Psalm 23 Through the Lens of Trauma
When I was little, I ran to Psalm 23 because in it, God promised to provide for me – The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
When I became a young mother, I ran to Psalm 23 because God promised to give me rest – He makes me lie down in green pastures.
In turbulent times and sleepless nights (whether from toddlers or teenagers), I ran to it because God promised still waters and a restored soul – and assured me that I had no need to fear any evil even though I had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
But last year, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before. Last year I revisited Psalm 23 and looked at it through the lens of trauma. I made a profound discovery and realized that all the things promised – the provision, the care, the stillness and the restoration, the feast set before me and the defense against evil – all of it happens in the valley of the shadow of death – the very place where trauma resides.
I’d always read “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” as if it said, “even when I walk…” as if the peace of the still waters and green pastures were in one place but the valley of the shadow of death was someplace else. A place, in fact, to be gotten through as quickly as possible to get back to the green pastures and still waters. But it doesn’t say that. It says “though” – it could read, “even though I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death” – which can place the whole psalm in the valley. The first three verses make sense this way, too – pastures are greenest and most abundant – most nutritious and life-sustaining – not at the wind-blown mountain tops, but in the valleys.
Still waters are not found on tops of mountains or even the sides of hills – but at the bottoms, in the valley. Sheep can’t drink from turbulent waters, but they will drink their fill on still waters. Without water they quickly die, and without enough of it, they have many ailments. Water is essential for their survival, but plenty of water is essential for a sheep’s health and vitality. Plenty can only be had in still waters. The still waters are mainly in the valley.
And a path is needed because the rocks and trees and debris from all the washing down from the high places settle in the valleys. The valleys can be treacherous, and they can provide lots of places for snakes and coyotes and leg-breaking-crevices to lurk. The shepherd must lead the way through the valley. The deepest shadows, toughest obstacles, and craftiest adversaries are there. Open pastures that are smooth or rolling don’t have paths – they aren’t necessary. It’s easy to see where you’re going. The path of righteousness that he leads us on goes through the valley.
It is in the valley that he provides for us, gives us rest, restores our souls. Think about how profound that really is. In the darkest times – when the stench of death is overshadowing us – his rod and staff – tools of guidance and correction – comfort us. But again – where would a rod of defense be more needed than in the valley? And where else would we be more prone to go the wrong way and need to be brought back to the safety of the path that is for our good, but in the difficult terrain of the valley?
The place to hide from enemies is up in the hills – in the nooks and crannies of rocks and outcroppings. But he is spreading a feast out for us in a breathtakingly shocking way by doing it in the presence of our enemies! Right out in the open – in the vulnerable place of the valley where we’re easy targets! – he sets up a grand feast. Who could relax enough to eat a meal in the presence of someone trying to destroy you except that you’re utterly confident of being perfectly protected? It’s as if he’s showing us off to the whole army of enemies saying, “See these sheep – they’re mine, and you can’t have them.” Even in presence of enemies in the valley, we can rest in his care.
This Good Shepherd lavishes on soothing, cleansing oil – he knows how hard the valley is for us – and welcomes us as guests he is pleased to have with him at this feast. He provides more than we can possibly consume – he his neither stingy nor begrudging. Those kindnesses are most precious to us when we walk through the valley.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. Stubborn grace will hound me, chase after me, pursue me. All the days of my life – all the days – not only when things appear good and full of mercy, but also in the valley.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. This is what good shepherd’s do – they get their sheep home. They might feed them and water them and protect and guide them out in the pastures, beside the still waters, and through the paths in the valley, but the goal is to bring them home.
I think I’ve missed the strength of this Psalm all these years. This is not a Psalm that talks about the highs of peace and provision and then also the lows of threats and fearsome hardships. It’s about abundant peace and protection in very the presence of threats and fearsome hardships.
It’s not that God is not in the peaceful times of ease and comfort. He is. But it seems to me that the real power expressed here lies in the truth that all these things are true for us in the valley, too. None of the pleasantness of peace, or abundance of his provision, or his rock solid protection can be diminished by walking through the valley of the shadow of death, for we walk through it with him there beside us. Through trauma we may realize more fully how treacherous the valley is and the unspeakable evil the enemy uses to try to destroy us. But when we learn to see who this Good Shepherd really is, and how capable he is to protect and provide for us, we can rest in his mercy and care and follow him – joyfully – all the way home, even though we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.