Strength for the journey

The desert can be a surprising place, filled with unexpected beauty. I remember the first time friends took us out to Joshua Tree National Park (back when it was still a National “Monument”). It was late March, and the desert was still temperate during the day. They told us we had to see the wildflowers. We were confused, even skeptical. Wildflowers in the desert? We’re going to drive all the way out there just to see a few scruffy little flowers?

When we arrived, we were unprepared for the sight that greeted our eyes. The desert floor was carpeted with bright flowers; in some places, the flowers stretched nearly as far as the eye could see. Soon, of course, the weather would heat up, and the flowers would mostly disappear until the following spring. But in that gloriously incongruous moment, the scene felt a little miraculous.

It felt like grace.

. . .

Psalm 84 reads like a pilgrimage psalm, a song sung by the people of God as they make their way toward Jerusalem and the temple. Verses 8 and 9 appear to be a prayer for the anointed king, which leads some scholars to suggest that the pilgrimage to Mount Zion may have been led by the king himself.

The journey is one of anticipation and a deep yearning to be in God’s presence. But the tone of the psalm is not somber; the journey itself seems blessed. The psalmist writes:

Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
    pilgrimage is in their hearts.
As they pass through the Baca Valley,
    they make it a spring of water.
    Yes, the early rain covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength,
    until they see the supreme God in Zion
. (vss. 5-7, CEB)

This is the only place in Scripture where the Baca Valley is mentioned, and nobody is certain where it was or if it even existed. In Hebrew, the word bakah means “to weep”; thus, the ancient Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint and the Vulgate) render the name of the place as the “Valley of Tears.”

The name may be metaphorical, a reference to suffering. If so, then the people’s tears find their counterpart in the “spring of water” and the “early rain” that bless the valley as they journey through it. In my mind’s eye, I picture the desert wildflowers that cover the landscape after the rain. The people make pilgrimage through the valley, from “strength to strength,” until they arrive in the presence of God, the very source of the strength they needed for the journey in the first place.

Dare we imagine beauty springing up along the way?

. . .

Life itself, we are told repeatedly, is a journey. The road twists and turns unpredictably, with ascents to the mountaintop and descents into dark, dry valleys. But the question is one of strength for the journey, especially when we must traverse the Valley of Tears. The Korahites who wrote Psalm 84, as we’ve seen, certainly knew their own tears, but eventually found joy on the other side, the joy that suffuses the psalm.

May God grant you strength in whatever valley you may find yourself now.

And may he grant you a vision of the beauty that comes after the rain.