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Sometimes all it takes is one sentence in a commentary to set the direction for a sermon.
Last week it was this sentence from Bill Arnold’s NIV Application Commentary on the story of David and Goliath: “Near Eastern philosophy equated military strength with a nation’s deity. Most polytheists in antiquity assumed any nation that conquered another nation did so because of a superior god…Israel’s enemies assumed that Yahweh was only a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys.”
Arnold is referencing 1 Kings 20:23-28, where the Aramean soldiers, defeated by King Ahab on the mountains of Samaria, tell their king, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they.”
This is all rather important when a giant of a man strides into the Valley of Elah and defies Israel’s God, challenging the Israelites to a duel. The Israelites quake in fear. For forty days they refuse to go out and meet Goliath. Which makes me wonder if they believed the stories their enemies told about Yahweh. If they also thought that God was not a God of the valleys. If they thought God wouldn’t be present to them, or powerful enough to help them, in that valley.
It’s easy enough to believe that God isn’t a God of the valleys. After all, if he was powerful in the valley, if he was present to us in the valley, wouldn’t he have prevented us from being in the valley in the first place? Kept us out of the valleys of never-ending cancer treatments, constant pain, crippling depression, broken relationships, anxiety, guilt, grief? When we’re in those valleys, our anger, fear, and despair turn into giants – the only thing we can see – taunting and mocking us. “Where is your God? Is he not powerful enough to save you here?”
A couple weeks ago a young woman auditioned for America’s Got Talent, and while her voice is incredible, it’s her story that’s captured the nation’s attention. Jane Marczewski, who goes by Nightbirde, was diagnosed with cancer one autumn, and told she was dying. Then her husband told her he didn’t love her anymore. She was thrown into a dark place. Into a valley.
“I spent three months propped against the wall,” she writes in a guest post on Ann Voskamp’s blog. “On nights that I could not sleep, I laid in the tub like an insect, staring at my reflection in the shower knob. I vomited until I was hollow. I rolled up under my robe on the tile.”
Loss of love, loss of normal, the fear of dying, the pain of disease. If ever there was a valley, this was it.
But she didn’t give up on God. Didn’t stop looking for him, even amidst her pain. She banged on his door. Yelling. Screaming. Crying.
“Call me bitter if you want to” she writes, “that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout: “I’m sad too.”
“I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray. I look for the mercy-bread that He promised to bake fresh for me each morning. The Israelites called it manna, which means “what is it? That’s the same question I’m asking – again, and again. There’s mercy here somewhere – but what is it? What is it? What is it?
“I see mercy in the dusty sunlight that outlines the trees, in my mother’s crooked hands, in the blanket my friend left for me, in the harmony of the wind chimes. It’s not the mercy that I asked for, but it is mercy nonetheless.
“So call me cursed, call me lost, call me scorned. But that’s not all. Call me chosen, blessed, sought-after. Call me the one who God whispers His secrets to. I am the one whose belly is filled with loaves of mercy that were hidden for me.
“I have heard it said that some people can’t see God because they won’t look low enough, and it’s true. Look lower.
“God is on the bathroom floor.”
When David – filled with the Spirit – strode into the Valley of Elah, he looked lower. He could see beyond the hopelessness of the situation, not by looking up at the giant, but by looking down into a streambed, where he found five smooth stones. “Loaves of mercy that were hidden for me.” Surprising, unexpected, small gifts of mercy, signs of the presence of God. Not the mercy the Israelites expected. But mercy, nonetheless.
And that mercy meets us in our valleys – not always looking the way we expected, but mercy nonetheless – and gives us the strength and the hope to confront the giants who taunt and jeer, so we might offer even just a whispered declaration, “My God is here, with me, in the valley. In the tile grout. Giving me grace enough to meet this day.”
And so David, years after his confrontation with Goliath, could write these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
God is God of the valley.
Sometimes we just need to look lower to see him.