There is no way to avoid the valley. Try as you may to anticipate the pitfalls, they will befall you. In some ways, the more aware I am of what I’m trying to avoid the swifter my pilgrimage to that very place. Funny how that happens.
Green pastures and still waters are beautiful respites along the way. We can race by them at 65mph or stop with God and smell the roses. He makes us lie down and takes us to restful rivers of refreshment. But this passage would be a lie if it didn’t speak of the valley. That’s why the text changes gears with the word: “Yea”.
Yea means a couple things: “Yes” and “Also” or “As well”. It’s like the author is acknowledging another side to the story that makes the green, greener and the still, stiller. Unless there is a backdrop of bad days, a good day doesn’t mean anything. What is truly good unless it rises up in the face and out of a place of ‘not so good’? What is pure but that it hasn’t endured the fires of refinement? Who listens to one who hasn’t persevered in every season of life emerging a “seasoned” sage? It is the valley that tests the testimony and sheds light on every lie. The valley will come; it must come.
And when the valley comes there is no way around it, you must “walk through” it. No reservoir of memorized Scripture will make it seem less valley-like. No moral life will grant you immunity from the dark shadow cast over and about you. No amount of theological preparation can ultimately prepare you for the darkness that will creep into your soul and the believability of that “dark speech” whispering death into your ebbing life. Some have called it the “dark night of the soul”, this Psalmist calls it the ‘valley of the shadow’. Try as you may to evade this path, you will walk through a valley some time or another and it will snap your fancies in half like a brittle twig.
Yea, verily, truly…
It might be something that happens to you, or to someone you love. It might be someone who stabs you from behind and disembowels you one hurtful word after another. It might be a stout heart being ripped from your chest one failed attempt after another, one disappointment stacked upon another, one rejection piled on another.
Sometimes it’s just unbearable pressure. You feel decay in your bones and dread in the watches of the night as you tackle impossible odds each day. You used to wake with a bounce in your step, but now you roll out of bed and limp to the lavatory. You look at yourself in the mirror and you meet your own eyes, sunken into your sockets, darkened with the shadows of death. The hallowed intimacy you once felt with the Almighty is now a hollowed heart of holes.
Where did the Shepherd go? Did he lead me here? Did I stray from the path of righteousness? I hear the howl of every wolf, where is his voice? Where did I go wrong? Am I being punished for some iniquity that required such harsh judgment as this? Have you left me here to die in this deathly hollow, this shadow cast long and wide about me?
“Why haste thou forsaken me?”
The valley is vicious. It has eaten many alive. It has caused saints to recant. It has turned many a pilgrim back toward his former life of inconsequential bliss. It has challenged airtight systematic theologies. It has humbled the most pompous pope or pastor. It laughs at easy answers that have always sufficed. It asks you questions that surface disowned doubts and desires that you thought were long gone and you were long over . It takes you to your knees and forces the wrestler in you to hit the mat with God. And like Jacob we fight until we overcome and are overcome all at once. You don’t get through the valley without a bout of some sort.
A bout with depression. A bout with anger. A bout with lust. A bout with pride. A bout with fear. A bout with worry. A bout with disappointment. A bout with plans and ideas. A bout with Satan. A bout with God. A bout with self.
For anyone who has yet to contend for their faith in the valley of the shadow, they haven’t had their so-called faith tested yet. It is merely a set of tidy ideas groomed in a boot camp of rubber bullets and army-affectations. It is only when you’re in the war that you come to know whether you’re a warrior. And I would contend (especially in America), that you only know you’re a Christian when you see how you walk “through a valley”. Many never make it through, for the valley exposes the vacuum or the veritas.
Yea, you are either going into a valley, currently in a valley, or coming out of a valley.