Dwell: In the Valleys

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
Psalm 23:4a

Valleys – verdant pastures, flowing rivers, and breathtaking views of the mountainous horizon. In the days of the pioneer, valleys were settled first because of the natural protection mountains provided, the necessary life-source of water, and the fertile soil. On two different trips, I saw valleys through this lens.

In Israel, most of the terrain is rocky and dry. We rode jeeps along dusty peaks and peeked into caves carved out of rock, surrounded by nothing but sand and stone – as far as the eye could see. Then, we took a road east that went down…. As we descended toward the valley, the colors shifted from stark beiges and browns to shades of greens, covering the ground like a patchwork quilt. 

The Jezreel Valley in northern Israel

In Colorado, we took a turn north, following a river as we climbed, until we could see actual mountain peaks. With the tallest mountains in the near distance, we came upon the greenest patch of earth I’d ever seen. In a valley fertile with mountain run-off waters, cattle grazed contentedly and log cabins dotted the edges of the river. 

With these peace-filled, luscious valleys in mind, I’ve had a hard time relating to the dark valley verse of Psalm 23. 

It is true–for shepherds, valleys hold all the treasures we’d imagine: water, food, and a gentle grade leading upwards into the mountains. But, they also hold much danger: cliffs contain predators like coyotes, sudden storms bring flash floods, and rock slides crush flocks in seconds (Keller, 99). The valley–the land flowing with milk and honey–is also home to some looming, dark shadows.

The ten spies who were sent into the Promised Land to scout the area found “a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them” (Numbers 13:23). Yet the Israelites refused to claim the land God had given them–because of their fear of the giants who lived there. 

And, this, my friends, is what Psalm 23:4 is all about – not letting our fear of evil keep us from walking through the valleys that our Shepherd beckons us into.

Dark and Shadowy

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”–the verse of funeral fame – is the version most of us know best, and it happens to capture the Hebrew connotation with greater impact than other translations, such as the NIV’s “darkest valley.”

The Hebrew word, tsalmaveth, means ‘a death-like, deep shadow’ and carries with it a shroud of darkness. It’s only used eighteen times in all the Old Testament, most of which occur in Job – a story about a man who has been hit with deep darkness of death in every area of his life.

Dark valleys can seem like certain death – of body or relationship or career. The shadow cast over the valley can hint at evil lurking behind rocks, ready to pounce on us if we come near – true evil, like Satan and his henchmen. Or perceived evils like conflict or pain or failure. 

However we view the dark, shadow-shrouded valleys in lives, our Good Shepherd is inviting us to enter them. As His sheep, we’re meant to follow–but the choice is ours.

Fearing Evil

The Israelites’ fear of death-by-giant in Numbers overtook their faith in God. They encountered a valley full of the shadow of death, tsalmaveth, and could only see the ‘extreme danger’ it posed (Strong’s)–the kind of danger a shepherd might encounter with his flock. The kind of looming threat that hangs in the distance like an early morning fog, arousing a fear that might keep some from entering the valley. 

Shepherds know the risks of leading their flocks through such valleys, yet they choose to do so anyway–not blindly. Not cruelly. Not even indifferently. They enter the valleys because they know the good outweighs the risks. They have learned that to give-in to their fears is to deny their precious sheep the goodness of the valley.

In contrast, the Israelites, sitting at the Jordan River and looking into the great Promised Land, did not follow their Shepherd into the valley. Their fear led to great consequences and loss – forty years of wandering in the arid wilderness and an entire generation missing out on a land to call their own. 

God called them to enter, and He would have made a way. But fear kept them from trusting this truth.

Photo by eberhard 🖐 grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Similarly, God desires for us to trust Him when life leads us to dark valleys. Like the Israelites, we often stand at the precipice and resist because we’re afraid. It’s hard for us to grasp that dark valleys can do a deeper work within us, that the good is bigger and better than we think. Paul teaches that trials (suffering, tribulations, problems) build within us character traits like patience and endurance, as well as the holy habit of hope (Romans 5:3-4). In other words, if we’ll follow the Good Shepherd through the valley, good will come of it.

But, most of us are quite averse to the hard feelings that come with pain and loss. Looking back, I can see how I avoided facing the feelings our move had wrought. For several weeks, I stayed busy, numbed with TV, and even studied the Bible in order to keep emotions at bay. I wouldn’t enter the dark valley because I feared feelings would gain control over me.

So, I paid the price. My body revealed the stress of stuffing feelings – headaches, churning stomach. Other emotions belied the truth – irritability, impatience. I also had this unhealthy grip on things I’d left – namely, our adult children and church. 

Bits of light pierced my darkness a little over time, but it took months before I finally ran into the source of all my struggles. Grief. As I entered that valley at last, waves poured over me. Tears flowed. But they didn’t drown me. In fact, once I named my grief and entered into it with Jesus, the power of it lost its grip on me. I could navigate the ebbing tides, free to move through the valley and discover what God had for me in our new place.

JD Walt poses a question to help us grapple with the power of our ‘fear of evil:’ “What if it is our fear of evil that keeps us from the abundant life of Jesus—even in the midst of the deepest, darkest, shadowiest, deadliest valleys of life?” (Seedbed Daily Text, February 27, 2020). 

It’s helped me to consider such a question by looking to Jesus Himself. Like the time He stood in Jerusalem, teaching crowds that He’s the Gate and the Good Shepherd, warning that there will be bandits who try to get through His gate and mislead His flock. He explains that the thief–our enemy–comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). If we stopped there, fear could paralyze us. Our fear of evil would prevent us from ever following Jesus anywhere. 

But, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. He swiftly follows up with the truth that He came so that His flock would have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). The Good Shepherd leads us along right paths. He goes with us through the dark valleys. And when we follow Him, we will have abundant life.

JD asks a second question – equally powerful but even more convicting: “What if it is this fear that brings us into anxiety and leads us into sin which shields us from awareness of the presence of God, our Good Shepherd?” (Seedbed Daily Text, February 27, 2020).

Many times, fear is the thief itself, stealing our Savior-sight, taking our ability to abide with the Shepherd. ‘Fear of evil’ can bubble up as anxiety, pulling us into a vortex of worry that causes us to distrust God. I recently confronted the weight of this truth when my anxiety ramped up for my adult sons. In my spiraling, debilitating angst, I began looking deeply at the life of Moses, and I realized God had commanded me to entrust my sons to Him – but I had been ignoring that command. I’d quit trusting God’s plans and purposes for them. The shock of such truth shifted me back onto the right path, straight into the dark valley of unknown futures. 

So, I continue to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But I fear no evil.

Because God. Is. With. Me.

San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Holy Presence

It may seem too simple. Too easy. But I’m walking it and living it — and it’s just true. Nothing has changed in any of my son’s circumstances. Paths are unclear. Futures are foggy. Consequences of past choices still linger. But I’m moving forward. I hear my Shepherd’s voice, and I choose to follow – each and every day.

The protective wall I’d built around my heart in an attempt to shield myself from the pain I feared had kept me from fully dwelling with my Shepherd. But, the wall has finally fallen. I’m free! Now, walking in full obedience has changed my outlook because the pressure is off. I don’t have to have all the plans and answers. I don’t have to help or fix or do anything unless God asks me to. I’m trusting my Savior even in the shadow of giants. And so can you.

To dwell with our Redeemer is to follow Him into the darkest valleys, knowing that we have no reason to fear. Because He is with us. As our Good Shepherd, He goes before us to make a way where we don’t see a way. He walks beside us, helping us navigate every fissure, flood, and foe. He will never, ever leave us. In Him we are safe and loved and cared for.

Friends, we can enter our dark valleys, trusting that there is good work to be done in us and abundant life to be lived – with Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

Father God, we praise You for your constancy–for all the ways You care for us–even when, in our stubbornness and fear, we resist the good work You want to do in us. Forgive us for choosing fear over faith. Open our eyes to your presence. Awaken us to your truths. Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we’re so grateful that You meet us at the valley of the shadow of death and lead us through it. Thank You that You go before us, walk beside us, and hem us in from behind. We feel your love as it surrounds us and fills us. We know You have loved us from the beginning, so with open hands, we step into the full flow of Your love. Holy Spirit, what a miracle that You dwell within us. Truly, You never leave us. However dark the valleys may seem, your light never ceases to shine. So, lead us, we pray, by the light of the Word – step by step along the right paths and through the dark valleys. And we know that we know abundant life awaits us! In Jesus’ name, amen.
(Inspired by: Hebrews 13:8, 1 Peter 5.6-7, Romans 13:11, Luke 1:78-79, Isaiah 43:5, Psalm 139:5, Ephesians 3:19, 1 John 4:19, John 14:16, 1 John 1:5, John 10:10)

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  • Rhythms: Stepping into holy rhythms continues to make such a difference in my walk with Christ. I think for too long I tried to find balance. I tried to force feed myself. I tried to make my own plans and stick to them in my own strength. Rhythms, however, are fluid and inviting. As if in a dance, we can sway in step with our Shepherd and rest in His arms. One rhythm I’ve been leaning into is reading Scripture, not for knowledge, but for presence — my presence with Him and His with me.
    • Memorizing passages in Scripture can be another rhythm we can engage. Locked in our hearts and minds, the Word frees us from lies and casts out our fears. This week we add the first portion of verse 4 to our Psalm 23 memory work. As you recite the verses of Psalm 23, allow its rhythm to wash over you and pull you into your Shepherd’s presence.
  • Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.
    • There are SO many songs about the valley on our playlist — because we all encounter dark valleys. And songs packed with truth can help us to keep moving through the valleys with our Shepherd.
    • Phillip Keller’s A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23* continues to move me and inspire me. Its influence in this post is much bigger than my one reference indicates. 😉
    • JD Walt–a constant influence in my life–did a series on Psalm 23 that awakened something within me. Now that I’m rereading it, his post on verse 4 was more pivotal in my own journey than I realized at the time. And, those revealing, challenging questions continue to help me lean into the work God wants to do in me — whether I’m in the valley or up on that mountain.
  • We’re a flock. We’re a fellowship of believers. We’re a community. Know that you are not alone. You’ll walk these paths with Christ at your side and your sisters hemmed around you.
    • As you feel led, share in the comment section. Let us know how God is leading you. And how we can be praying for you. Ask questions. And share your thoughts.
    • I hope you’ll invite someone to join our flock. All sheep need the Good Shepherd.

Featured Photo taken by me at the Rio Grande River Headwaters Valley, Colorado.
*an affiliate link with which I might earn a bit

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

3 thoughts on “Dwell: In the Valleys

  1. This is beautiful, Shelley. I love how you identified that the valley of death translates originally from valley of deep darkness. I read that a while back and it was a game changer for me. Psalm 23 went from being a funeral passage, as you said, to one I could relate with completely. This short chapter is so rich. Another of my favorite parts is the word “follow” in verse 6, which translates from radaf, which means to run after or pursue. How amazing to know that even in our times of deep darkness, goodness and mercy is running after us. Thank you for your beautiful words this morning! 🤍

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