A walk through the valley
By Charles Qualls
Perhaps no single text of scripture is more often memorized or recited than the 23rd Psalm. One of the lectionary readings for Sunday was exactly that. The venerable Psalm 23.
Attributed to David, it begins with a set of pastoral images that could make it sound as though the writer didn’t know what he was talking about. For a piece that will eventually wind its way through a place dark enough to be called “the valley of the shadow of death,” it starts off so innocent and restful as to seem a little out of touch.
Instead, I submit that this little psalm is tougher than she sounds. This brief, inspiring scripture has muscle and substance that is so timely for these days of overwhelm, quarantine, anxiety and fear.
Here we have, for instance, God being postured as a “shepherd.” There are a couple of reasons that image is going to be important to us. First we should notice that this reminds us that God is God, and therefore we don’t have to be. When life stacks up, that is a comforting notion.
Also, this is a theme that is going to be picked up on by no less than our Lord himself, as Jesus spends a good part of the New Testament gospels exploring and applying this same language. “I am the Good Shepherd,” He will tell us. So, we are not on this journey by ourselves. This a guided, facilitated experience if we trust and allow it to be.
I like what happens next. I am drawn to what is offered here. “Still waters” don’t threaten. They nourish. Biblical mentions of water, especially in these psalms, usually signaled danger in the form of floods, crashing seas or menacing storms. These still waters, though, are a place of quenched thirst and safe rest. Likewise, “green pastures” not only nourish, they are a place of rest.
The psalmist says that the shepherd “restores my soul.” My Sunday School class and our Wednesday night Bible study crowds will especially remember that I sometimes point out the Hebrew word —“shub or shubv.” It means to turn or return. That is the word used here that is translated to the “restoring” of a soul. The psalmist says that his soul is “returned” or restored under the nurturing, guiding care of this Shepherd.
There is another key image here. Halakhah — in the Hebrew, it meant “…the trail that I walk.” In this case, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Or in our case, through a pandemic. Fair or not, like it or not, this is the trail that we are walking right now. Finally, the place referred to as a “valley” in this psalm. It comes from a Hebrew word whose notion is more of a “gorge,” or a dark, frightening high-walled and very deep place. That is where the psalmist knows his path can take him. A place with no beginning and no end in sight. No exit. Only the choice to return from where you have come, or to keep on moving forward.
I believe we live in a world that God is still in the act of Creating. Creation in the Bible is an on-going notion. God is bringing light into darkness and order into chaos. As a pastor, I want to urge you not to let your imagination run away with you in these days of COVID-19, or whatever load you are carrying. God has not done this global pandemic to teach us anything. God isn’t rendering judgment on anyone with this illness that is raging across our world.
We live in chaos. These things can happen in a biological world, and sometimes humans can even make them worse before they get better. God is the good shepherd who leads us even through this valley or path, because sometimes life has valleys. Life will surprise us with gorges or deep, scary paths. Out of this, though, I believe God can lead us faithfully and into new insights. Into new ways and even toward new sources of hope and inspiration.
THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.