The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
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.
Psalm 23 (NRSV)
Psalm 23’s almost utopian vision of divine rest has made it the most famous of the psalms—perhaps even the most well-known passage in the Bible. This week’s lectionary psalm has stitched its way into nearly every Christian funeral liturgy and Scripture memorization list (and not a few framed needlepoints). The famous Shepherd Song takes the psalmist’s sense of profound comfort and security in relationship with God and wraps it in lush, vibrant, pastoral imagery.
That imagery is metaphorical, of course. It speaks from the perspective of a sheep being tended by a caring shepherd. Sheep are not generally known for their intelligence and poetic sensibility. But the ovine metaphor works, and has been so compelling through the ages, because we human creatures need exactly the same things as the metaphorical sheep: the provision of our basic needs (v. 1b), green, oxygen-rich spaces and abundant food (v. 2a), and clean water to drink (v. 2b)—these are the foundational means by which God continually restores our life (Heb. nefesh, v. 3a), in our own day just as much as the psalmist’s.
Sadly, these are the very elements of creaturely flourishing that are threatened by recent, rapid changes to Earth’s climate. You can read statistics and anecdotes related to the effects of climate change on human access to the basic resources of life in earlier posts from our Lenten series. The big picture is clear, though, even if politicians continue to squabble over the level of human responsibility for it: Our planet’s growing bubble of greenhouse gas is changing the climate, producing an overall warming of global temperatures, increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, melting icecaps, raising sea levels, extending severe droughts, and turning the planet’s oxygen-producing forests into kindling. The rapid acceleration of these changes has called into question the very habitability of our planet within a generation or two, for humans and many non-human species alike. In the meantime, as we begin to feel the effects of this process, nutritious food and drinkable water are more often treated as scarce, commoditized resources instead of basic rights.
If climate scientists are to be believed (and they are), the next century will be a passage through the valley of the shadow of death for Earth’s creatures. We will discover whether the trend toward our own extinction is inevitable, or hope remains. For now, however, we amble forward in the dark unknown. The rare Hebrew term in Psalm 23:4, tsalmavet, evokes the image of a sheep wandering in the dead of night through such a steep ravine that even the light of the moon and stars is blocked out. Predators may well be hiding in the high ground above, but they are imperceptible, masked by a “death-shadow.” We, like the psalm’s sheep, face that valley. Indeed, many communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change—island communities, those in coastal floodplains and in hurricane corridors—have already been plunged deep into its eyes-open darkness. Like the psalm’s sheep, in the valley we are vulnerable to forces beyond our individual control, and in that space, we feel powerless and fearful. If we as a species are to traverse the valley’s contours successfully and emerge into the light, we need a skillful guide, a good shepherd.
For that reason, the necessary response to these narrow straits is both theological and political. It is theological because it requires a renewed perspective of our place in relationship to Earth’s creator. Psalm 23 can help us here. The song’s barrage of active verbs with a divine subject—lays me down, leads me, restores me, comforts me, prepares for me, anoints me, pursues me—orients us to our creaturely dependence. The problems we face are more than any of us is equipped to handle. Still, our needs are ultimately in the hands of the Creator. We can confront the uncertainty and fear of the dark valley of climate catastrophe because even there, “you are with me” (v. 4a). The psalm uses an emphatic ‘immadi, “right here with me.” God does not stand aloof from our mortal concerns. God is right here with us, engaged, protecting, providing. This is the confession of the first line of the psalm: with God as our shepherd, we lack nothing (v. 1b). It is a profound affirmation of faith, but not an easy one to make. In the face of so much persistent lack and the specter of climate catastrophe, should we make such an affirmation?
The dissonance between the psalmist’s confidence in God’s providential presence and our own perceptions and experience of want can be better understood theologically by interpreting the song’s “sheep” as a poetic representation of collective humanity, not each individual human. With God as our shepherd, we together lack nothing—which is why our response to global climate change must be political, just as much as it is theological. Our narrow straits require that we organize our human community, such that the abundance provided by our good shepherd is not hoarded, wasted, warred over.
The psalm addresses this political response with the language of “justice.” Verse 3b says that God leads us upon “trails of justice” (tsedek) for the sake of God’s name. For the psalmist, one of the profound implications of being God’s namesake people (cf. 2 Chron 7:14, passim), is that God has skin in the game and is personally invested—staking God’s own name—in guiding the people toward just social systems.
What do the “trails of justice” look like? Maybe they are a table set right across from our enemies (v. 5a), our heads anointed with oil (v. 5b), our cup flowing over (v. 5c). The first of these images plays on the similarity in Hebrew between the words “weapon” (shelaḥ) and “table” (shulḥan). Instead of facing the enemy with fists, God lines up a feast. Instead of passing out helmets for battle, God anoints the people’s heads with the oil of a priestly, intercessory vocation. Instead of setting up a competition for the last drop of wine, there is plenty to go around. These images of abundance and generosity challenge us to treat others not as enemies, not as competitors for limited resources, but as those with whom the abundance of God is enough to share.
God’s policy of justice is not Everyone-for-Themselves nor Every-State-for-Itself. Survival of the fittest may drive biological evolution, but as a strategy in the face of global climate change it will only demonstrate that humanity is unfit to survive. While poorer populations are more vulnerable to the earliest effects of climate change, this is a crisis that will eventually reach everyone without discrimination. In light of that reality, it makes no sense to approach climate policies with a competitive, Us-First mentality. Our great-grandchildren will not thank us for protecting our own short-term economic profits against international pressure to cooperate in climate change mitigation. We need to recognize that whether we like it or not, the global community is in this crisis together. Our survival depends on learning to share the abundance we have—our natural and financial resources, as well as scientific expertise and creativity—in the fight to combat climate change.
Lent is traditionally a season when those of us who are Christian worshippers reflect upon our own mortality in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The sheer power of our earthly climate—even in the wake of an isolated tornado, flood, or wildfire—reminds us of how fragile our existence is and how easily it could be wiped away. As we enter the valley of the shadow of death in anticipation of a dramatic, perhaps irreversible alteration of the global climate, it can be tempting to defer our hope of restoration to the age to come.
However, although Psalm 23 is ubiquitously invoked as a funeral text, its original vision of rest and security in God was not meant to be pushed off to the afterlife. The closing line of the psalm in the classic King James Version reads, “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (v. 6b). That rendering certainly evokes the notion of eternal rest in heaven. But in the psalmist’s own context, the “house of the LORD” was not an otherworldly heaven, but the very much earth-bound temple in Jerusalem. Proximity to that temple meant proximity to God. And “forever” is better translated “for length of days/years” (le’orekh yamim), meaning, “for the rest of my long life.”
Therefore, Psalm 23 is not “pie in the sky when you die.” It is about experiencing God’s nearness during our living days. It is a prayer that those days of creaturely flourishing may be long upon this earthly home. If we want that kind of experience for our global community and for the generations who come after us, then the mortality we need to embrace this Lent is a mortification of our greed, our short-sightedness, our faith in unjust “Market Forces,” our exploitation of laborers, and our thoughtless consumerism. God, who is right here with us, is showing us the path of justice through the valley. Let’s walk it together.
2 thoughts on “Passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death”
Hi, Tim. I think I have always been prone to anxiety. It usually is below the surface, but last night I realized that my fascination with news of the virus has pushed anxiety to surface. What to do?
This morning I was reading from a book that I received years ago: Finding the Still Point, by Tom Harper. In the book Harper focuses on a spiritual approach to coping with the stresses of everyday life. Harper notes that a key question for us is a question God asked Elijah (who was overcome with anxiety) in 1 Kings 19:9: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
And so today I ask myself, “What are you doing here, Patti? How did I get to this place of anxiety?” And the answer for me is that—despite a lifetime of active church membership/attendance—I rely on myself to overcome adversity. I ascribe to the notion that if I can do the right thing, all will be well.
Alas, like with Job, I now find that I need to let down my self-sufficient attitude and recognize that God is with me. God knit me in my mother’s womb; God was present in all life’s joys and difficulties; God will continue to be present whatever the future brings.
Oh, there are things I can do to work toward God’s hope for all creation. I will trust the wise advice of health professionals. I will reach out to family and friends in ways that I am able. I will pray for the world and all its suffering. But I don’t have to go this alone. God is with us. And that knowledge lowers the anxiety a bit.
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