Psalm 23 is the surprising Psalm. That statement – in and of itself – might seem surprising. Surely this is the best known of all the Psalms. Most readers of this blog will be familiar with it.
Yet that very familiarity means we often miss what is really here. We are used to being soothed by readings of Psalm 23 which present it as pastoral and gentle. We focus on the green pastures and quiet waters and romanticise the life of the shepherd and his sheep. But if we read more closely, we see this is a Psalm where evil is present. The Psalmist is walking through the deepest, most dangerous valley, with unseen enemies waiting in the gloom, ready to strike. The phrase translated ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ may in fact be better rendered ‘the darkest valley’. Whichever phrase we use we get the picture. This is a Psalm that deals with the tough, gritty realities of everyday life. It is in fact a Psalm for our times, a Psalm for the Covid 19 ward, for the single mother cooped up with young children wondering how she’ll pay the rent, for the furloughed employee and for the employer whose business is collapsing. It is a Psalm for the care home, for the grieving family unable to arrange a proper funeral and for the person battling the deep darkness of depression. This is a Psalm for how many of us feel. That’s the first surprise.
The second surprise is that God is with us in the thick, seemingly impenetrable darkness. Is that surprising? Perhaps not, but in the worst of situations we struggle to believe it. My blogpost last week on my experiences of mild depression generated an amazing response, firstly of empathy and encouragement (thank you!) and secondly from people who go through something similar or, in many cases, far worse. Yet a feature of many forms of depression is that we feel utterly alone, isolated from others and – if we are disciples of Jesus – isolated from God.
Yet we are not alone. Not only are there many other people who are walking the same path, God is with us. John of the Cross, who teaches us about the ‘dark night of the soul’, felt that for him God had become distant, unreachable. But those were his feelings. For John, God never actually withdrew, it just seemed like it from his perspective. Psalm 23 shows us that is a biblical insight. Even at the lowest point of the valley, with evil all around, the Lord who was the Psalmist’s shepherd was with him. This truth is perfectly fulfilled for us in Jesus, the good shepherd. He lays down his life for the sheep (John 10.11). The darkness he endured on the cross for our sakes far outstrips anything which will happen to us. He understands what we suffer, and he is with us by the Holy Spirit. These are familiar truths and it’s so easy to skim over them. As we lose our capacity to be surprised by Psalm 23, so we lose our capacity to be surprised by the cross and the love of God. Take a step back today and wonder afresh at God’s amazing grace to you in Jesus.
And there’s one further surprise. God will bring us through. In the Psalm we enter the darkness, but we don’t stay there. We come ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’. The sheep are led by the shepherd to a place of safety and abundance. The disciple’s cup is not just full, it overflows. Here is outrageous grace. In Jesus, who is risen from the dead, suffering does not have the last word. Day always follows night as resurrection light penetrates the darkness.
The experience of many Christian disciples who have travelled through the ‘dark night’ is that they have again seen the ‘goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27.13). The sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader Jakob Hutter said this, Be comforted then, for God…makes us sad and joyful again; he gives death and also life; and after great storms he makes the sun shine again. Praise God this can be echoed by many. May God surprise you by bringing you wonderfully through your time of darkness so you dwell in the green pastures once again.
There are some however who experience darkness throughout their lives, perhaps through a series of calamities, perhaps because of a predisposition to severe depression, perhaps through the terrible injustices that blight the lives of so many around the world. Is there a word here for such people? I confess I hesitate to speak. But the Psalm does speak, of God’s presence and help and of a glory that defies description that is yet to come. Notice the certainty of the final verse of Psalm 23. God will never leave us – either now or in the age to come. This is our hope. And the God of surprises will not let us down.
This blog is part of a series from Peter Morden.Click here to catch up with the series.