.

But take the exercise for whatever it’s worth as we suppose for a moment that David was the author. Did this writer really know so little about the gritty realities of life that these warm, soothing pastoral images lead off the psalm appropriately?

If David were actually the writer, then he did know. He did know something about death. He also knew the life of the shepherd from his younger days.

David was a man who had lost countless men in battle. He once sent his neighbor into a military setup, on purpose, knowing that he would be killed. That way, he could have the neighbor’s wife. David’s best friend was killed in battle and David grieved that deeply.

Speaking of his grief, David’s own rebellious offspring had tried to kill him and take over the kingdom. Still, when that son was killed by David’s loyalist soldiers, he grieved profoundly. King David knew death.

The psalmist knew death. That much will become apparent. In summary, he seems to be saying, “This trail that I walk is through the valley of the shadow of death.” Fair or not, like it or not, this is the trail that we sometimes find ourselves walking. It may or may not be one of our choosing.

A shepherd’s job was ultimately to deliver the flock from one setting to another. It was to keep the sheep alive. Threats arose occasionally. Danger was a part of a sheep’s life, and it’s a part of our lives, too. The good shepherd guides, delivers and restores us despite what we may endure.

Life will sometimes wall us in with gorges or deep, scary paths. Out of this, though, I believe God can lead us faithfully into new insights. The psalmist feels safe and taken care of. I wonder if we can have that healthy of a theology, to where we feel safe and taken care of even on days like this?