The Shepherd in Shadowlands
Needing the Good Shepherd
It's dark, very dark. You're scared, very scared. Bleak, black, bad describes your circumstance that surrounds. Perhaps it's due to stress, depression, unemployment or divorce; or maybe crushing disappointment or frightful loneliness; romance now in ruins, failure in a course, business gone bust, and relentless financial pressures all have a casualty list; guilt for hidden sin, a reputation in tatters, persecution for Jesus, or awful temptations from Satan take their toll on souls; sorrow upon sorrow, family all over the place, sickness protracted or sudden, or staring down both barrels at death - these tear-filled situations have left you utterly bereft. These are just some of countless scenarios which lead saints through shadowlands.
When I was growing up I was terrified of the dark. I can remember one occasion - I can still picture the light on the landing, the mahogany of the banister, and the pattern of the carpet - when my parents had to go away briefly and we were kindly kept at the manse. I was only two or three years old at the time which helps explain my dreadful fear. It seems someone forgot that I always went to sleep with a light outside my door. What terrorized me that night was that the manse family slept in the dark. Sobbing, screaming, shouting were my chief experiences on those nights spent all alone in the dark in that unfamiliar, frightening, place.
Praising the Good Shepherd
It's never like that for the sheep with the Shepherd in this Psalm - the 23rd is a favorite and, in its individual take on God's goodness, "MY Shepherd", in the Scriptures quite unique. The dark of the vale is the heart of the Psalm - David describes in sequence, with greatest confidence, the source and shunning of fear, and then ground and reason not to fear:
Moreover, when I am walking in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear evil because You are with me - Your rod and Your staff, it is these things, they comfort me - Psalm 23:4 (my own translation).
Remembering the Good Shepherd
The Shepherd of course is Yahweh, the faithful, covenant, LORD of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - the Holy One the Bush, full of Sinai's Mercy and Grace (Exodus 34:6-7), the God who pardons sinners and lead Israel by Moses through the desert. The lad who slew Goliath had already mentioned divine provision, in verses 1-3: his solace in the darkness is Jehovah's power to protect which will always defend and direct - this truth is symbolized by the compound metaphor 'rod and staff'.
Personal current comfort is found in reflecting on corporate past provision - this psalm echoes constantly with Israel's desert experience after deliverance from Egypt. Just like the people (Deuteronomy 2:7), David shall not lack (Psalm 23:1). If the OT Church seeks pasture (Exodus 15:13), the Son of Jesse will have grass (Psalm 23:2a). If when the Ark encamped Israel found a resting place (Numbers 10:33), still waters are the places where God will lead this sheep (Psalm 23:2b). If the LORD of the Church shepherded for His own Name's sake (Psalm 106:8), then in Jesse's Son's biography God's reputation is intact (Psalm 23:3b). The prophet captures the thought in reference to the Exodus:
They did not say 'Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land what none passes through, where no man dwells?' - the same terrifying territory is in view, as in Psalm 23 - the land of tsalmaweth or valley of 'shadow of death.'
It shouldn't really shock to see Yahweh's consistent, loving, trait - Psalm 23:5-6 concludes with good, covenant, loyalty (or chesed) in hot, overtaking, pursuit (as Joseph was taught in Egypt, as slave, in cell, or with power, from blessing which hunts down there can be no escape: the love is always at work for good). This very attribute is the ground of David's hope in the dark - Jehovah's Covenant Presence, "because You (Yahweh Shepherd) are with me", makes sheepish David bold and brave, for God's Word of powerful protection (based on past redemption, believed as a means of grace), will insulate from evil, bring radiance in gloom, and cast out every fear, to the brink of, and through, death.
Christ the Good Shepherd
Jesus sang this Psalm both as the suffering sheep (to bring comfort for the Cross) and as sovereign Shepherd (laying down life for His flock). It is the New Covenant carved in blood upon the heart of saints that brings comfort in the night in the shadowlands of death. Peter Craigie sums it up nicely in his commentary on the Psalms:
"The echoes of Exodus and the redemption from Egypt in the psalm are transformed into echoes of the redemption won by the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11)" - Psalm 1-50: Word Biblical Commentary, 200.
Trusting the Good Shepherd
The dark, cold, rocky, terrain, characteristic of a desert-valley floor, may make wilderness ravines a terrorizing place for sheep! Hyenas howl in hiding. Lions lurk in lairs. Hawks hover overhead. Unstable boulders are a slippery place for hooves. As fearful shadows lengthen, rattled, fearful, sheep mustn't think their Good Shepherd is aloof - it is in death valley shadows that sheep-guides are most attentive, ready to ward off wolves, and determined to keep flocks safe. Benighted believer - Take blood-sealed truth to heart - especially in death valley, your Faithful LORD is close! Under-shepherds of God's flock - Be quick to bring His sheep to the Bishop of their souls!