I am SO excited to announce that, along with two other talented authors of biblical fiction, I’m launching a new series of short biblical fiction novels based on the psalms, called The Psalm Series. To see more about the books, and to pre-order them all, go to psalmseries.com.
Each author picked one psalm and wrote their story around that psalm. Each book also comes with an in-depth Bible study of the psalm in question, along with tips on how to engage deeper with Scripture. In July, we will also be offering a free devotional based on the psalms, to help you deepen your Scripture engagement and prayer life.
The book I’m contributing to the series is a fantasy parable based on Psalm 23 (perhaps the most recognizable of all the psalms). The book takes the imagery of the psalm and turns it into an actual story. Here’s the Psalm as it reads in the English Standard Version:
The Lord Is My Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.[a]
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness[b]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,[c]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely[d] goodness and mercy[e] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell[f] in the house of the Lord
AND HERE IS THE FIRST CHAPTER from the book (releasing July–up for pre-order now), titled The Hunter and the Valley of Death: A Parable of Surrender – Psalm 23.
C H A P T E R 1
“I’ll be yours forever.
Just tell me you’ll always be with me.
That you’ll never leave me.
I’m afraid when you’re gone.
When you’re with me, night is bright.
When you’re gone, morning is dark.
You clothed me with love, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Then I turned, and where had you gone?
I thought I knew you, but the world shifted.
I see you now from a new perspective.
Part of me doubts I can trust you.
Pain beats at my chest to be let out.
Tears press at the backs of my eyes.
I just want for us to be together forever.
All the world can disappear but for your heart.
I feel its rhythm.
I feel your life.
I feel . . .”
The Hunter woke on his back on a gray, stone floor and stared at a vaulted marble ceiling. He had only one purpose for being in a temple he did not recognize. He spoke that purpose aloud, his voice like a light that burned the silence to sizzling embers.
“I must kill Death before he kills me.”
The Hunter bent upward while sibilant echoes ricocheted off the white marble walls that swirled about him. He rubbed his head, dizzy from making the journey to the Valley of Death, though from whence he had come, he remembered little. His memories floated like a fleet of images unmoored and carried along by a moonlit tide.
He had expected to be confused and dizzy as he woke on the floor of the temple, for he had abandoned the world he was born in so that he might come to the Valley of Death and throw off the fetters of his past.
Because nothing mattered but the task before him.
“I must kill Death before he kills me.”
What face would Death wear? Would the Hunter know Death when he saw him? Would a glitter in Death’s eyes set him apart from whatever other creatures might exist here?
He couldn’t quite remember, but maybe that was the test. To determine who Death was. Because if the Hunter failed . . .
He shook his head. He had set his course, and now must succeed.
Or be trapped in the Valley for eternity.
A small shape moved in his peripheral vision, pulling his attention toward a thin boy of perhaps seven years and broad eyes that sparkled like emeralds in a clear, shallow creek. The boy’s head was newly shaved, and the skin of his face so tender and light as to be nearly translucent. His clothes were simple in shape and of the purest white linen. They hung like curtains in a king’s hall as the boy leaned against the wall with arms crossed.
When their gazes met, the boy smiled.
The Hunter struggled to a stand. “What are you doing here?”
The child’s smile widened—a knowing expression.
The Hunter squinted, troubled that he understood nothing about the boy, who seemed like an accidental smudge on an otherwise masterful mural. Amidst dustless rock of white speckled gray, the child’s flesh emerged dangerously foreign.
“Who are you?”
The child shook his head and pointed at an obsidian table, atop which lay a human shape prone under a sheet of shimmering silk. The Hunter approached, feeling cold fingers creep from the base of his throat to the top of his head. The covered shape was paces away, then feet, then inches as he reached, fingers shaking hesitantly over the end of the table before snatching the covering and tossing it through the air, revealing the sleeping form of a woman.
No, not sleeping. Motionless. Statuesque. If not for the memories that bloomed in his mind, he would think her carved from stone, too, for she was more beautiful than any living creature, a sterilized glory too pure for life—that chaotic flow of joy and pain.
For what was time but a series of violent waves man was set adrift on until capsized and drowned in the abyssal depths?
Her white-dusted lips lay beneath a soft nose and closed eyes with long, black lashes. High cheeks, small chin, and long hair that spilled across the table like a black delta. The vision of his Love so motionless stopped his breath. There was a youthfulness in her features profound enough to make him believe she would smile at any moment and leap from her resting place. But he knew it was a lie.
For she was the reason the Hunter came to the Valley. Because his Love had been stolen by Death. Here she lay on a stone table, forever preserved in a temple built of earth—for from dust she came and to dust she had returned.
But more than emotion and purpose, her body recalled the knowledge of ancient legends that spoke of the dwelling place of Death. That if Death might be caught and killed, one might master him and reverse his actions.
“I must kill Death before he kills me. But not for my own sake. For hers. To return life to my Love, whom Death stole from me. I have risked everything to follow her beyond the end.”
The boy joined him and slipped little fingers into her hand.
Surely the boy did not mean to violate her, but did he not see her cold splendor, nor realize that by touching her he defiled her rest?
He pulled the boy’s hand away, but as he did so, the boy looked up at him, and a vivid memory from years earlier overcame him as a waking vision that held him enthralled.
He was no longer the Hunter, but once again an orphaned boy dressed in dust. Alone and shivering in the deepening autumn, he sat crosslegged beside a broad road. Face carved in loss, limbs shriveled by hunger. He had lost everything, and belonged nowhere and to no one. He begged to receive crumbs from the hands of strangers moved by malnourishment, and sat in the ditch for weeks, months, years.
So much time passed that he no longer looked toward those who strode by. Many other orphans lined the road.
Abandoned children. Survivors of evil continuing until Death’s shadow swallowed them too.
Then came strangely labored footsteps, and the groaning of stone wheels. For the first time in as long as he could remember, the orphan raised his eyes to a King dressed in purple robes and crowned with a circlet of gold and many gems. His sandals were shod with silver clasps, and on his fingers glinted many rings.
But that was not what captured the orphan’s attention.
For the King was leading neither servants nor beasts of burden. He was alone, and he suffered a yoke to rest on his shoulders. The heaviness of the load bent him forward, and he reached back to grasp hold of the beams so that he would not fall under their weight. To the orphan’s eyes, the cart that the King pulled was filled with a mountain of bread and wine flasks.
But as the orphan met the King’s gaze, the King set down his burden and knelt facing him.
The orphan shook at the nearness of one so beautiful and strong. “Food,” the orphan said, voice choked by thirst. “Would you spare a morsel of food, kind King?”
“Dear child,” the King said, “what is your name?”
He did not answer, but instead shook his head. So many years had passed since anyone had spoken his name that the memory of it had faded.
“If you won’t say,” the King said, “then what would you have me call you?”
“Orphan,” he said.
The King frowned. “Is that so?” And he offered a callused hand.
The orphan stared at the hand, not wanting to touch it for fear that his mud-crusted nails would defile it. He wondered if the King had been talking to someone else. He looked around, but saw no others. “Me?” the orphan said.
“Take my hand. I am not fearful of soil. If I were, I would not have willingly borne this burden. But if you take my hand, I shall call you not orphan, but son, and I shall take you home with me. In my home, none go hungry. That’s a bit better than a morsel, isn’t it?”
The orphan looked up into those eyes and saw no pretense. In that moment, he became convinced that he was dreaming. But a pleasant dream is welcomed by one so wearied by life, so the orphan savored the moment, allowing a thrill to strike his chest, and a chill to run down his arms and legs.
He reached forward, shaking, hesitant.
Then he retracted his hand, and shame warmed his cheeks and he sought to turn away.
But the King swooped in and lifted him, twirling him gently through the air. The world spun, and the warmth and strength of the King’s hands made him feel safe despite the sensation of minute danger as his legs flung through open air.
As they stopped, the orphan smiled, and the King rested him on his hip and rubbed the dust from his cheeks. “So long as you agree to serve as I myself serve,” the King said, “from this day, I will treat you as my son, and show you how to live like one. No longer begging, but instead working for good.”
The orphan nodded and felt warmth grow in his chest as he tried on the new title like a tunic of fine silk. If this were a dream, he did not want to wake. He couldn’t remember feeling so delightfully chosen. Not even from the little he remembered of his father and mother before they disappeared. For parents were expected to care for their children. But what did such a King owe an orphan?
Still, the King placed him on the back of the cart, took up the yoke, and pulled him home over hills and valleys, creeks and plains.
The orphan said, “Why do you pull your own cart?”
“The beasts have taken ill, yet my servants grow hungry. I have purposed to provide for them, because I love them.”
That made the orphan smile even wider, until the joy in his chest nearly pained him.
When they arrived at the King’s habitation, they entered gates of pearl to a courtyard paved with golden cobbles. A fountain stood in its midst, sending a plume of water into the air, and a gentle mist across the open space.
They stopped at broad silver doors in the side of a castle, and the King set down his burden. Taking the orphan by the hand, he led the boy into a great hall with a long table. He set the boy at the table’s head, and scooted him until his chest nearly touched the oak.
Servants appeared and brought dishes and silverware, but the King never commanded them. They smiled as the King took food from them and set it before the orphan.
Then the King took a pitcher from a young girl and poured a glass of red wine until the liquid overflowed and drenched the tablecloth. The orphan laughed, for it seemed a ridiculous display of charity, and the King joined him.
But the King was not finished. Setting down the pitcher, he took up a flask of pure frankincense, and poured it over the orphan’s head.
As the fluid dripped onto the boy’s shoulders, the King poured more oil in his hands, and gently and methodically rubbed away each mote of dust from the orphan’s face and hair, mingling the boy’s tears with fragrance.
“I welcome you, son,” the King breathed, and the orphan now called son wept and threw himself onto the King’s chest.
The King wrapped his arms around the boy and sang songs of redemption and joy. He sang of what was lost being found. He sang of the unworthy being treated as worthy. He sang of kindness offered to those who do not deserve it. Of food to the hungry, and healing to the lame.
All the while the servants bustled about, smiling at the boy and joining in the singing, for they, too, seemed to have been sung over. And when the King let go and bade him eat, the little girl who brought the pitcher of wine sat next to him and rested her elbows on the table.
“Where do you come from?” the girl said.
“The broad road,” he said.
She nodded. “An orphan?”
“Ahuh.” The boy took a bite of delicious spiced sausage, then bread dipped in herbed olive oil, and cheeses of many diverse colors and flavors.
“I used to be an orphan too,” the girl said, eyeing his occupation with the delicious feast. “But now I’m a daughter of the King.” She smiled, and her eyes sparkled so brightly that for a moment he believed them gemstones. Then the sparkle faded. “My parents abandoned me because my legs didn’t work. When the King found me, he took me by the hand and commanded me to stand. Now, I walk as strong as any other.” She hopped to her feet and danced in a circle, giggling.
The boy laughed back, and a thrill pressed his chest like none before.
But the Hunter knew, even as the vision blended back to the cold temple in the Valley of Death, that after he and the King’s daughter grew into adulthood, she became ill, and her skin grew pale. At the end, her flesh fell to the earth, and her soul bled into eternity. And so he sacrificed everything to follow her into the Valley of Death and prove his love for her.
The Hunter stood silent next to the table beside the boy. A tear dripped from the boy’s left eye, and his pink hand squeezed the Hunter’s fingers.
The Hunter stepped back and pulled his hand away, disturbed. Had the boy somehow forced that vision upon him? The look in the boy’s eyes made him uneasy. As if they had experienced the vision together. Had the boy squeezed his fingers as a sign of solidarity? Or was the boy a shapeshifter—Death in disguise?
The Hunter flinched as a ray of golden light cleared the horizon and entered the temple through high archways that led down a short staircase to the vast expanse of the Valley. Twenty-three steps that separated the Hunter from his mission.
He looked deeper into the temple at a massive hall that extended perhaps five hundred feet with marble statues of tall, severe men on either side holding iron scales and balances in hand. At the far end, the walls curved in a smooth semicircle, cupping a fifty-foot hourglass suspended in midair by a massive steel chain. Blue sand dribbled granule by granule from the bulbous top to the bottom, where a small pile sat spent.
Of course. How had he not remembered sooner? When one entered the Valley, one had only three days to find and kill Death. How much time had he wasted?
Judging by how much sat spent, along with the speed at which the granules fell, he had used up several hours between the time spent unconscious on the floor and the time spent locked in the waking vision. He would have until the last granule rested to finish his task before the door to the Valley closed forever and swallowed him whole. Meaning every hour was more precious than gold.
He returned to his Love. “No,” he whispered, voice harsh as bitter winds, breath thick as water. “I will not lay beside you on this quiet table. I will save you, and together we will live again, for once I kill Death, we will have nothing left to fear.”
The little boy sighed, and as the Hunter glared at him, he saw sadness in the boy’s eyes. And something else. Pain?
Whoever the boy was, the Hunter couldn’t leave him here. The thought of letting the boy out of his sight made him uneasy.
“Come,” the Hunter said, “follow me, for I will not abide you to stay. Only know that nothing will stand in my way.”
The little boy nodded, expression resolute, chest rising as if in answer to his words.
“You know why I have come here?”
Again the Hunter saw a flash of what seemed like hurt in the boy’s eyes. Then it was gone, and the boy nodded a second time.
“Then I have no need to warn you of danger. If I am to kill Death, I will need a weapon.” He paced as knowledge continued to take harbor in his mind. “The legends speak of a sword that cuts not with blade, but with word. This truthsword is the only weapon that might harm Death, for he is immune to stone and steel.”
The little boy’s gaze swept the Valley, spreading away in rolling hills, and he pointed at a massive Tree in the distance whose branches hung wider and whose canopy stretched taller than any earthly Tree.
The Hunter nodded, his worries over the boy’s identity momentarily eased—for if the boy was Death in disguise, why would he help the Hunter find the sword that might slay him?
“You, too, know the legends. That the truth-sword was crafted from the pulp of an ancient Tree, and marked with runes whose color was drawn from its sap. Perhaps, if my muddled memory fails me, you will be useful. But we must delay no longer. I must begin the hunt.”
He approached the arched entryway, laid a hand to the stone, glanced back one final time at his Love—so still, so precious, so beautiful—and descended the steps to the soil of the Valley.
With the boy following him like a lamb in its shepherd’s wake, the Hunter made for the Tree.
For the beginning of the end of Death.