Sheep in the ValleyOver the next several posts, I want to talk about the Valley – the seasons in life where the proverbial breath gets knocked out of us. Each post will examine a facet of the Psalm 23, where King David (a former shepherd) uses great imagery to describe the high places, the valley and the relationship between the two. Over the past several years, God has taught me much of the valley and I’m convinced that it is the primary vehicle for true life change.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this might not make much sense, but it will soon. The valley is inescapable – we all experience it sooner or later and it is how we respond to it that matters most. I hope you will read on and subscribe for the series. To all others, you will identify greatly with what I have to say and I hope it produces a desire to be a “valley-goer” for someone else like it has for me.

This post is just to give some context that will hopefully enrich the imagery and message of the 23rd Psalm.

In geological terms, the valley is a formation created by the upheaval of surrounding areas due to underground forces. For whatever reason, the valley floor didn’t move with the areas around it. Consequently, the valley is defined by the higher places surrounding it. Keep that in mind.

The valley is also a metaphor used in the Bible to describe the tough times in life; a transition from the good times on the mountaintop. David uses commonly understood imagery in Psalm 23 to create a metaphor for us, life and our relationship with our Creator. The context is sheep and shepherding – a career that carries about as much prestige as street sweeper, but one that is still vital to the global economy.

A simple animal that has a sole focus – satiate their hunger. They are grazers and can easily overgraze a pasture resulting in the destruction of a pasture’s ability to recover. For this reason, sheep are methodically rotated between pastures. They not only need a good source of foliage, they need a steady source of potable water. Their digestive system requires a certain amount of water based on the type of plants eaten. For example, new growth eaten in the morning will require less additional water because it naturally contains more water and the dew is also consumed at the same time.

They have great peripheral vision, but lack depth perception. Because of this, they will naturally want to move from dark to light and uphill when frightened. They also have excellent hearing and respond well to audible cues. They, unlike other meat-producing livestock are not raised in modern livestock facilities and therefore the methods of raising sheep have largely gone unchanged over time.

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions – dating back some 6,000 years and show up in cultural references throughout that time. As flocks grew in size, this profession was created to successfully move the sheep from pasture to pasture and eventually to market for their wool and meat. Because sheep were such an integral part of the economy of a community, the shepherd was an important position and required the mastery of certain skills.

First, he had to know the land – which pastures had the best vegetation, how long they could stay, where to go next and the best (safest, shortest, etc.) way to get there.

Secondly, he had to know what predators were naturally occurring and the best way to detect and fend them off. This meant he had to be a skilled hunter with the rod – a club-shaped weapon that could both be thrown or used for close combat. He also needed to know just the right way to use his staff – a crooked stick used to help the sheep go where they might not naturally want to go.

Lastly, he would need a plan. I can just imagine that herding sheep is much like herding cats – almost impossible. Staying several steps ahead would be the key to keeping your job.

To sum up, we know:

  • The valley is unpleasant – deep, dark, dangerous and is completely lacking in tasty grass. It is; however, a necessary part of the sheep’s life to transition to better pastures.
  • Sheep are simple animals that look to get their immediate needs met without much regard for the long-term effects. The more trips through the valley, the more likely they are to trust the shepherd.
  • The shepherd is a master of a very diverse set of skills. He cares for his sheep deeply and takes his job very seriously. Failure for one sheep isn’t an option – they are simply too valuable.

Be on the lookout for the “Lessons” – next in the series.