The Undulations of Life – Psalm 23


Jacob, the son of Isaac, was traveling from Beersheba to Padan-Aram to find a good wife. Or perhaps someone else might say – “He was hoping to find himself.” You might also say that he was trying to escape a dysfunctional family with a murderous brother. On that trip he came to a certain place called “Luz” just as the sun began to settle over his left shoulder. So he began to make a spot where he could bed down for the night. He moved some of the stones around; he might have looked for some moss or straw on which to lay. He made himself as comfortable as possible. But Jacob didn’t sleep well that night; he experienced a very strange dream. I think it is safe to say that it had nothing to do with a spicy pepperoni pizza. In this vision he saw a set of stairs, or a ladder, reaching from where he slept up into Heaven. And on this ladder he saw angels of God ascending and descending – apparently with different God-ordained tasks to perform. Then above that ladder stood Jehovah Himself, giving the rascal Jacob some pretty nice promises. “I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.” The whole situation – the dream – the revelation was both very scary and blessedly wonderful.

Wouldn’t it nice if there was a physical stairway, ladder or escalator which took God’s children to Heaven? Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if all we had to do was repent and lovingly put our faith in Christ Jesus. And then begin marching upward to the celestial city with every step taking us a step closer to God? Wouldn’t it be nice if every day we find the sky getting brighter, and our burdens growing smaller? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if sin was becoming less and less a problem in our lives? With each passing week the pastor’s sermons were getting more exciting to our hearts? Every time we prayed our souls just filled more and more with love for Christ? And as the years passed by we found that the quenching of the Holy Spirit was less likely and less likely. Wouldn’t it be grand if it was impossible to step down a single rung on the ladder to heaven?

Unfortunately, that is simply not the way things are: Man is a biped, that is, he has two feet. Not only that, but we have two eyes, and two ears, two hands, and two nostrils, etc. There are lots of pairs of things all about us. For example that Christian man or woman is both spiritual and physical. And even though our Christian nature is God’s, and our citizenship is in Heaven “from whence we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ,” the fact is we are 10 times more conscious of our physical natures than our spiritual. We are far more likely to surrender to the flesh than we are to live in the spiritual. And these two natures, which ought to be allies for the glory of God, are in fact enemies. We take one or two steps up the ladder toward Heaven and then our feet slip back one, two or three steps. Even the great Christian Paul testified that what his heart wanted him to do for God, was often vetoed by his flesh.

This constant conflict between spiritual and temporal makes climbing Jacobs’ staircase unrealistic. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim character didn’t ride a wonderful escalator into the Celestial city. No, there were all kinds of valleys and canyons, filled with both fleshly and Satanic dangers along the way. And our personal, personal histories remind us that our lives are filled with constant undulations – ups and downs. Sometimes there are rolling hills through which its hard to tell if we are climbing or descending. And sometimes there are chasms and crevasses that make our heads spin as we descend. These undulations affect every part of our lives. Our affections; our daily duties; our faith; our hope. We have them in our physical appetites, our health, and our spiritual lives. There are days when we are emotionally high, and there are days when we are in the pit of despair. We have periods of all kinds of wealth and periods of poverty of every description. Likely there have been periods in your life when you were more spiritually vivacious than at other times. And, as strange as it sounds, I hope that there have been those days when you were more sinful than you are today.

There is an old spiritual called “Jacob’s Ladder” which has probably been around for 200 years or more. I have it on the sound tract of Ken Burn’s documentary on “the Civil War.” It is the sort of music that catches the ear and demands that you hum along (I mean me.) But its theme is all wrong, because it suggests that WE are climbing Jacob’s ladder. That isn’t the case. It is not Jacob’s ladder that David Oldfield must or has the privilege to climb – nor can you. And it wasn’t Jacob’s ladder anyway, it was the Lord’s ladder, and only angels were using it. Something else about that song on my CD is that it is one of the most somber, morbid and depressing pieces in the documentary. It makes it sound like drudgery to climbing Jacob’s Ladder. If it really is Jacob’s Ladder that we are ascending, we ought to be more joyful than angels, but unfortunately that is not our ascent.

As I have said, our lives are more of a roller coaster of constant ups and downs. Reading the book of Judges, with the undulations of Israel, is not unlike looking at the growth chart of our own lives. Why doesn’t God smooth the waves and make the water calm, so we can walk across it to the Lord? Why can’t we have a nice smooth gondola ride to the peak of Mt Nebo so we can see and be with the Lord? It is because the Lord knows that valleys are as important, if not more important, than the mountain peaks. The canyons can be as beneficial as the crests of the hills.

Think about the crests, the peaks in your life – and those in some of the Biblical saints of God.

For example, ELIJAH was a great servant of the Lord, a miracle worker and a preacher of righteousness. Elijah was a man greatly used of the Holy Spirit to bring some of the Israelites back to God. But he was also a man of like passions as we are. Most would say Elijah’s greatest victory, the highest crest and peak in his life, was on Mount Carmel. He defeated hundreds of the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth that day. He called down fire from heaven, right in front of the King and thousands of common folk. The value of God soared that day on the Jerusalem Stock Exchange. What an opportunity for Elijah’s personal spiritual growth, just couple more steps up Jacob’s ladder and he’d be in Heaven. But that was not the case. From that physical and spiritual mountain-top, Elijah plummeted into the worst depression in his life. He not only lost his smile, but also his faith in God, and he basically lost his job as prophet. His sin might not been adultery or murder, but it was even more devastating and repugnant to Lord. The great crest of Carmel wasn’t much of a rung on Elijah’s spiritual ladder.

And think about DAVID. Many of David’s best Psalms were written during nights which couldn’t have been darker. Some of them came to him during days when he was fleeing for his life. Since he had little hope in his friends or his strength, David’s faith was placed squarely in the Lord. In some ways, David was at his best when he was at his lowest. But his sin with Bathsheba came at a time when David should have been at his spiritual strongest. On another occasion, when the world was at his beck and call, his heart puffed up with pride. He called Joab, his military general, and ordered a census of the nation, contrary to the law of God. That command, and the sin that lay behind it, cost David the lives of 70,000 of his pride and joy. It is far easier to fall from a height than it is from a depth.

SOLOMON the son of David was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it sure didn’t help him spiritually. NOAH had successfully brought the race of mankind through the judgment of God. He should have been closer to the Lord than any man since Adam or maybe Enoch. But very quickly after the flood receded, he was making wine and getting drunk and naked.

Haven’t there been days of revival and spiritual prosperity in your life? How many of those days have led directly greater faith, greater service, and greater love for Christ? That is the way that it ought to be, and sometimes that is the way that it is. But more often than not, very quickly the upward swing turns into a downward spiral. Most of our lives are volcanic. Once again I got a peek at the peaks of Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier and several other big, beautiful, symmetrical, silent volcanic cones. And whereas many of the shorter, surrounding peaks were barren, these were covered in snow. A few volcanos keep growing and growing, with their cone reaching higher and higher. But then there are some like Mt. St. Helens which just explode and crumble, destroying a lot in their fall. I don’t think the Lord ever intended for us to be volcanos. Peaks are very dangerous places.

The fact is, the canyons of our lives may be more beneficial than the crests.

Going back to ELIJAH: at the rock bottom, lowest point in his life, he had his greatest vision of God. In his depression on Mt. Sinai, the Lord spoke to him with His still small voice. And as JACOB fled to Padan-Aram, he was given his vision of the Lord and His ladder. And DAVID’S greatest Psalms were written when he was running like a hunted deer on Judean hillsides. A notable exception came when he wrote Psalm 51 following the death of his Bathsheban son. But that, too, was at a terrible low in his life – perhaps his lowest. It may not be the same, but DANIEL’S greatest revelations came when he felt his lowest. In his case it wasn’t sin that brought him low, but spiritual confusion and questions.

Ideally, acknowledging that our lives are filled with these unending undulations… If a graph could be made of our lives, it ought to look something like this: There ought to be a constant climb in our undulations, even though the lows and hollows persist.

And here might be some of the reasons for that climb: The more we become CARNALLY emptied, the more we become SPIRITUALLY strengthened. One of the jobs of a good gardener or orcharist is to work the ground around his trees and plants. And if he sees suckers growing up from the base of a tree trunk, he needs to cut them off. Those shoots and suckers sap the strength out of the tree and eventually they rob the soil of the nutrients that the trees need. We don’t need worldly and fleshly suckers robbing us of our precious little energy, time and zeal. Our days of loss and emptiness could very well be days of fleshly pruning and purging. Above all other maladies, pride is the most destructive of spiritual growth. And the canyons and chasms of our lives naturally take the air out of our pride-filled balloons.

It doesn’t always work this way, because we can focus our attentions on ourselves at any time in our lives. The days of depression and defeat can end up being days of miserable selfishness. But in the Lord’s grace, if we are blessed with His wisdom, we will realize that under those circumstances, only Elohim can lift us up. In the days of defeat there is victory, if we look in the right direction. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecution, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

God does not club folk on the head and drag them off to Heaven. Jacob didn’t see the angels on that ladder pulling people up to heaven by their hair. The Lord doesn’t swoop down very often in His fiery chariot and pick us up to transport us to His home. He wants us to travel willingly, on our own two legs and with a heart, like a magnet, pointing to Him. Prosperity rarely strengthens legs or hearts, but emptiness and poverty can. Often, our greatest periods of prayer are from the bottom of the canyon, not from crest of hill. Our longing for the return of the Saviour is rarely strong when we have the world by the tail. Rather its when the world has us by the throat that we yearn to see the Saviour.

Now, here is an apparent dilemma: What if things are going really well for you right now. You have a wonderful family and others who truly love you. All your friends and loved ones are in good health and there isn’t a dark cloud on the horizon. You have enough income, and you have all the toys your heart desires. Your spiritual life seems to be prospering and the Holy Spirit blesses your heart every time you hear the Word of God. Should we hope that all this is dashed upon the rocks, so that we can grow in Christ Jesus? Not at all. Christians can grow even in the midst of prosperity, but it takes ten times the grace of God and strength of our hearts. It takes focus and deliberation. It takes more concerted prayer and dedication than most people are willing to give.

No man should hope to join Job on the ash pile, scraping away at the boils that the Lord has permitted. But if the Lord should choose to set us there with that great servant of God, let us use the opportunity. Remember how that man grew in his knowledge of the Lord. When he came out of that tunnel, he was twice the servant of God that he had been before. And there were twice the blessings too.

Christian, are you receding or growing spiritually right now? Are you in ebb or flow? Are you waxing or waning? You can determine the answer to that question, if it is asked again tomorrow. But right now, how are you looking upon your Saviour?