4. 23 and the Judean Wilderness

“Sit here and watch,” said the old Arab Christian.  It was May, 1990 and the sun was setting as we watched from the eastside of a hill overlooking the west-facing Judean Wilderness.  Yesterday, Farah, our 80-something year old guide introduced us to Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls – a place where, as a young archaeologist, he had invested years of his life.  He giggled, bounced, and talked like a teenager – but that was yesterday.  Today – he was quiet, wise, reflective, and worshipful.

“Watch,” he said, “and you will see the valley that King David wrote about in Psalm 23.”

We watched in silence as the sun set behind us and the shadows crept into the narrow twisting valley before and below us.  The approaching darkness turned a narrow sunny canyon that was moments before alive with the busyness of the day into a valley filled with the approaching night, the shadows of death.  This was David’s valley.

How quickly the shadows come.  If they’re not here now, we know they’re coming soon.  Valleys always show up.  The cycle of God’s creation follows a rhythm as night is day’s companion.  God spoke it into being and declared it to be good.  With it comes challenges, struggles, disappointment, and approaching shadows of all kinds.  This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Jesus was pretty clear, “In this world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33)  He didn’t say, might.  He didn’t say, maybe.  He said, “You will.”  Creation’s brokenness and tribulation’s shadows will show up – always.

There is a second half to John 16:33.  Missing it would be like remembering the crucifixion on Good Friday but leaving out the victory of the Resurrection of Easter.  The rest of it says, “Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.”   Ah, yes!  Darkness gives way to light.  Death could not hold Jesus.  The stone of death’s shadowy valley had to yield and must still, because it was overwhelmed by Christ’s victory. “Where, O Death, is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15)  That is why there is no fear in death for the believer. “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.”

Most of what I’ve learned about Psalm 23 over the years have been gifts from “valley-walkers.” A cancer-tired voice declared, “I’m going to be ok, pastor, I’m not afraid.  23 says, ‘Yea, thou I walk through the valley.’  I just need to remember that it says, ‘Through.’  It doesn’t say that my journey stops.  The valley isn’t blocked at the end.  It isn’t a dead end from which I cannot escape.  It says that I walk THROUGH!  It means that, in the moment I take my last breath on this earth, I will take my first in heaven.  I will walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death!”

The Psalmist wrote of “the through” in another place when he spoke of the valley of death and grave:  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.  Psalm 118:20

Valley-walkers know this stuff.  We can learn a lot from them.  Their cups overflow.

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