Monday, March 03, 2008

March 3, 2008 - The Dark Valley

On recent Sunday mornings, I’ve been preaching a sermon series on the the 23rd Psalm. Yesterday, I got to the verse that’s surely the most famous: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Actually, that line from the King James Version is a mistranslation. The original Hebrew never mentions death. What it literally says is something like, “Though I walk through the valley of deep shadow.” If that’s the case, then where did “the valley of the shadow of death” come from?

I looked it up in the Septuagint, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, dating from a century or two before Jesus. Bingo! There it was: thanatos, or death. Some ancient Greek translator waxed poetic, assuming the psalmist meant to sing about death, not merely darkness. Well over a millennium later, the scholarly translators employed by King James of England looked at copies of the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew, and carried that error forward. Oddly, they chose the Greek translation over the Hebrew original

And, “the valley of the shadow of death” it’s been, ever since: birthing a tradition of reading this psalm at funerals. In the eyes of many Christians today, Psalm 23 is the funeral psalm: even more than Gospel passages dealing with Christ’s resurrection, which surely ought to be the main focus.

I have a strong conviction that Psalm 23 isn’t about what most people think it is: a flock of sheep being faithfully tended by their shepherd. I've been teaching an alternative view during the sermon series. I think Psalm 23 is about a fearful traveler, lost in the desert, who happens upon a shepherd, who shows him hospitality and leads him home. A shepherd is exactly the sort of person you’d want to meet, were you lost in the wilderness. A shepherd knows how to survive in the wilds, and also knows the way home.

Most modern translations don’t use “valley of the shadow of death.” They speak about a “dark valley,” instead. Likewise, a good number of them don’t talk about being led along “the paths of righteousness,” either. They talk about “right paths.” This isn’t just academic revisionism: these translations are closer to what the text actually says.

Pursue these more literal translations, and the meaning of the psalm opens up before our eyes. The “right paths” refers to the lost traveler finding his way. The “dark valley” is a deep gouge in the earth, a wadi, through which the traveler walks, following his shepherd-guide. Late in the day, with the sun nearing the horizon, this place is creepy, filled with shadowy fears. Sure, darkness is an archetypal metaphor for death, but it also evokes other fears as well. Let’s not imagine the 23rd Psalm can only serve as a funeral reading.

Here are a few other things I mentioned in my sermon on this verse, by way of practical application. First, the word “shadow” is significant. What is it that makes a shadow? Why, light, of course. There are no shadows at night-time; the shadows happen only in the day. So, too, with the shadows that creep across the dark valleys of our lives, the shadows the poets among us have called the shadow of death. There would be no shadow, were there not already a source of light.

Second, there’s a world of meaning in that little, insignificant-sounding word, “through.” The psalmist doesn’t speak of walking into the dark valley. He talks of journeying through it. This is not a box canyon – the kind of place where, as in the movie westerns, the road suddenly dead-ends at the foot of a forbidding cliff, and the good guys risk being bushwhacked by desperados. The pathway descends into the valley, yes, but eventually it will begin to climb upward once again, leading us out the other side.

Finally, it’s useful to ask the question of what’s the real object of fear in this verse. It’s not the shadows that are frightening. There’s no mention of fear of the dark. What the psalm-writer fears is not the dark, but evil. It’s not so much the darkness, as the things that dwell within it: the ravenous beasts that could leap out, threatening his life.

I don’t think most people dealing with life-threatening cancer fear death, strictly speaking – nor do most elderly folks, who (unless they're in deep denial) do the math and figure their days are numbered. For most of us, once we put our leftover adolescent bravado behind us and get used to the idea that we’re really going to die someday, it’s not death we fear. It’s the dying – the pain or suffering that can go along with it – that gives us pause. If modern pharmacology can spare us most of the physical suffering – and very often, it can – then we just might be able to discard the advice of poet Dylan Thomas and “go gentle into that good night.”

I’ve spent some time hiking through the dark valley in recent years. Just at the moment, I’ve come out of it for a time. But I know I’m always just one CT scan away from feeling the chill of impending night again, and hearing the howl of the jackal.

I ended up, yesterday morning, by reminding the saints in Point Pleasant how we Christians can step out beyond what even the psalmist learned, from his fortunate rescue by a shepherd, about getting through such a dark time. Especially during this season of Lent, as we identify with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross, we can draw the conclusion that he is our shepherd: he, whose life was not swallowed up in the shadowy darkness of the valley, but came out the other side.


Psalm 23 Jewelry said...

I enjoyed reading your "alternate" and thought provoking comments. Psalm 23 is the most recognized chapter in the Bible, but unfortunately, as you say for only funerals.

Julie Orvis Marcinkiewicz said...

I also enjoyed this thought provoking post on your blog today. I reminds of a poem I read in college that took up that line from Dylan Thomas and turned it on its head by starting "Go gently.." Unfortunately I don't remember the poet other than she was 20th century. But the point of the poem was to accept death with ease rather than struggle. I think anything fearful with the help of some else (friend or stranger) is better met with calm than struggle.