by Lewan Dell
Introduction – life in the valleys
“Because the Armenians think the Lord is the God of the hills and not a God of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands and you will know that I am the Lord.” 1 Kings 21:28
I was seven years old when I first attempted to walk through a valley and the event was momentous for a number of reasons. Firstly, I knew I would be in deep trouble for embarking on such a trip at so young an age and without adult supervision. As some other kids and I looked out at the hills and valleys flowing from our back garden, we wished we could walk through Shibden Valley to the fabled park that lay beyond. It was summer, early morning and we had the whole day at our disposal, plenty of time to walk the distance required. Not that I had any choice, my older brother and his friends were determined to go and I had to tag along. This was in the early 70s when it seemed safer for young children to go all crazy walks. Our parents worked and we were left with childminders who really did not care what we did as long as we were not causing trouble. So, on that clear summer morning, a small gang of us walked the four or so miles through Shibden Valley.
Another reason this trip had such an impact on my early life was the fact we became lost. We followed the valley bed and tried to stay in line with a small stream which would often disappear underground. When this happened we would despair and worry, only to find the stream again and continue on our journey. I, for one, had never been so scared especially when one of the older kids took my watch and threw it into the stream.
We never did reach Shibden Park. We decided to turn back. But that trip would engrave in my mind features, landscapes and events that would form the backdrop to my early childhood and consequently influence me in my adult years. As the months and years went by I would make that trip countless times each time reaching the park and the route would become fixed in my memory.
The valley became our playground. Some days were spent exploring every nook and cranny. We would paddle in the stream and attempt to climb 20 foot walls. We would pick bilberries and climb trees. Often on these valley walks we would argue and fall out, we would get caught in storms, and sometimes fall from those trees and walls. But there were moments of relief and times of refreshing, times that made the journey worthwhile. One regular occurrence was being greeted by a resident in a small cottage, two thirds through the valley, with the offer of cold orange juice and a biscuit. This particular lady always seem to expect us and reaching her cottage became an important part of the trip.
This powerful memory of my time in the valley has become quite significant and tells me that valley experiences can often be met with times of respite, of refreshing and regeneration. Though we expect valley experience to be difficult (as opposed to the mountaintop experiences) they can often be an opportunity to charge ones batteries and learn from the experience. It is dangerous to assume, just as the Armenians did, that God only inhabits the mountain experience of life because that assumption could cause us to miss out on what God can do in the valley.
I know this from experience. In recent times I have found myself in my own personal valley, times when it would seem, because of my sin, God had discarded me and pushed me aside. These valley experiences caused me to lose everything; friends, family, and many relationships. I was in a state of loneliness, in a time where I had to rely upon my own resources and those of God. However, this time did not go to waste. It was a time of rebuilding and restoration. I found that God hadn’t forgotten me, he did not discard me. His plans were perfect and the valley was meant for my good. This time of, what I call, the prison of my soul and body became my salvation. I will delve further into this experience during each stage of our journey through the valleys.
In Isaiah 40:3, the prophet declares that the valleys will be lifted up and a chapter later he writes that fountains will spring up out of the valley (Isaiah 41:18). I believe this is what God would want to teach us in our valley experiences. I know this is what He has taught me. Maybe you are in a low period in your life; a valley experience. Do not think that God has forgotten you. It could be that he has placed you there a reason. It could be that he has something to say to you in these low times in life. It could be that fountains will spring in your life and your valley experience will cause you to lift higher and closer to God.
The purpose of this bible study is to give examples of valley encounters as experienced by characters in the Old Testament with reflections in the New. The Judaean landscape lends itself well to the subject because the ancient Israelites often had their most enlightening moments in a valley. These valleys would then be renamed by the people to denote the event and it then would be ingrained in their minds and brought to remembrance by the prophets. As we study these valley experiences they can give us examples on how we can respond in our own adventures of valley life and hopefully find that God is a God of the valley.
Valley of Achor
-of hope and restoration
Joshua 7, Hosea 2:15
Punishment is painful but it can also aid in healing and restoring the offender. Not a common view considering the public perception of imprisonment but it is a view, in a humorous way, I can relate to. To illustrate this I want to go back to my childhood days spent in the valley.
We’d been out all day and not returned home at the required time for our teatime meal. I was nine and we spent most of the day making go-carts (or bogies as we called them) and racing them down Jackson Hill (pictured), a steep decline leading down to the beginning of Shibden Valley. I knew I would be in trouble for not being home on time but our enjoyment of racing the cart mattered more. However, we knew it was getting late so we decided to have one more run down the hill. Most of my time was spent with a boy nicknamed Nipper who was a year younger than me and it was he who had helped build the cart and who shared the responsibilities of racing it down the hill.
On this occasion Nipper was steering the front and I was the brake. This involved putting your foot (obviously with shoes on) down on to the tarmac to slow the cart down. Not the best job but very necessary because if the brakes failed it was almost certain you would crash into the fence at the bottom. We set off as normal gathering speed as the hill dipped. It was time to apply the brakes so I put my foot down but the force shot my shoe off. There was no time to swap feet so I had to slow the cart down with just my unshod foot. The result was that we still crashed but not seriously hurt. My foot, however, was grazed and bleeding and very, very sore. I hobbled home to face the wrath of my parents not only for being late but for damaging my shoes and socks.
It was just as I expected. My parents were not happy but when my mum saw my foot, care and concern took over. But that did not stop the punishment. In fact the remedy for the grazed foot was punishment enough. My mum dabbed the wound with anti-septic which was painful and hurt far more than the original wound. I felt she knew this and despite being motivated by parental love, she knew that the healing was part of the punishment.
Much of the Old Testament suggests God operates by a similar principle, that punishment is designed to heal and restore. When the Israelites are sent into captivity God declares it for their good and that He will bring them back. God does not leave punishment hanging in the air but He always supplies the means of salvation and restoration. God never stops loving those who have fallen. In fact, the Scriptures say he has compassion on those he has struck down (Isaiah 60:10). When we read of the Jews being taken into captivity and the prophets message to the captives, we read of God’s desire to bring them back. We discover God had to place them in captivity to show them the error of their ways but this plan was always to restore. A verse from Isaiah 43:2 never fails to inspire me. It reads:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you a blaze.” NIV
There is a very good reason I am starting with this particular valley; why this valley resonates on a personal level. I fell into disobedience and sin and committed adultery to my wife of twelve years and to God whom I had claimed to serve and commit to for over twenty years. I went against God’s ordinances and commands and looked at and involved myself in things forbidden in The Word (and frowned upon in the world). I cheated and betrayed the family I loved and deserved punishment. That punishment came through isolation, the loss of friends, respect, church, peace and to a certain extent, freedom. I felt tainted and marked, and at the time believed there was no way back. I fell into what the Danish philosopher Soren Kirkengaard called ‘the dark night of the soul’. Coming into this time of spiritual imprisonment, of separation from those who were once part of my social circle was very much like going through deep waters. Being judged by those who once loved me, but because of my disobedience now shunned me, was very much like standing in the flames. Yet, God promises that in these situations, we would not be destroyed. There will be a coming through, an end to this time in the valley but there will be no doubt the experience will have an indelible affect on an individuals life. God’s hope is that the individual will learn, change and be restored. When reading the Gospels we find this is the essence of Jesus’ message of salvation.
In the first valley we will be looking at, this same principle is at work. Initially however, we only read of the disobedience committed by Achan but we will discover that God’s plan for this valley, though steeped in trouble (and named after an act of disobedience), is for hope and restoration. Firstly, let us look at Joshua 7:20–26. The preceding verses tell of some plunder (devoted things) that had gone missing from the battle. God summoned Joshua and told him there would be no victory until the culprit is found. By lot, Achan is found out and confesses all:
“Achan replied, ‘It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: when I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, 200 shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, I coveted them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.’ So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran into the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them before the Lord. Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan, son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said ‘ Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.’ Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remain to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.” NIV
Quite a traumatic story but one with a serious message. Achan had stolen, not from the people, but from God himself. The Bible tells us that he took the devoted things, things reserved for God. It is at this point we find parallels with our own lives in the valleys of life. How often do we rob God of what truly belongs to him? We may think this is just Old Testament practices but remember what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1 – 10. They too robbed God and lied in the process and they too lost out.
However we put this, it leads to sin. It is not, essentially, the stealing from God that separates us, it is the sin in our hearts. The apostle Paul tells us:
“For if you live according to the sinful nature you will die; but if by the spirit, you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13 NIV)
The punishment for sin, Paul tells us, is death. This is what we all deserve because we all have robbed God of what is truly his – ourselves. When we do not give our lives wholly to God, we rob him.
On a practical level you may feel that you have let God down so much. You have brought trouble to is people and robbed him of his glory. You know that you have been disobedient and had misused things God has given you. If you cannot relate, I surely can for I know I had taken the devoted things of God and misused them. I therefore deserve punishment and punishment in a spiritual sense is what I got. I know this all sounds so negative and downhearted but there is a purpose. Until we recognise where we have been, we cannot move on to better things. There is, however, hope for us all, and that hope lies in this very valley, the Valley of Achor.
This hope comes to light it two inspiring verses, one from Hosea, the other from Isaiah. First, let us look at Hosea 2:15;
“I will give (Israel) her vineyards from (the wilderness), and the Valley of Achor as a door of hope.” NKJV
The Valley of Achor will be a doorway to hope.. Imagine that! Put simply, our disobedience, our mistakes will be a door to let hope in. We do not have to live continually in the state of sin and disobedience, there is hope, and that hope comes from God. Isaiah 65:10 follows a similar theme;
“Sharon shall be a fold of flocks, and the Valley of Achor, a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me.” NKJV
In other words, the Valley of Achor will be a place of rest. It is truly amazing that when we first come across this valley it is all for the wrong reasons. It is a place of destruction and events so terrible we cannot believe Achan could be so stupid or that God could be so cruel. But as we read in the verses above God is in the business of turning lives and situations around. God turns our negatives into positives. This is a common theme that runs right through the word of God and for a short time I want to share these portions of Scripture with you.
One of the greatest pleasures in life is going out for a meal to a fancy restaurant. Just the idea of being served by someone else and eating food you would never get chance to cook stirs the gastric juices. There has been, however, times in restaurants I would rather forget. Times when everything seems to go wrong; bad food, bad service and the occasional accidental mishap. The worst kind for me is knocking a drink over. Pardon the pun but it does seem to dampen the evening and spoil the mood. Life can be like that. Our mistakes in life can be likened to the spilling of drink from a glass. Once it is spilled it cannot be put back in. Once a mistake is made it can not be undone. This theme is suitably explored in 2 Samuel 14:14 which says:
“For you will surely die and become like water spilled on the ground, which can not be gathered up again. Yet God does not take away a life; but he devises means, so that banished ones are not expelled from him.” NKJV
What starts off negative soon becomes positive with God’s promise. I love those words: ‘he devises means…’, they are so full of prophetic promise. Another negative turned positive is found in the Gospels and concerns a man named Lazarus. The story is found in John 11:1 – 44 but there are some interesting points to be made. The obvious one is that Lazarus was dead. You can not get more negative than that. For his family, it was the worst thing that could happen and it is plain to see that they were distraught. However, an interesting aspect of this story is that Jesus took his time. He waited two days after finding out his friend had died. Why would he do that? Well, verse four gives us a clue. It was so that Jesus would be glorified. There was a purpose in the death of Lazarus. Jesus is delayed so that the miracle would have had a greater effect. This is an important point to note. When we pray and feel there is no answer, do not despair. the reason could be God is holding off so that the eventual answer will have greater meaning and ultimately glorify God. He is in the business of turning negatives into positives but it is in His time, not ours. Jesus did raise Lazarus from the dead; he did turn a dire situation into one of joy and celebration, but Mary and Martha had to learn a valuable lesson in the process and that is to trust God despite the circumstances.
In these valley experiences of life, we can find ourselves, as Mary and Martha could have, wondering where God can be in our situation. In the case of Lazarus, that valley experience was intended to bring glory to God. It is possible your valley experience is just like that and you feel that your life is being spilled out like water. You may feel, because of some mistake or failure, you cannot get back what you have lost, and that you are stuck in your past. I know this experience and I know, first hand, that God can, and will, restore you as you travel through the valley.
The Word tells us: ‘For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.’ (Luke 8:17 NIV) I know this to be true because at the right time God opened my secret life to be judged and dealt with. I could not go on living two lives, I had no peace, no rest and my relationship with God and family was slowly disintegrating. Something had to be done and that was through disclosing what I had kept hidden. I knew I would be judged, I knew it would lead to the breakdown of my marriage but I also knew it would lead to my restoration. At that time I was reading the book of Jeremiah and one verse seemed very relevant to my situation:
‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.’ Jeremiah 21:8-9 ESV
In short, I believed God was telling me that if I surrender to his will, if I allow certain actions to take their course, then it will lead to life. When everything seemed to fall apart around me, God was there. The alternative was to stay in my sin and continue living the secret life but that would have been the destruction of me. All that did happen was for my good and walking into the valley stage of my life was a necessary process. It wasn’t easy but Jesus does tell us the path to salvation is narrow (and I guess difficult) so I praise God, as I look back, that I took the most difficult path.
You know, Jesus could have taken the easier path that did not lead to the cross. Early on in the gospels, he is shown a short cut to glory and yet he was not prepared to take that route. In the garden of Gethsemane he labours over his choices but at no time does he doubt the right route was taken for no other way would lead to salvation for the world. Rather, Jesus fixed his mind and heart on the task set before him, a task that leads to the cruel cross. Incidentally, this is the greatest example of a negative turning positive for the cross was not the end of the story. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead. The negative nature of the Roman crucifixion was turned positive on that glorious Sunday morning. The example set in the Valley of Achor, moving from disappointment to hope, found its meaning and fulfilment in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now we know God can turn our negative situation around for our God, the question remains: what are we to do while in the valley? What steps can we take to help us move closer to God and learn from the experience? What I am sharing is part of my experience so I know it to be true and these are not just carefully crafted platitudes.
Firstly, as it’s been said, we need to know God is in the situation, that your valley is part of His greater plan for your life. It does not matter why or how you find yourself in the valley, God is there with you. It has a purpose. James, the brother of Jesus, writes this in his letter to the early Christians.:
‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’ James 1:2-4 ESV
Patience is the key while in the valley but this was something I used to have trouble with. I was extremely impatient. Never really liked mail order because I could not stand waiting. It took an event in the valley to change all that. What I am about to share is very personal but it illustrates what it means to be patient. Following the divorce, many other things were said about me especially when my eldest son started displaying some odd behavior. Fingers were pointed and an assumption was made that I had caused this odd behavior. Social workers became involved and injunctions were made to stop me have access to my two young sons. Now this was during a deep time in the valley but still I put my hope in God knowing, as promised he would bring me through. I knew I would have my sons back in my life but it was going to take time. I had to be patient. I could have fought it head on, gone over to their house and demand contact but I knew it would only make things worse. So I played the long game. Doing what was necessary, attending meetings, being assessed and just waiting and waiting. That time did eventually come especially when we learned both my sons are autistic and that gave rise to their strange behaviors. As I write now I can confidently say I have a wonderful relationship with my sons, and my ex-wife, for that matter. I had to wait, though, wait on God and trust him through an extremely difficult time. God had to teach me patience and now I find it easier to wait on things and not be so impatient. We are in a process of growth but often we can be impatient with God as he works in our lives. Remember, however, what Paul tells the Church at Philippi:
‘..being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 1:6 NIV
Secondly, we must allow and be open to God speaking to us, no matter how dark the situation. There is a wonderful picture that explains this in Genesis 15:12-13. Abram had fallen asleep and we are told a great darkness fell upon him. In the darkness, God spoke to him and gave him a vision of the future. It could be, in our times of darkness, God could be speaking. Elijah had a similar experience upon Mount Horeb. The account is found in 1Kings 19:11-12 and tells us that God often speaks in a still, small voice but note it was while Elijah was in a dark situation that God spoke.
Elijah’s encounter informs us of something else we must not do while in the valley, and that is doubt. Earlier in chapter 19 we find Elijah fearful and alone. He had, however, just encountered God and his amazing power while dealing with the prophets of Baal. But now he is afraid. The problem here is that Elijah forgot in the dark what he had seen and heard in the light. The good times were quickly forgotten once in a dire situation. You know, one thing that kept me going was my glorious memories of a time before I had failed. I took joy and reassurance from them knowing God could bring me back to similar times. I am reminded of the psalmist as he writes these words found in Psalm 77:5-10:
‘I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”’
Finally, we must persevere. James 5:11 tells us those who endure will be blessed and that it is the end that matters. Again, the psalmist provides us with the blueprint for perseverance when he suggests:
Commit your way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass…Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him: fret not yourself.. Psalm 37:5&7 NKJ
Three principles come from verse seven we need to remember. 1. Be still before God. It is when we are still we hear his voice more clearly. Remember Elijah. 2. Wait on Him. This can be the hardest thing to do but remember patience is the key to moving through your valley. 3. Do not fret. Or as Jesus says in Matthew 6:25 ‘Do not worry’. Fretting cannot change anything or help anyone. Keep looking to him who sustains and he will get you through.
I know, from experience, that God can turn around a disobedient heart and replace hopelessness with a steadfast hope. The Valley of Achor has become a living experience for me. During my wilderness I read the verses from Hosea which caused me to look further into this valley. This led me to develop a small group Bible study for fellow failures in an attempt to share the hope I had. As I looked at the Valley of Achor the idea of other valleys in the Bible intrigued me and so this book and Bible study were born. Strangely, that group became a means of coping during the valley experience as I received from the Lord and shared it with the group. My disobedience became a door of hope to others just as Hosea had declared. More importantly, for me, God turned my situation around and uses my experiences in the Kingdom as I preach the Word of God in my local church in Hull. God has turned my negatives to positives and healed me through punishment. Just as my mum used that antiseptic to heal, it also caused pain and discomfort. That’s the way God works. He worked that way for me, He can do the same for you in your valley whether there by disobedience or not.
Valley of achor picture reference