In the Shadow
A young Malian man stealthily peeks over the mountainous terrain and out onto the vast expanse that borders the Malian Gulf. An advancing Median army has swallowed the entire landscape. Quickly the man ducks back behind the jagged rocks; they shield him from Persian onlookers. His feet do not seem to have the ability to run as fast as his mind commands, as he sputters and stumbles his way along the narrow goat paths.
A faint dust cloud lingers over the route the man had taken when he finally arrived at the small encampment of his allies. Tired and out of breath, he made his way to Dienekes. He looked around at the men who were preparing for war as he walked through the camp. However, these men, who nearly every waking moment of their entire lives preparing for war, looked anything but anxious for the impending war. The small platoon of only 300 men sat brushing their long hair, as was their custom before battle. Their peace and lack of concern seemed to make the Malian man all the more uneasy.
Finally, he arrived at the tent of Dienekes, who had just completed brushing his hair. The man could not hold it back any longer, worry mixed with fear that poured out of him like a gushing waterfall. “When the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscure the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host!” Dienekes could see the obvious torment on the face of his guest. He could not help but remark in typical fashion. “Very good news,” he said, “for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun” (Herodotus, Histories, 7.226). Such was war to the Spartans.
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The 23rd Psalm is without a doubt one of the most quoted passages of Scripture to this day. The passage is a wonderful reminder of God’s presence to us during hard times and circumstances in life. After all, the Psalmist begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1, King James Version). Over and over again the reader is directed back to a central focal point of pure faith and trust in the Lord.
Right in the middle of the passage we find a deliberation that is central to our discussion. “He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:3-4, KJV). Through the valley of the shadow of death.
The Psalmist does not provide the reader with much hope in the stanza. First we encounter a valley, those low times of life. Then we find that the Psalmist is not only in a valley but a long, dark shadow has encroached over the terrain. Many would be checking out and heading back to the Shire by this point. But the Psalmist doesn't end there, this shadow is the shadow of death. The combination of a valley, a shadow and death is a trifecta that is not encouraging at all, yet somehow it’s in one of the most encouraging passages of Scripture? Surely, if the reader stopped at this point, they would find themselves in a cold, dark valley void of hope and encouragement. The Psalmist, however, continues his poetic ink-laden march, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
Theologians have supplied numerous interpretations and similes for the fourth verse of the 23rd Psalm. I, however, want to look at the stanza through a different facet, through the lens of the Spartan, Dienekes.
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The Psalmist paints a linguistic picture for us of standing in a valley blanketed with the shadow of death. Dienekes, and the 300 Spartan warriors, at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, literally stood in a valley cloaked with death. The account King Leonidas and his brave band of Spartan warriors valiantly standing at “The Hot Gates” is one of my favorite stories. The Spartans were legendary warriors and when Xerxes brought his massive army to conquer all of Greece, the Spartans were not going to go down without a fight. The odds were terribly against the 300 Spartans and their small band of allies. Estimates of Xerxes’ army range everywhere from one-hundred thousand clear up to one million. It wasn’t a good situation for the Greeks. Yet, while all of this is lingering in the atmosphere, Dienekes, one of the 300, in response to the supposition that the arrows of the Medes were so numerous that they black out the sun, “Great! We’ll get to fight in the shade!”
It is the discussion of historians and scholars to determine if Dienekes even made the remark and the accuracy of the Battle of Thermopylae. My point is simply this: Dienekes did not allow the weapons of his enemy to determine his outlook. His outlook is one that I believe was shared by the Psalmist in the 23rd Psalm.
The Psalmist tells of walking through the valley of the shadow of death. However, he did not allow his outward circumstance steal is inward outlook. And this is exactly the point I want to get across. Maybe today you find yourself in a dark situation. Maybe the arrows of the enemy have darkened the vantage point of your life. Maybe you’re walking right beside the Psalmist in the valley of the shadow of death.
You see, a shadow is simply the result of something coming in-between you and the light source. For example, if you stand in the shadow of a mountain, the mountain has come between you and the sun. In Dienekes' case, the arrows were coming between him and the sun. So if you’re life is currently dark, what is standing in-between you and the light of your life? Let me simply remind that the weapons of the enemy can block out the Sun in your life, but they can never remove the Son from your life. There is still hope beyond the dark clouds.
It really doesn’t matter wherever you might find yourself today. Sunny day or stormy night. At work or home. Standing or sitting. Happy or sad. The fact remains that the Almighty God, whose creative word is still echoing across the universe, is right there with you, right now. He can still hear the drops of blood that fell from Calvary’s cross and landed on your soul, washing it white as snow. So let me leave you with a simple plea to be cognizant of the fact that God is with you wherever you might find yourself today.
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, KJV).