Living in the Valley—For Now

The Gospels tell us what happened to Jesus when he entered Jerusalem. It is the testimony of history’s most important event and we can hold it in our hands. It is the testimony of four God-inspired authors whose words we’ve read and celebrated this spring. And then there’s the Book of Psalms.

Like the Gospels, the Psalms give us a fascinating picture of the Savior. Psalm 22 especially stands out. Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 on the cross and the whole narrative of his crucifixion draws imagery from “the afflicted one” found there. Not only is he forsaken (Psalm 22:1), he is also scorned and mocked by onlookers (Psalm 22:6–7), he thirsts (Psalm 22:15), he is surrounded by ruthless Gentiles (Psalm 22:16), his hands and feet are pierced (Psalm 22:16), his garments are divided and lots are cast for his clothing (Psalm 22:18).

As Christians, we simply can’t read Psalm 22 without seeing Jesus. Then Psalm 24 comes right behind it. If Psalm 22 is a Good Friday meditation, Psalm 24 is our Easter morning song. This kingly chorus is commonly associated with the reign of Jesus as our victorious ruler. But between Psalm 22 and Psalm 24 sits an even more famous psalm — the beloved 23rd. Many of us instantly recognize its first words: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). But what exactly is it getting at?

How do we read Psalm 23 together with Psalm 22 and Psalm 24?

I think these three psalms say something astounding about Jesus, and deeply inspiring for how we live. Jesus is the afflicted one, the anointed one, and the satisfied one — and this has everything to do with where we are right now in this world.

The Afflicted One of Psalm 22

In an unparalleled way, Psalm 22 captures the suffering of the Messiah in the first person. David’s voice says, “Why have you forsaken me?” and, “I am a worm and not a man,” and, “I am poured out like water.” We step inside the mind of the afflicted man — of Jesus — to feel his pain and see his faith. Faith is an amazing theme here. The afflicted one is forsaken. But as we began to see, he’s not ultimately forsaken. “For [God] has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Psalm 22:24). Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eventually eat and be satisfied (22:26).

And as we read on in Psalm 22, the sound of affliction turns to foreshadowing deliverance. Even in the thick of his pain and restlessness, the afflicted one knows that God can be trusted. He knows that God is faithful (Psalm 22:2–5). Right before our eyes we see the Messiah forsaken, but not utterly forsaken. Then suddenly there’s a twist: The entire world is going to worship the Lord one day! Just like that. “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:27–28).

Psalm 22 gives us a vivid portrait of affliction, alludes to the resurrection, and then closes with a future-facing kingly reign. It’s all right here in a psalm that the Gospel writers show Jesus fulfilling.

The Anointed One of Psalm 24

Jump to Psalm 24 where the theme of kingship gets even clearer.

To be sure, the kingship theme doesn’t begin in Psalm 24. We’ve already seen it starting triumphantly in Psalm 2:6. Just flipping back a couple pages from Psalm 24, the Messiah’s kingly reign is explicit in Psalm 18:50: “Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever.” And then the theme plays again in Psalm 20:4 and Psalm 21:2, when God grants the king whatever he desires — just as God said he’ll do for the king in Psalm 2:7–8.

Psalm 24 comes at the high point when the king takes his place on the throne. That’s what is behind the epic chorus of “Who is this King of glory?” It is a coronation song. The righteous king of Psalm 24:4 (like the righteous man of Psalm 1:1–3 and Psalm 15:2–3) ascends to the Lord’s hill (like the hill in Psalm 2:6 and Psalm 15:1).

The king has triumphed, and he proceeds to the seat from where he will rule the nations, until every last one of his enemies become his footstool (Psalm 110:1–2).

The Satisfied One of Psalm 23

So we see affliction and a glimmer of hope in Psalm 22. We celebrate a victorious monarchy in Psalm 24. And Psalm 23 comes right in the middle. So what’s its role?

Psalm 23 serves as the bridge between affliction and triumph. Both for Jesus, and for us.

The pain of the afflicted one in Psalm 22 is translated into contentment and trust in Psalm 23. There is pain, real pain. Darkness surrounds this suffering one. Insults are blasted. The mouth of the lion opens wide. The wild ox readies its head for a jab. But God is the rescuer. God is the shepherd. He leads and restores. Even though the afflicted one walks through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there to guide and rescue and comfort (Psalm 23:4).

The afflicted one is forsaken, but not utterly forsaken. And therefore, the afflicted one doesn’t fear. In fact, he’s satisfied, he “shall not want.” God prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies. They are so defeated that he will feast in front of them — he is more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37). He is victorious, and God anoints him (Psalm 23:5). So he speaks, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Yes, even through the affliction. Even through the valley. Even through the grave. God’s goodness and steadfast love — God’s unswerving faithfulness — will pursue me to the uttermost.

He closes in Psalm 23:6, “I shall return to the house of the Lord forever.” The verb here “return” is often translated “dwell.” It is similar in the Hebrew, and the Greek version of the Old Testament renders it “dwell.” But the original Hebrew word is “return.” The speaker in Psalm 23 is going to return to the house of the Lord. This one who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, who has felt the nearness of God, who has triumphed over his enemies, who has been anointed — this one will return to the temple. So lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7).

The Middle Then and Now

Seen in its context, Psalm 23 is the story of the Messiah in the middle of the cross of Psalm 22 and the throne of Psalm 24.

I take it to be about how the Father sustained Jesus through his suffering to the victory of his resurrection. And how when Jesus was raised, he was vindicated. He was declared to be who he truly is — God’s unique Son (Romans 1:4; Philippians 2:9). He ascended in a triumphal procession and assumed his seat as the enthroned king over all the nations. It is where he is right now, reigning over all the earth in the advance of his word and Spirit through his church.

He is reigning until he returns to judge the living and the dead, like the Apostles’ Creed reminds us. And on that day we will reign with him (2 Timothy 2:12). We will be raised, too (1 Corinthians 15:20–23). We will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). We will join him in Psalm 24.

But not yet. Not now. Not here. Today we walk in Psalm 23.

Though we’ve been raised spiritually in Christ (Ephesians 2:6), our complete, end-time resurrection is still in the future. We are still looking forward to that day (1 Peter 1:13; Romans 8:23). In the big picture of things, our lives right now sort of feel like the valley — more acutely at some times than others. We experience real pain. We walk through affliction. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

Psalm 23 is happening now. And we know, even in the deepest hurt, that God himself is the only source of indomitable joy. We’re learning to keep our eyes on Jesus and that in him our souls do not want.

In him, and like him, though we’re in the valley, we fear no evil.