Everybody loves the 23rd psalm. Even for those who don’t get around to reading their Bibles much, there are a few passages even the less-than-biblically-literate know by heart. This “Shepherd’s Song” is one of them. Over the years, as I have preached on the psalm, I have found it a bottomless well of wisdom, full of unexpected insights.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” That in itself is surprising: Can any of us imagine a state in which there is no want, no desire? Is it possible to experience such complete and utter contentment, if only for a moment? We live in a world of want, of desire. Madison Avenue has known that for years; advertising bombards us with promises of products and services that will satisfy our wants, yet the constant parade of new toys and gadgets only belies the fact that our wants are endless.

The Shepherd’s Psalm contains another surprise — one I didn’t see for years. Have you ever noticed that the grammatical “person” of the Psalm changes halfway through? It begins in the third person, speaking about God:  “He maketh me to lie down … he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness …”

Talking about God is called theology. Theologians are people who spend a lifetime talking about God’s existence, God’s nature, God’s purpose. One of my seminary professors used to say that theologians go down deeper and come up drier than anybody else. Talk about God is often interesting, but it’s often less than satisfying.

But then something changes. Suddenly, the writer speaks not of God, but with God. Right there in midstream, the psalm becomes a conversation, a prayer. Where does that happen? It happens in the valley: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me.” Here in the valley of trouble, theology ceases and devotion begins, and for the rest of the psalm, there is an amazing intimacy with God. Notice this, too — that once that conversation begins, God is no longer Shepherd, and we are no longer sheep. God becomes a gracious host, and we become treasured guests.

As I have thought about this little lesson in grammar, I have thought about the many good folks with whom I have walked that lonesome valley — those who must carry the burden of depression; those who grieve the loss of one they love; those who have received bad news from lab reports; those who bear the weight of loneliness.

I have also called to mind my own “valley times” when I have wondered if there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. Time and time again, the valley is where theology fails, and talk about God is pointless. (Job learned that one from his “friends,” who thought they could explain away his pain.)

But the valley is the place where new possibilities arise. Pain is frequently the place out of which prayer is born, and where God becomes less a subject of study and more a person to relate with.

In the crucible of our hard times, even the least believing of us may find ourselves breathing that quiet prayer, “Thou art with me.” 

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