In a previous post, I wrote about how the Lord, as my Shepherd and yours, restores our soul if we let Him. This focused on verse 3 of the 23rd Psalm. This time I’d like to focus on the next verse:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NKJV
The first part of the verse mentions a place I hope never to visit: Valley of the Shadow of Death. I don’t even want a postcard.
So what is this place? Does it really exist? I’ve heard and seen a number of different speculations, but the best explanation I have heard is that the language refers to the shadowiest of shadowy places. So not really a literal nasty place, but figuratively the worst place your journey could possibly take you.
How do we end up there, then?
Life happens. In this fallen and broken world, this side of heaven, people we cherish pass away, we get various horrible illnesses, jobs get lost, and even our dogs can get cancer. People commit innumerable atrocities to one another with an endless stream of idiotic justifications.
Where is God in all this? Has He lost control? Or maybe He just doesn’t care.
It may seem like He has lost control because of all the terrible things that have happened and that continue to take place. Although this is not the point of this post, let me briefly give an answer that may not sit well, but it’s the truest interpretation of the Scriptures that I can think of. In order to avoid creating a race of automatons who believe in Him because they have no choice, God gave us free will–we have the ability to choose whether or not to love God and believe in Him, because otherwise it’s not love or truly belief. Some people abuse that free will in that they not only choose not to love or follow God, but they also choose to shatter God’s intent for us in unspeakable ways. God designed us to be like Jesus–to love Him and others sacrificially. But if someone chooses to live outside of that design, that is their choice, not God’s. And if they are living outside of that design, oftentimes it leads to horrible, tragic, and terrifying outcomes for others. But even though it may seem like God has lost control by giving us free will and allowing us to make awful choices with it, He has a plan to redeem anyone and everyone who believes in Jesus and that He was sent to pay the sacrificial price for our bad (sinful) choices. One day all things will be made new when He restores all of creation to a new heaven and a new earth. There will be no pain or suffering or atrocities or starving children or dentists. God wins in the end.
I will also reiterate that God, through Jesus, basically guaranteed that our lives will be filled with challenges when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.” (part of John 16:33 NIV, emphasis added). Anyone who believes that by becoming a follower of Christ, your life will suddenly become free from any difficulty must have either overlooked this verse or they don’t know what Jesus meant by “will have trouble.”
Coming back to the thought that maybe God doesn’t care, this leads me to this part of Psalm 23:4: “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” This is more shepherd language (recall that David, the author of this Psalm, was a shepherd in his younger days, before he became a great warrior or Israel’s best king). Anyway, sheep are defenseless and not especially clever, so they need their shepherd to survive.
What is this about a rod and staff? I’ve seen and heard speculation that these are references to God’s disciplining us when we sin. Although I do believe He may choose to do this for us occasionally, out of love as any loving parent would do, I don’t think that’s why David is comforted by them. A shepherd would not use his rod on the sheep, but rather to protect the sheep. If a predator would try to attack one of his sheep, the shepherd would use his rod to fight off the hungry animal. David mentions fighting lions and bears before he goes to fight Goliath (yes, this is the same David).
And the staff? The reason for the large hook on the end is so the shepherd can use it to gently guide the sheep back on course when it tries to go off and do something stupid or dangerous, or both. This is not something that would generally harm the sheep, although sometimes a minor bruise may be considered preferable to falling off a cliff.
These explanations seem more comforting to me than if the Shepherd were beating me with a rod and staff every time I do something stupid or dangerous.
Now there is this part of the verse: “For You are with me.” Although God never promised us an easy life (at least, not this side of heaven), He has promised–and demonstrated–that He will be with us through whatever storms get thrown at us by bad things that happen, including events that occur because other people are abusing their free will. He is there to guide us and comfort us and restore our souls and protect us from the evil one’s attempts to drag us onto a path that leads to hell.
So does God’s presence with us through life’s storms mean we will survive them all? Of course not! Martyrs throughout the Christian Era–including Jesus Himself–can attest to that fact.
But God guarantees the destination for all who call upon the name of Jesus, whether they die of natural causes after a full life or prematurely due to this world’s brokenness: eternity in paradise with Him, reunited with our believing loved ones and every dog we’ve ever loved. And although I’m in no hurry for me or my loved ones to get there, that life will be infinitely better than even our best moments in this fallen world.
And this, my friends, is why we should fear no evil, no matter where we go or what is happening to us, like David said. Our Good Shepherd is with us. He protects us with His rod and guides us with His staff toward our ultimate destination, a perfect and joyous eternity with Him. Thank you, God.