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Living in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

David, in Psalm 23:4, describes not only the human condition as being death, as the separation from God, but also as the secular world we live in, which is also separated from God. Psalm 23 is probably the most well known and popular psalm in the Bible, and with good reason. In just six verses it sets forth both mankind’s and society’s human condition, and shows the hope we have in God’s promises to us. A study of Job would be appropriate to help clarify this psalm, as it shows in detail what David explains in brief. Psalm 23 is also the foundation of next week’s blog. It is therefore a prelude, or shadow, of what’s to come next week.

Society today is certainly the valley of death in the spiritual sense, and more and more in the physical sense as well. The social and political realms are mostly devoid of any real sense of God or salvation as this blog has pointed out before. And, God does not hear those who reject Him. It’s our decision, not His. He, by nature, cannot live in the presence of sin. If we persist in rejecting Him then He has no choice but to honor our decision. But He’s there waiting should we change our mind, or should society and the government change direction back to Him.

Verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. David is king of Israel. He rules over the nation absolutely. There was no higher human authority over the Jews than David. In nine words David sets his position in the Psalm and the context in which it is intended to be understood. He, David, is king of Israel, and God is his King. David is ruled by God, and therefore ruled Israel through David. The historical books in the Old Testament show time after time what happened to Israel whenever they fell away from God’s rule. Second, David says he does not aspire to more than what God will give him. David rejects the two sins that cause all of society’s problems: pride, the original sin, and greed, which is derived from pride. The rest of the psalm is colored by this statement. And world leaders would do well to heed the verse’s message.

Verse 2: “He leads me to lie down in green pastures: He leads me beside still waters”. David and his God-given flock, Israel, are led to have rest in the abundance that God provides. Green pastures indicates that God gives His flock all they need to survive. God leading David, and thus Israel, beside still waters indicates that God provides not only life-giving water, but leads His people beside “still water”. Calm water signifies a lack of trouble and strife in life. “Troubled waters”, as the song says, indicate serious problems to be overcome. It’s not that God’s people ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after without cares. It’s that God provides the means and guidance to work through those problems. That is the only way to eliminate problems. Denying a problem exists or trying to get around it doesn’t eliminate a problem, it gives the difficulty license to not only continue but to get stronger, because there is no opposition to its progress. God is faithful to keep His flock safe. But He works through His people to resolve problems. Problems will not be resolved without Him.

Verse 3: “He restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (emphasis added). This verse is extremely important. Most people miss the second half of this verse. It refers back to and expounds on verse one. Everything we do as Christians is to God’s glory. It’s to live our lives in such a way that God gets the credit for everything. The statement for His sake or for His name’s sake is often used in the Old Testament, and Jesus explained that He is the light of the world, and His light is to shine out to the world through us (John 1:4; 3:36; Matthew 5:13-16). So then, not only individual Christians are God’s ambassadors, but kings, presidents, and all government officials are commanded to be led by God and be His ambassadors to the world. The historical books and the New Testament as well show what happens to nations whose leaders reject God. And, we’re missing the warnings God is giving the United States today in the form of floods, hurricanes, fires and tornados among other things. We’ve taken God out of our schools and we celebrate perversions. then we wonder why we have so many problems.

Verse 4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me”. David is confident that no matter what tribulations come against him in this world, God is with him. The implication here is that God will provide the means and direction to overcome whatever trials present themselves to David. Jesus also gives us that assurance: “In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”. And we will overcome the world through Him. No other way works. But world leaders suffer from what my dad called the ostrich syndrome; they stick their heads in the sand and refuse to admit there are problems that only God can resolve.

“Your rod and your staff comfort me”. The rod and staff are the same thing. David referred to the staff that shepherds carried to ward off predators and pull lambs to safety from where they had fallen. The double reference is for emphasis, to show the importance of the staff. Paul used the same technique when he referred to salvation as God’s “free gift” to us. Gifts are, of course, free. If they are not freely given without cost they are not gifts. Verses 3-6 are related in that they speak to God providence and care of His people, whether as individuals or corporately as nations.

Verse 5: ” You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over”. David is saying that even though he suffered from aggression from his enemies, God provided abundantly for him in ways that the enemies could see God’s hand. That should have been a clue to leave David alone! Didn’t work. His enemies were clueless for the most part. The Pharisees and Jewish leaders missed the clues Jesus gave them when they came to arrest them in the garden. He restored the guard’s ear and knocked the soldiers over backwards with His power. Those two things should have been clues to leave Jesus alone and to believe He was who He said He was. But that would have disrupted the Pharisees’ whole world and undermined what they perceived as their power. They refused to admit that whatever authority they had was given to them by God-and He could take it away in and instant. And, world leaders haven’t changed in the last 2,000 years. But they need to.

Oil was put on a person’s head to honor that person as a valued guest. A woman did this to Jesus shortly before His crucifixion. David is saying that because he was faithful in subjecting himself to God and ruling through God’s commands to him, God honored him by preserving David as king, or in New Testament terms, the highest ambassador to the Jews. And, God gave David everything he needed and a lot more.

Verse 6: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. Follow is actually pursue. Goodness and mercy will pursue David all his life ( the Hebrew is more accurately “down through the ages”) because David is staying within the parameters God set for him. And, David had the assurance that God never changes and honors His promises to His people. Goodness and mercy often refer to the covenant promises God gave to the Jews, here personified (see: Psalms 15:1; 25:21; 43:3; 79:8; 89:14).

Summary: David is saying to us that even presidents, kings, prime ministers, senators, congressmen and all leaders of the people derive what authority they have from God. Things go better with God, if you’ll pardon my crude paraphrase. Without Him as the ultimate leader of our individual lives and our cities, counties, states and nations, things don’t go well for two reasons. First, without God’s constant guidance we revert to making decisions from our fallen sinful nature, and nothing good comes from that. Second, God will chastise those people and nations who do not follow Him. The United States is a republic founded as “one nation, under God”, but for all practical purposes we have become a nation under Satan. If a person comes to a fork in the road and takes the wrong turn, continuing on in the wrong direction is not progress.

Turning around and going back to the fork to take the right road is progress. If those people who are called by God’s name (Christians) will repent (turn back to the right road), and follow Him, He will heal their lives and their nation. In the light of our natural disasters and social problems-to include mass violence, which is next week’s blog-we need to do exactly that: turn around and go back to the path God set out for this country when it was founded under Him. But we should continue as a republic. Theocracies have never worked well in modern history due to the leader’s propensity to distort God’s intentions with prideful human intent. Christians everywhere need to contact their representatives and demand a return to biblical values in government. The First Amendment to our Constitution prohibits only a government-established religion. Implementing biblical values, morals and ethics in governing is what our founding fathers intended for us to do. We need desperately to go back to that path. Start emailing and writing today.

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