The valleys of Psalms 23 and 84
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
Both the Psalms stress the reality of us being on a journey.
Embracing process or journey is normally quite foreign to our internal make-up. We feel more comfortable with arrivals, wanting to have answers and being able to explain what is happening, if not to others then at least to ourselves. The uncertainty of not being in control is very uncomfortable.
Psalm 23 talks about this journey. It talks about travelling through lush pastures or times of abundant feeding as well as being next to calm waters or in circumstances where our thirst can be slaked without any threats. But it also addresses the fact that on the journey there will be occasions where it will seem as though our lives and that which we value, is experiencing an existential crisis. Times when we will feel dead and it seems as though God has asbented himself from our experience. This last experience can obviously seem to be in another universe in comparison to green pastures and still waters and when we are there the yearning for the "good" times will be very real.
Not surprisingly the sons of Korah also highlight this in Psalm 84. Amongst other things they say: "Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, They make it a spring". What I especially like about it is that they encourage us to acquire a heart that is set on pilgrimage as a matter of prime importance. Having such a heart goes deeper than just acknowledging the truth of journey or pilgrimage. It is learning the skill of being content in and present to the moment that we are in. The valley that this Psalm speaks about is the valley of Baca, the valley of weeping. A place where it seems as though we have lost our joy.
A very encouraging aspect of both these valley experiences is their outcome.
David steps out of the valley of the shadow of death narrative by immediately saying: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
The sons of Korah say about the valley of weeping: "They make it a spring; the rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion." Because they grasped the principle of pilgrimage or journey they could see the bigger picture and turned that which seemed to be negative into a life-giving spring.
Both the Psalms describe this process as ending up in the fulness of God's presence, which is what was the desire of their hearts from the beginning.
You see, it is only in the valley experiences that two things happen:
We see the depth of our self-reliance. We think we are in touch with it, but I think we are all learning that the rot goes deeper than we thought.
We have the opportunity to exchange our strength for our Shepherd's strength - we go from strength to strength. We discover that he is infinitely close to us and tenderly involved with every aspect of our journey.
Elisha's experience when he was with Elijah when the latter was taken up has always been a wonderful depiction of this principle to me. I realise that I am taking some liberties with my view on this incident, but I am OK with that.
As the two of them walked to their destination everyone they met, as well as Elijah himself, tried to discourage Elisha from continuing on the journey, but Elisha persevered. At the final moment Elijah asked him: "Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha responded by saying: “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” To this request Elijah replied: "You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you;".
I don't believe we get more of the Holy Spirit. We have her dwelling inside of us in her fulness. She must get more of us. When we can see our Shepherd with the eyes of faith, trusting in his unfailing love and goodness, when it seems that he is not there (i.e. in the valley experiences) we move from our strength to his and he enlarges us.
We are journeying towards the outcome of these two Psalms!
When we are in those little whiles of life when we don't see him, we must put a sign up over our lives saying: "Hold steady, my shepherd is at work".
I have learned some profound lessons from C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. This particular one comes from The Silver Chair.
The main protagonists in this adventure are Eustace Scrubb and a school friend of his, Jill Pole. The two of them attend a very “new agey” boarding school called Experiment House where everybody, especially Jill, suffer quite cruelly at the hands of a group of bullies through intimidation and manipulation. Eustace tells her about his experiences in Narnia and they both wish to go there and be rid of the unpleasantness of Experiment House. Just at that point in time they are drawn into Narnia. They did not know why, but found out later, that their mission would be to save King Caspian’s son, Prince Rillian, who has been captured by the evil Green Lady and is being held in the dark underworld.
Jill has no experience of Narnia and has obviously never met Aslan, the Christ figure in these stories. At first her relationship with Eustace is not a very good one. She does not fully believe his tales about Narnia and Aslan and she also does not quite trust the fact that he has changed from the very self centered character that he was to someone who cares for other people.
Going towards Narnia, they come to the edge of an incredibly high cliff. It was so high that the clouds drifting on the wind were so far beneath them that they looked like small sheep grazing in a meadow. Jill was very obstinate and willfully ventured too close to the edge of the cliff causing Eustace to try and rescue her. In the process he fell over the edge. At that point Aslan entered the scene and, with his breath, blew Eustace on an airborne journey into distant Narnia.
In a later scene Aslan and Jill have a meeting in which he explains the nature of their mission into Narnia to her. The two of them were still on the mountain as he gave her four very specific instructions about signs that she should look for when she gets into Narnia. The success of their mission to rescue the captured prince would be determined by her remembering these signs and communicating them to Eustace. Aslan was repetitively insistent that Jill should not forget what he had told her.
The following is part of the dialogue that they had after he had delivered his instructions the first time:
“Thank you very much. I see”
“Child” said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, “perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember. Repeat to me, in order, the four signs.”
Jill tried, and didn’t get them quite right. So the Lion corrected her and made her repeat them again and again till she could say them perfectly.
“Please, how am I to get into Narnia?”
“On my breath”, said the Lion. “I will blow you into the west of the world as I blew Eustace. Stand still. In a moment I will blow. But first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters. And now, daughter of Eve, farewell…”
When we are on the mountaintop with him, at the green pastures and still waters, the spiritual air is clear and our mind and understanding is clear, everything seems so straight forward. We can’t believe that we will ever again face a time where we are confused, when answers seem to be far away and where nothing around us is as we have expected it to be. It is then, on the mountain, that we do well do heed Aslan’s advice to Jill. Use our mountaintops, our green pastures and still waters wisely. Write down what we have heard there and be guided by that. The time will definitely come when the air is thicker and nothing seems to be as we have expected them to be. Don’t go by appearances; be moved only by that which you have heard on the mountain.