the ravine of blackest shadow
The Lord prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. So how 'bout we all take a seat and break some bread?
If there’s one part of the Bible that English-speaking people are familiar with, it’s today’s text from the Psalms. Even in America, with our dwindling knowledge of the Bible, the 23rd psalm is something almost everyone has at least a passing awareness of. But it isn’t from the translations done in recent centuries—it’s the King James Version. (People often request this psalm for funerals. For those services, that’s the only version I’ve ever used.)
One thing that really stands out is in verse 4: “Even though I walk in the darkest valley.” That might be a better translation, but it’s not as dramatic as “the valley of the shadow of death.” In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m alone on this—it’s not as powerful. It’s not as artistic. The phrase literally reads: “the ravine of blackest shadow.” Friends, that’s pretty dark!
Those considerations aside, we can see a sense of movement throughout the psalm. That would be in keeping with the image of the shepherd guiding the sheep, moving through grassy meadows, by tranquil streams, and yes, through the darkest of valleys.
However, one doesn’t usually think of shepherds as preparing tables for their sheep, anointing their heads with oil, or pouring them cups that overflow. And here’s a shot in the dark: sheep aren’t usually known for their desire to spend time in the house of the Lord!
A quick lesson in Hebrew might help. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, is written with all consonants. The vowels consist of points—dots—that were added up to centuries later. Clearly, a change in vowels makes a difference in the sound and meaning of words. Change one letter, and we go from “sack” to “sock.” Same consonants, different vowels.
Before printing presses came along in the 1500s, copies of the scriptures were done by hand. Sometimes a copyist would receive a manuscript that was difficult to read. A dot might be misplaced. That could change the pronunciation and the meaning. It’s possible that happened here.
The word translated “shepherd” in verse 1 is the Hebrew term רֺעׅי (ro`i). With a slight vowel change, we wind up with the word רֵעַ (re`i), which means “companion” or “friend.” In fact, it’s the same word used in Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If Yahweh, the Lord, is our re`i—our companion, our friend, our neighbor—that puts loving our neighbor in a very different light.
We can see the 23rd psalm as a song of pilgrimage, of travel to the holy place. We are on a journey, and we are not alone. The Lord is our companion, and we need nothing else. Whether by peaceful waters in pleasant meadows or in the loneliest, most terrifying abyss, God is with us. And God—as shepherd, companion, or both—provides for us, even when those bent on our destruction are all around.
So far, I’ve given an example of how Psalm 23 is used liturgically, in worship. I used a funeral service as a case in point. I just mentioned how it can be looked at academically. Examining the Hebrew text can yield new ways of understanding the psalm. But all that stuff isn’t enough. We need more in order to learn how to live when we are in the darkest of ravines.
Again, on the point of funerals. I recently met with daughters of a beloved woman who passed away a few days earlier. She had celebrated her 97th birthday the previous month. She had a special interest in music; a piano graced her living room.
She had been living in a retirement center when she needed help in daily tasks. After a stay in the hospital, it was clear she wouldn’t be going back. Arrangements were made for hospice care, and she would be returning to her home, after six years away. The daughters said she didn’t last long, but she was overjoyed to be back in her own house those final days.
I remember visiting her in the hospital, when she told me before going to sleep the night before, she wondered if she would wake up. She said she was ready to go, even though she wasn’t ready to go.
Some people are graced to walk through the deepest shadow with a sense of wonder and profound gratitude.
What does it mean to live with the awareness that the Lord is our shepherd, our companion, and our host? What does it mean to know that we do not want—that we do not lack? And even more, what does all that mean if we’re in the presence of our enemies? What response does it encourage or require?
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he comes from a different direction. “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (5:8). If living as “children of light” isn’t sufficiently clear, he goes on to say, “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (vv. 10-11).
Works of darkness are “unfruitful”; they aren’t creative. They don’t accomplish anything worthwhile. Works of darkness are the methods of control and force and manipulation we so often use.
Imagine, preparing a table in the presence of our enemies. Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, who died in 2009, once said, “People enjoying such a feast would make themselves an easy target for their adversaries!” It would be like squirrels, happily crunching on seeds and nuts, completely unaware of the cat sneaking up behind them!
But that’s okay, he says, because “this is none other than an expression of the supreme wisdom and strength of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and whose weakness is stronger than human strength.” In verse 4, when the psalmist says to God, “I fear no evil,” what reason is given? I have security through advanced firepower? Or, I have enough money to bribe anyone?
Or maybe is it “for you are with me”? Koyama adds, “God’s vulnerability is stronger than human invulnerability. Through a banquet table—not guns and warplanes—God wills to transform us and our world.”
It’s indeed a blessing, a gift of grace, that none of us is dependent upon our own experience, our own devices—certainly not our own strength—to secure the friendship of God. It’s been said that, as the psalmist finds out, God satisfies every need and transforms all circumstances.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (v. 6). By the time we get to this final verse, we see that the psalmist is “no longer hunted down by…enemies, but…is literally pursued by the goodness of God.” [A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1, 199.]
(I’ll say more about that in a moment.)
Considering that this is a beloved psalm, most people probably don’t want to hear this. But is it possible that when the psalmist speaks of having a fine meal while foes are nearby, it’s not just an expression of trust in God? Could it also be a case of “who’s laughing now”? There are plenty of prayers for revenge in the Psalms. The Lord could be vindicating his servant.
And to be honest, “follow” is too weak a word. The Hebrew word, רָדַף (radaf), is better translated as “pursue” or “chase.” The same word is used after the Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and we see the Egyptians “pursuing” the Israelites (Ex 14:9, 23). It’s almost always used in a military context. Someone is being hunted down.
One notable exception is in Psalm 34, where we are told, “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14). I myself can relate to needing, and wanting, God’s goodness and mercy chasing after me.
I can think of times when I’ve been petty and spiteful. I’ve enjoyed the blessings of God, knowing that others have gone wanting; they’ve gone lacking. And I haven’t lifted a finger to help. I can only speak for myself, but I want the goodness of God to keep chasing me, no matter where I try to hide. I want to be the rabbit tracked by the hound of heaven. I need that light to shine on me when I’m in death’s shadow.
Christoph Blumhardt was a German Lutheran theologian in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. He has a fitting thought for the Easter season. “Christ’s resurrection,” he says, “is not just something that happened in the past. There is resurrection today just as much as there was back then, after Christ’s death. Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order.” [Christoph Blumhardt, Jesus is the Victor, 23.]
Here’s a question. What does Blumhardt mean when he says there’s resurrection today, as surely as when Christ rose from the grave? What about that? What are some ways in which there is new life, where once there had been only death?
That leads to another question. When he says, “Our renewal is real to the extent that we find ourselves in an entirely different order,” what is that? What is an entirely different order? I imagine that could be a lot of things, but let’s stick with what our treasured 23rd psalm gives us regarding traveling the dark path.
Blumhardt adds that “[o]ur task…is to demonstrate the power of the resurrection.” When we allow the power of Christ to have freedom within us, enemies are no longer feared or despised. Evil is de-fanged, in whatever valley of death-shadow we find ourselves. That may be brokenness in body or heart or spirit. We also (amazingly!) find it within ourselves to reach out to those we once considered repellent.
Our friend Kosuke Koyama reminds us, “The table that God prepares for us culminates in the eucharistic table of the Lord,” the table of the Lord’s Supper. “This sacrament is the ultimate symbol of God’s hospitality, demonstrated in full view of the enemy.” I don’t care who we consider our enemy to be. When we dine together at the table “prepared by the very life of God,” enemies become friends.
When we come to the table of the Lord, we come as the one being chased by the goodness and mercy of God. We dine with the risen Lord, who gives us the power to rise from the shadow of death. We come to the table, trusting that in the journey of our life, God is our beloved, our companion, our shepherd.