How Green is My Valley!
A Meditation on the Psalm of Psalms, the Twenty-Third.
It has been said of the Twenty-Third Psalm, that it is the most frequently quoted and least believed passage in all the Scriptures. Certainly, it is widely known and used. More expositions have been written of this Psalm than of all the rest put together. It is memorized by Sunday school scholars in early years. It is believed by Christians everywhere. Orthodox Israelites admire it and site it, while unorthodox Jews read it in their synagogues. And no matter how many times we may have recited and read this Scripture, it is ever profitable to do so still again.
"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. (vs. 1).
In reading this Psalm, we must remember that, whereas it is true that Christ is the Shepherd of the Church, He is also, first of all, the Shepherd of Israel, and that the message of these words applies to her covenant promises. Again and again in the Old Testament, Messiah is referred to as Israel's Shepherd. From the time of Jacob and onward, through the Psalms, in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Zechariah, and so on, Messiah's shepherd-character and work are told out. We shall cite but one such instance, "Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock, Thou that dwellest between the cherubim, shine forth" (Psa. 80: 1). The Shepherd of Israel is the Lord, the Messiah.
When Christ came to earth, He came "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10: 6). However, "His own received Him not" (John 1: 11). It was then that He reached out in grace to the Gentiles. But though once He was rejected, He is coming again, and when He does, a remnant of Israel will believe and He will gather them as a shepherd gathers his sheep.
The need of the Shepherd, as Israel needed Him, applies to the Gentiles also; for all have sinned. Yes, we too need the Shepherd. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him (the Good Shepherd) the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53: 6); (cf. John 10: 11). The suffering that the Good Shepherd endured is foretold in the Twenty-Second Psalm, and through His sacrifice for us and our faith in His Person and work, we who were going astray are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls: (I Pet. 2: 25). By faith alone, we can say: "The Lord is my Shepherd"; for He is not the Shepherd of those who will not own Him as Lord and Saviour.
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want." There is nothing wanting to them who are His, for He is our All and in all. He is the Almighty, all loving changeless Lord. With Him, all things are possible. He never fails. To Him, we can bring all our trials, all our anxieties, all our longings, all our needs. He has promised to supply every need, and should it be that our prayers are for those things which we do not need, which are not best for us, then He changes our desires to conform to His will. "No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly" (Psa. 84:11), and they are they who trust Him and walk in His pathway.
The little girl who was asked to recite the Twenty-Third Psalm, began: "The Lord is my Shepherd; He's all I want." When we come to the place where we give Him the lordship of our lives, then He is all that we want. In His grace, we shall know no lack. There will be nothing wanting.
Green Pastures and Quiet Waters.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters" (vs. 2).
Not only is there no want for those who own the Lord Jesus Christ as their Shepherd, but He makes the way pleasant. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him" (I Cor. 2: 9). It is not necessary for us to await some indefinite and distant day beyond this earthly life, to be the recipients of God's bounty; but He has revealed unto us by His Spirit, that which He has prepared, and this very day, by His grace and in the Lord, we can say: "How green is my valley!"
"The Lord is my Shepherd . . . He maketh me to lie down in green pastures." Sheep do not know what is good for them. By themselves, they wander here and there, more often than not, shunning the better pastures for the worse, frequently straying to arid or even dangerous places where the food is scarce or where there may be no food at all. It is the shepherd's task to lead them to, and cause them to pasture in fertile fields. There, when they partake of the provender, they lie down and, because they are ruminants, while they rest, they chew the cud hour upon hour until their food is fully assimilated.
Thus, the Good Shepherd cares for His sheep, and thus they lie down in the green pastures of His providing. "I am the Good Shepherd," He said, "I am the Door: by Me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (John 10: 11, 9). The food is Himself. It is His Word. "I am the Bread of life: he that cometh to Me, shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me, shall never thirst" (John 6: 35). He is our life in the first place; then He is our sustenance. As we rest in Him, the pasture is indeed green, and it becomes ever more so as we meditate upon Him hour by hour, day by day, year by year, ruminating on God's Word, chewing the cud, as it were, digesting it and re-digesting it for our soul's nourishment and strength and completeness, until at length, it becomes a part of us.
"He leadeth me beside the still waters," Literally, the waters of quietness. Angry waters can be dangerous to sheep. Unknowingly, they can be drawn into the turbulent stream and carried away to be dashed against the rocks and severely injured or drowned in its depths. But by the still waters, there is coolness and contentment; there is refreshment. For the Good Shepherd's sheep, the expression, "the waters of quietness," speaks of Christ Himself and of the water that He gives, the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers in the Lord. These restful, quiet waters satisfy the soul, so that there is no thirst for anything or anyone else. "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst," our Lord told the woman of Samaria; "but the water that I shall give him, shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (John 4: 14).
To those who partake of the Good Shepherd's gracious provision for His sheep—rest in the green pastures and refreshment by the waters of quietness—it matters little that the way may be hard or long, or the burdens heavy. For He is our Way, our Burden-Bearer, upon whom all cares can be cast. He who leads us along the pathway of life, has trod it before us. All our springs are in Him, and He is everything to us.
Search Me O God.
"He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name's sake" (vs. 3).
Not infrequently, we have seen and heard the word "restoreth" in the first clause of this verse rendered "refresheth": "He refresheth my soul." But this is incorrect. The Hebrew verb is shuo, which means to turn about. Of course, the Good Shepherd refreshes His sheep! Leading them into green pastures and by the still waters, He provides them with rest and refreshment. But an entirely different ministration is alluded to here.
"The Lord is my Shepherd . . . He restoreth my soul."
A shepherd's desire for his sheep is that they shall obey his commands and follow him into fertile fields and by quiet streams. He leads and guards them to that end, and even when they wander away, he calls them and guides them with his crook. But now and then some of his sheep go along their own stupid and willful way, not recognizing the danger of separation from their shepherd, unaware that hunger, thirst, attack, and death, cast their shadows in the unprotected places. The shepherd knows what dangers threaten them, and he seeks out his wandering sheep and draws them back to the place of his choosing wherein are refreshment and rest. He turns them about from the barren and dangerous path to the fertile and safe way.
So it is that we who belong to the Lord, the Good Shepherd, are prone to wander away from His leading, into the paths of sin and shame. Sheep-like, we seem unaware of the dangers that beset us. But He knows and He cares. Though we have disobeyed His voice, in grace He reaches out to us to draw us back to Himself, to pastures green and waters still. He turns us about from the pathway that disturbs our joy, disrupts our testimony, and dishonors His name. He causes us to apprehend that we have sinned and to confess that sin and, in faithfulness as our Advocate, He restores our souls.
Having corrected us in our restoration, the Good Shepherd, the Righteous One, leads us once again in the paths of righteousness. It is the path that He Himself trod here in His life on earth. He knows the way, and so He goes on before us and leads us. Having given us the food and drink which satisfy and strengthen, so that henceforth, our only hunger and our only thirst will be after righteousness, He says to us: “Follow Me.” If we are obedient, we shall walk in paths of righteousness through a sin-darkened and sin-cursed world. We shall walk in the light, as He is in the light, and our fellowship with Him shall be unbroken. Our light will shine for His name’s sake, and our Father in Heaven will be glorified thereby.
As wonderful as it is to know that we are promised restoration and righteousness, let us remember that all of us have gone astray like sheep from time to time. We need, therefore, to be on guard and ask the Lord to show us our failures, our sins, and our waywardnesses. For it is not we who search ourselves but He who searches us and draws us back. With the psalmist we cry: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psa. 139: 23, 24).
The Valley of the Shadow.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (vs. 4).
As the Twenty-Third Psalm is perhaps the best known passage of all Scripture, so this verse is remembered with indelible impression from early childhood. No matter how we may have been taught to love this Psalm or how fully we have learned to trust the Lord, as we read or quote verse four, a shadow crosses our thoughts. For no one looks forward to death. In fact, even some who frequently cite the assurance that “to be with Christ . . . is far better” shrink from death and, in sickness, as a rule, fight it with all their strength. For death is an enemy. It is out of tune with hope. It is an unpleasant experience to which to look forward. But it need not be.
This very day you and I are living, in a sense, in the valley of the shadow of death. For there is darkness all about us, the darkness of sin and of sinners who love darkness rather than light. The world around us, thinking itself very much alive, is dead, dead in trespasses and sins. War and murder and mechanized living cause the pall of death to touch many of us. But we believe that the psalmist is picturing a much more personal experience than these. He speaks to the time when to all, except that generation of believers in Christ that will never suffer physical death (I Cor. 15: 51; I Thess. 4: 17), death will come.
Continuing with the figure of the shepherd, he depicts the occasion in which the shepherd which successfully leads his sheep through a dark and gloomy vale, wherein all sorts of dangers threaten, to bright and happy and fertile pastures beyond. So, the Good Shepherd takes His own sheep through the black valley of the shadow of death.
It was in Southern Ireland once, that we passed through a valley, treacherous, unlovely, and full of shadows, to come forth at length into the brilliant sun to view one of the loveliest castles in all the world, set by a rippling stream amid colorful and fragrant gardens. But this is but a pale figure of what is in store for the believer in Christ.
Yes, unless the Lord comes first, all of us must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. But a shadow cannot harm us. The shadow of a dog will not bite, nor will the shadow of a bullet kill. The sting has been taken out of death by our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep. And now, to His own, death is but a shadow—an experience that ends in His Presence. Remember, there must be light before there can be shadow; and that light is Christ, the Light of the world. Death for the Christian is but a veil cast over the face, a veil that is removed in the glory.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Why? Because “perfect love casteth out fear”; because the Good Shepherd is with us. He will never leave nor forsake us. He is our refuge and our strength. We can trust in Him and not be afraid. Our comfort is assured by His rod and staff, the shepherd’s badges of office.
The rod is the shepherd’s defending power, wherewith he puts to flight the enemies of the sheep. It is also his chastening and correcting instrument for those who stray. The shepherd’s staff is his crook, under which his sheep pass as he counts them, and with which too, he draws them back from danger. These are symbols of our Lord’s protective power and chastening hand, “for whom He loveth, He chasteneth” (Heb. 12: 6). And they are sources of great comfort to our hearts, telling us as they do, that He is by our side and that He will see us through the dark valley and bring us forth into the bright and glorious beyond where all is light.
Full and Running Over.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” (vs. 5).
No single metaphor can picture the fulness of the Christian’s position. The Lord, our Great Shepherd, leads us and cares for us as His sheep. But sheep are dumb animals, whereas the believer’s relationship to Christ encompasses fellowship with Him. So, the figure is changed now and we see a banqueting table, with the Lord as host to the child of faith.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” It was not an uncommon custom in the East for onlookers to stand around and watch a great banquet in progress. The openness of the oriental homes made it easy for passers-by to observe, if they wished, all that went on during the feast. Such a situation is suggested in the account of the feast that Matthew prepared for his former associates, at which the Lord Jesus was a guest (Mark 2: 13-20). So says the psalmist, the Lord prepares a table for His own in the presence of their adversaries. Openly, for all to see, He acknowledges them and satisfies them with His gifts of bounty. Our enemies, those who despise us because of our testimony for Christ, may see that we are filled full; and even Satan, the adversary of our souls, is brought to confusion by the Lord’s provision for us.
Our thoughts cannot help but turn to the communion table, which is the Lord’s table in truth, at which we partake of the bread and the wine to show His death until He comes again. For David, who “foresaw the Lord always” before his face (Acts 2: 25), was here fulfilling his prophetic office in referring to this table. As we who are Christ’s, partake of the symbols of His sacrifice for us, our souls are satisfied, the world is witness to, and Satan and all his angels are reminded again of the hopelessness of their cause and of their own sure judgment. The Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ is the mark of their defeat; the table of the Lord is the memorial of His victory. Such a table, prepared by Him, is our place of fellowship and communion.
“Thou anointest my head with oil.” Oil is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The gracious host of the Orient supplied unguents and perfumes for his guests. It was only the very stingy host whose visitors were unwelcome, who failed to provide for their enjoyment (cf. Luke 7: 46). But the divine Host, who receives with open arms and loving heart, all who will come to Him, provides not only the table of good things but ministers to the complete comfort and need of His guests. He gives us the Comforter, by whom anointed, we have peace, power and perseverance.
The Lord Jesus is no niggardly host. He who “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think,” surely does so daily. “My cup runneth over”—the cup of His provision is not partly filled, nor is it only poured to the brim. So bounteously does He supply that the cup is full and running over. Through the love of Christ, it is “filled with all the fulness of God.” The cup that for the Lord Jesus was filled with God’s wrath, for and judgment upon sin, is for us whose trust is in Him, filled to overflowing with all spiritual blessings, with the fulness of God, with peace that passes understanding, and with joy unspeakable.
“O Lord, hold Thy hand; it is enough. Thy servant is a clay vessel, and can contain no more!”
Yesterday, and Today, and Forever.
“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (vs. 6).
We have seen the Good Shepherd leading His sheep beside the still waters and in the paths of righteousness, and supplying a table of bounteous provision for them. He is not content however, simply to go before the sheep; for He knows the dangers which threaten them from every side. So, as He leads, His guardians follow behind us all the days of our lives. These are goodness and mercy, whom F. B. Meyer used to call “the two shepherd-dogs of Christ.”
“Goodness and mercy.” Not goodness alone; for the sinner needs God’s mercy for forgiveness and life. Not mercy only, for in addition to God’s forgiveness and life, we need His daily care. Goodness and mercy—these are His gracious provision for His own. “The Lord is good, and His mercy endureth for ever.” In His goodness, He provides food for the hungry, comfort for the sorrowing, strength for the feeble, grace for those who suffer, and every spiritual blessing for every child of His care. In His mercy, He forgives the sinner and restores the saint, and offers an abiding place in Christ in the heavenlies through all the days of this life.
“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Surely, because God cannot withdraw what He has promised and given. Surely, because He has never failed, and He is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” Not for today only are goodness and mercy our companions; not just for the sunny days, nor only for the dark days; not merely for fall and winter, but for spring and summer too—for youth as well as for old age, for the poor as well as for the rich, for the sad as well as for the glad, for the sick as well as for the well. All the days of our lives, His mercy and goodness abide, surely.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” The passing of the years, the retrogression of man’s so-called progress, the crashing of all the world’s castles-in-the-air, of all its dreams, make us long for something that will be lasting. “Change and decay in all around I see.” When will there be an end to sin, to hatred, to conflict, to destruction, to death? When shall we find peace and permanence? When will we get “Home”? The answer is written in these words: “Surely . . . I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Yes, that is the heart’s longing today, even as it was that of the psalmist: “One thing have I desired of the Lord. That will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (Psa. 27: 4). Assuredly, his thoughts went beyond an earthly dwelling place—to the Father’s house of many mansions which our Lord Jesus is preparing today for His own. Time and this present life stand as a foyer leading into eternity where we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
On the Isle of Patmos, the Apostle John wrote: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle (dwelling place) of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away” (Rev, 21: 3, 4). Until then, surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives; and then, we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“Our Hope” 1956