Anyone at all familiar with the Book of Psalms can’t miss its frequent mention of feet and paths, standing and slipping. “None of his steps shall slide.” “Wilt thou not deliver my feet from falling?” “When my foot slippeth, they magnify themselves against me.” Living in America, where every tiny crack or patch of ice on the walk is a lawsuit waiting to happen, I used to read these kinds of verses as understandable but abstract metaphor, mere poetic imagery. Then I came to Russia.
Here, when you step outdoors, you’re on your own. It’s everyone for himself. You alone are responsible for noticing the big hole in the pavement or the stub of a broken pole in the middle of the path. You quickly learn to watch where you’re going. Even the careful may catch a toe on a tree root and go sprawling.
Add winter into this mix and you’ve got real trouble. New snow isn’t bad, but it soon gets packed down by cars and foot traffic into something resembling white glass. This is especially so in late fall, when it’s not so very cold. Yet even in the heart of winter, when the outside temperature makes the inside of your icebox look like a tropical paradise, the little flakes, under the pressure of tires and feet, manage to weld together into a solid, slippery surface. In spring, when the mass of snow begins to thaw, there are sheets of ice. Even seasoned Siberians find their feet flying out from under them. Some Aprils the hospitals are stuffed with people suffering broken limbs and concussions.
There are of course safeguards against falling, but none of them is foolproof. Some people here strap the soles of their boots with medical tape. It does give traction, but in the cold it doesn’t stick well to the shoes. I have some metal spikes that slip over footwear. Those work great—except in new powder snow covering the slick surface, where they’re all but useless. They also don’t do well on smooth ice. If you remember the days of studded snow tires, you know what I mean.
In short, the prospect of slipping and falling is always with one. I’ve taken a few tumbles in my time. Everything seemed fine, then, the next instant, I found myself on my back or worse. So far it has been no more than humiliating. The worst that has happened to me was missing the last step in a poorly-lit stairwell in St. Petersburg. That time I didn’t break anything, but tore all the ligaments in my left ankle. They tell my prospects for a professional career in soccer are now null. But this is a story all its own, to be told later.
The common element I’ve seen is that most falls occur when the foot steps onto an uneven place, whether it be a hill, a rut, a dip, or a bump. Thus I’ve come to a new depth of understanding of the Psalms. Level places are important for feet. It’s vital that one’s steps don’t slide. In battle, imagine what would have happened to David if he had slipped and fallen before his foes! Thus his seeming obsession with feet and steps was no fetish of his. As usual in the Psalms, the “heavenly” meaning of the language merges and blends with the earthly. King David’s literal standing or falling often meant the standing or falling of Israel. So when he speaks of feet and steps, even though the meaning extends well beyond the physics of friction, balance, and gravity, it’s never isolated from these.
For us the true meaning of the sure step and the level place is the security we have in Jesus Christ. He took the fall for us, but rose again. Though I often find the petitions and praises of the Psalms on my lips as I tread the icy paths, in their most literal sense, I stand firm upon this truth, whether or not I sprain a wrist or break a leg.