The prophet Samuel has gone through a lot at this point in the story. If we rewind a bit, he first told the people that a king would be a bad idea. They didn’t need a king, he said. A king would abuse power. But they got a king anyway, and Samuel anointed him—that was king Saul, and that didn’t go very well. God deposed Saul, and now we find Samuel here, in the opening scene of chapter 16—we find Samuel exhausted and filled with sorrow.
But God shows up and tells him to move on. God tells Samuel that it’s time to go find another one—kings are replaceable, they come and go, the strong ones like Saul and the scrawny yet handsome ones like David, each of them have their moment of power then fade away, but God remains the same. God is always there, in the story, with the people. God is the one who has been with Israel since the beginning and will be with the people without end.
That same God is with us now. That’s the good news of this passage, the gospel for us as we struggle through another week with this virus hurting people everywhere, this virus harming God’s children everywhere—far from us and now getting closer and closer.
It’s as if everyone everywhere is in that valley we heard about in the Psalm for today. All of us in the shadow of this deadly virus. We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. That’s what’s at stake right now, for us, for our neighbors, for the workers who make sure we have what we need, for health care workers who keep people alive. Vulnerable people, fragile bodies: all of us walking in the valley, all of us precious to God.
Stuck in this valley, the Psalmist turns to prayer—this if from verse 4: “I fear no evil for you are with me.” If you look closely at the Psalm, at the grammar of it, you’ll notice a shift here. In verses 1 through 3, the author is talking about God, like I am doing now. But then, in verse 4, without any explanation, the author switches from talking about God to talking to God.
The Psalm turns into a prayer—“You are with me,” the Psalmist says. The words become personal, intimate—God no longer a subject of the conversation, but now God as a companion, a friend, someone nearby, on a walk, on a walk together in a valley, a winding path through a fearful landscape, through panic, through a crisis.
That’s where the Psalmist finds God. That’s where the Psalmist calls upon God as a companion, a comforter, a source of strength, of reassurance. “You are with me.” Even in the presence of enemies, of danger, of a threat to our lives, “You prepare a table.” You give us what we need, our daily bread, grace enough for today, there again tomorrow, enough goodness and mercy for each day.
The Psalm is an invitation to prayer: to share our needs and to acknowledge our dependence on daily mercies.