God Beside Us
James C. Denison
Before January 15, Chesley Sullenberger III was anything but a household name.
A former Air Force fighter pilot, he is also the founder of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., a consulting business. According to their website, their mission is “to utilize our expertise to apply the most effective methods to your organization to achieve the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability.”
When Mr. Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River, I’m guessing his business clientele rose significantly. After the pilot saved the lives of the other 154 passengers, he then walked the length of the aircraft twice to be sure no one was left before disembarking himself.
Audio tapes of his exchange with air traffic controllers were released this week. Listening to them, I was amazed by his calm under pressure. If I ever need “the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability,” I know who to call.
I’ve read that bird strikes cause $600 million in damage to U.S. aircraft every year. You never know when one will strike your engines. It is extremely rare for both engines to be killed by birds, and even more rare for such an event to occur out of range of the airport where an emergency landing is possible.
What seldom happens to airplanes happens every day to souls. There are birds attacking your engines at this very moment. Events and people are conspiring to bring your plane down. If you’re not stepping into the “valley of the shadow of death” today, you will be soon. When that day comes, what good is it to know God as your personal shepherd? What help is personal spiritual awakening then? What does this issue say to our culture in crisis today?
Expect the valley
The most famous verse of the most famous Psalm is this sentence: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4).
There is a place in Palestine called “the valley of deepest shadows.” It’s a jagged gorge running from Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea, so deep that the sun’s rays never penetrate to its floor. Here wolves and thieves can hide behind nearly every rock, thorn bushes grow up to grab and slash at the sheep, and deep crevasses menace on every side.
This is a perilous place, but there are times when the sheep must go through it. To get to the green grass, quiet water and right paths, sometimes the shepherd has no choice but to lead his sheep through this valley. There is simply no way to the other side.
That’s why David says, “When I walk through the valley.” Not if, but when. Paul told new converts, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
While the text doesn’t describe the specific nature of David’s “trouble,” rabbinic tradition identifies the setting of the 23rd Psalm as David’s flight from Absalom.
As you may know, Absalom was one of David’s sons. His sister Tamar was raped by their half-brother Amnon, but David did not punish him. So Absalom took matters into his own hands, arranging a feast at which Amnon was killed in revenge. David then exiled Absalom from the royal court for five years.
Absalom’s anger at David smoldered until it fanned into the flames of open rebellion. He staged a coup against his father, seizing his throne and sending his soldiers to arrest David. The greatest king in Hebrew history was forced to flee his throne and palace, and run from his own son.
The royal group fled Jerusalem to the east, crossing through the Kidron Valley to the region of the Mount of Olives; the Garden of Gethsemane would be located in this area. While fleeing his own son, the Kidron became his “valley of the shadow of death” and the setting for the psalm. Such is rabbinic tradition for this famous hymn of trust.
Imagine that your son wants to steal your throne and even kill you, and that many of your trusted advisors and supporters have joined his rebellion. Now you are retreating in humiliation to an unknown future. Whatever fear you face today, David has a word for you.
Stay near the shepherd
God is willing to walk with us through our deepest valleys, no matter why we are in them. During such days as this the sheep want their shepherd “with” them. Not out in front of them leading, but beside them, protecting.
David makes the “LORD” his Shepherd. “LORD” translates YHWH, the One who was, is, and ever shall be, the ever-present God. Of this Shepherd the King can say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David the shepherd knew his subject.
The “rod” was a short club, three feet long, with a heavy weight at one end. The shepherd used it to kill snakes, beat back wolves, and flatten thorn bushes. He threw it over the heads of his sheep to kill a charging wolf. He also used it to drive a wayward sheep back into the fold.
And his “staff” was eight feet long with a crooked end. He used it to keep the sheep together, to guide them, and to pull them back from thorn bushes and rocky crevasses.
His presence with them in the valley, and his rod and staff, “comforted” them. The Hebrew means “to preserve a feeling of security, peace, and joy.” Even as they walk through the valley.
And note this little word, “through.” Not “into”—you go “into” a cave because there’s no way out the other side. “Through,” as you go through a tunnel because it’s open at the other end. They’ll not stay in this valley, so long as they stay with their shepherd. He will protect and comfort them, and lead them through to the other side.