Even Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I Will Fear No Evil

We have reached the place in our look at Psalm 23 that is the reason this particular reading is so beloved: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This is the text that has accompanied many of us through the darkest of days, through the loss of loved ones, and even through national tragedies. It’s a powerful statement of comfort and faith: even when faced with the ultimate threat of death, we will be firm in our resolve, because God is with us. And even if we’re not sure that we believe it when we read it, we so desperately want it to be true that it becomes a source of strength even when we are at our weakest. When we look at the poetry of the original Hebrew, it provides textures and depth that take the meaning even further. The literal translation is “shadow of death”. The word “shadow” can also mean “tingling”, bringing to mind that ominous kind of sensation, a lurking of a shadow, making the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Whenever my grandmother would get one of those chills, she would shudder and say, “A rabbit ran over my grave.” Whether we are talking about a literal or figurative death here, the psalmist is describing a moment of intense fear.

The whole phrase can also be rendered as “deep darkness”, an image that our two Scripture texts use well. In the first, the prophet Isaiah is preaching to the people on the eve of destruction. The once great nation of King David has split in two, and the people have abandoned the ways of the God they once celebrated. Generations of prophets have raised the alarm against doing so, but they have not heeded the warning. Isaiah comes along to do the same; but in a sense, it is too late. The Babylonians are at the gates. Jerusalem and the great Temple will soon be leveled, and the people will be taken captive. But even in the midst of dire predictions, Isaiah’s words are still tempered with the mercy that marks the nature of God.

Yes, the people will be cast into darkness. Their great glory will become a thing of memory only. But a day will still come when darkness will give way to light; when the only things destroyed are the destructive weapons of war. And on that day, a great leader will arise: a child born, a Son given, whom we will call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace! Almost makes you want to sing, doesn’t it? “For, unto us a child is born…”

Before they get there, though, they have to journey through some rough days. All that they have held precious, all of the comforts and victories that have been their reasons for celebration, all of these will be taken away. They will become strangers in a strange land. They will work for the benefit of others. They will be compelled to worship gods that are not their own. Fear, ultimately, will hold a deeper captivity on them than Babylon ever could.

And even though by the time we get to our New Testament lesson their Babylonian captivity is a thing of the past, they are still not sovereign in the land that was once theirs. Their bondage to fear still has hold, and foreign nations hold sway over them. They have not seen a return to the “glory days” of King David. They rebuilt Solomon’s Temple, but only as a shadow of its former self. And it is not long before it, too, will be destroyed. This makes it an odd time for the priest Zechariah to pick up on the promises of Isaiah. His son, the one they will call John the Baptist, will prepare the way of the Lord. Dawn will break from on high, and it will scatter the darkness cast by those shadows of death!

Will it really? It’s one thing for us to look back as Christians centuries later and see the “big picture”, as it were. These images of darkness and light are ones that we use to good effect on Christmas Eve, understanding that Isaiah’s promises of restoration are been fulfilled in the person of Jesus the Christ. He is the light of the world. He is the one who closes the gap between us and God. He embodies the divine, more than any earthly Temple ever could. But for those who were living in those shadows, those tinglings of death, it would have been somewhat of a stretch to believe that a man who dies on a cross would be the one seated on the throne of David, establishing a permanent, just, and righteous kingdom.

All of which brings us to the second part of our psalmist’s phrase: “I will fear no evil.” Note what it does not say: it doesn’t say, “I will not be afraid.” Fear is potent. It is not easily cast aside. Courage is not the absence of fear. True courage is, rather, the ability to persist even when weighed down by fear. In other words, being afraid is not an excuse to avoid doing what is right and what is just. Fear is not a faithful call to action, no matter what. I will admit that this question has troubled me this morning in the wake of last night’s George Zimmerman verdict: do we allow fear to motivate us more than it should? Fear is a healthy response, and we ignore it at our own peril. But when fear leads us away from doing what is right, then I think we have given fear power it does not deserve.

I don’t know...All I know to do at moments like this is to lift it all in prayer, and to return to what the psalmist says about fear: we do not fear evil.

What is evil? Evil, a wise friend of mine once said, is the absence of God; and if the nature of God is creation, then the nature of evil is destruction. The Hebrew here bears that thought out. “Wickedness” is another way to translate the word, as is “breaking apart”, a graphic image if ever there was one. As people of faith, what we do not fear, no matter what may come, is utter destruction. As Martin Luther’s great hymn says:

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

God’s kingdom is forever.

When the shadow of death looms, it is a reasonable thing to be afraid. What is unfaithful, however, is to fear our utter destruction. If we do that, it means that we have given in to darkness, allowing it to move us to become a part of its campaign of destruction. The psalmist writes about the afflictions of the moment, but never loses sight of ultimate things.

Is all of this too far-fetched? Are we, perhaps, afraid of not listening to fear? Is it too much of a stretch for us, too, to see the crown of thorns as the crown of a king, the cross as a throne, and torn rags as royal vestments? Because that’s what faith asks of us, that we see this Jesus as Lord, as the fulfillment of God’s promises of restoration. If we are able to do that, if we can believe that God’s kingdom is a greater reality than anything else we might see or touch or experience, then we won’t fear destruction…because we know that the work of the cross is not finished until it stands empty and the Lord is risen and we follow in faithful participation, building the kingdom of God here on earth.

Friends: no matter what may come, no matter how death may hover over and around us, know this: the image of God imprinted on our very souls at creation will never ever be destroyed! My prayer is that these holy nuggets of perfection, what Charles Dickens once called our “better angels”, would be what motivates and moves and shapes us. They are the seeds of the kingdom, implanted in us. May they bear fruit within and through us, now and always.