Psalm 23: 4
The Valley of the Shadow of Death 

June 15, 1997

This is part of a series of 4 messages on difficulty and adversity in life based upon this 23rd Psalm.

It is an attempt to answer the question: How can it be that the person who is shepherded by the all powerful and loving Shepherd experiences trouble and hardship and pain and suffering? Today let me speak about "the valley of the shadow of death." The Shepherd leads us through "valleys of the shadow of death."


1. Some may have a problem with the fact that the shepherd even leads the sheep through the "valley of the shadow of death" but in a mortal and fallen world which we have on this side of the heavenly kingdom "the valleys of the shadow of death" are numerous.

2. Some Hebrew scholars have maintained that the translators of the English Bible have wrongly understood the supposed Hebrew vowels (which, in ancient times, were not written) and have come up with the translation "deep darkness." But all of the English translations have gone with "the valley of the shadow of death." Even the Septuagint which all of the writers of the N.T. except Matthew used has essentially this wording. The Septuagint was a collection of Greek translations of the O.T. from 2-300 B.C.

"The valley of the shadow of death" is, of course, a metaphor. In western culture, where this psalm has become almost universally known it is likely that the conception of death as a valley or tunnel with a light on the other end comes from the psalm. When people have these near death experiences where they imagine that they have died and returned to life they often think that they went through a tunnel or a valley.

In reality, "the valley of the shadow of death" was and is not exactly synonymous with the experience of death at all but is an ancient metaphor of danger and difficulty that might well result in physical death. The metaphor is one of hills and valleys in the land of Palestine where robbers and murderers and animals of prey have always hidden in the hills and then descended on small groups of people or flocks of domestic animals in the valleys below.

"The valley of the shadow of death" is , in fact, the place where the sheep is vulnerable. The experience of death is for the believer indeed a valley of the shadow of death but there are many others. In the case of literal sheep, vulnerability was due to wild animals that would savage the flock. In the case of the humans who walked those valleys the vulnerability was the likelihood of losing all their money and possessions and their own life also.

Many times when I was a student in Palestine I heard of stories these 3000 years after this psalm was written, of robbers who hid in the hills and descended on small groups of people and robbed them of every possession; on one occasion that I heard of -- leaving them stark naked.

The spiritual application has to do with God's deliverance from any of the spiritual or material or human enemies of the Lord's sheep that, as it were, hide behind the high rocks until a convenient time and then they swoop down on their prey in the valley below. This is "the valley of the shadow of death" upon which, when you enter it you are immediately conscious of your vulnerability and danger.

I wonder how many times you have walked through "the valley of the shadow of death?" An illness; a time of deep, deep discouragement; of major failure; a loss of a personal relationship that meant a great deal to you; a spiritual declension; or perhaps physical death staring you in the face?


1. "I fear no evil!" or as the K.J.V. puts it "I will fear no evil!"

Even in an extreme "valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." Even in the ultimate "valley of the shadow of death" which, of course, death is, "I will fear no evil."

2. There are many reasons that people are fearless. Some are unrealistic; some foolhardy. The fearlessness based upon self sufficiency is fine when it concerns little neurotic fears or the minor burdens and difficulties of life but for the weighty things of life and death, forces of nature and human destiny it amounts to belief in ones own personal omnipotence.

Others are convinced that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, that the world and peoples and events are really benevolent if we would just think positively. Those who say that most of the things we fear and worry about never come to pass are just finding peace of mind in a self-made lottery in which they hope to avoid losing. Others trust in their past good luck. But if there is no such thing as "luck" then their past "good luck" only increases the likelihood that the fearful event or circumstance will come into their life.

None of these things was the view of the psalmist. He was in touch with evil: moral. spiritual, natural, circumstantial, economic. He was a realist about the tragic dimensions of life and the vulnerability of the individual human being.

1. It is very simple and comes in 3 parts. the first of the three is that "thou art with me." The sheep has to his credit that he is not a very cunning and independently resourceful creature but is wholeheartedly dependent upon the kindness and good sense of the shepherd. This is not the conventional wisdom that anything that makes the person dependent on something outside of himself is demeaning and harmful to his humanness. Over dependence on other people or upon circumstances or upon an organizational entity may indeed be demeaning but dependence upon the Divine Shepherd is not demeaning but ennobling! Profoundly ennobling!

The issue for the sincere Christian in times of walking in "the valley of the shadow of death" will always be "is the Lord by my side? Has he indeed promised to be with me?" And he repeats the dozens of affirmations of the fact from various portion of the Scriptures. He hears the words of his Savior, the Good Shepherd saying, "Lo I am with you, always, even unto the end of the age''. and he imagines that those many passages in Isaiah belong to him: "Fear not; I am thy God and will give thee aid," "Fear not, for I have redeemed thee," "Fear not, Fear not, Fear not." "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me!"

2. Then the second and third part of the reason he does not fear is the Shepherd's rod and staff. "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

These two Hebrew words and somewhat obscure -- especially the second of them. But we assume that they are 2 very different objects with different purposes. A "rod" frequently appears in the O.T. as a weapon, similar to the connotation of our word, a "club."

The second of them is more difficult. It is called a "staff" in English. The word was used for various things in the Hebrew Bible. Often the word is used for a walking stick that people used in rugged territory much like our use of a cane. Since it obviously has to be something different from the rod or club that was used for defense and for pounding of one's enemies, it likely was a shepherd's staff, especially designed for his work of sheep herding.

In much later times, we know the staff was the main tool of the shepherd to tend the sheep. He could poke at them with its sharp end and pull them away from danger with its hooked end. It is reflected, most likely, in the wonderful, artistic shepherds' crooks pictured in the pictures of English bishops which were symbols of their supposed office as shepherds -- pastors -- of the church. And those symbolic shepherd's crooks were artistic interpretations of the kind of staff that real shepherds had used from time in memorium. It is likely that ancient shepherds had similar or perhaps even identical implements for their same work.

Now, these two things -- the rod and the shepherd's staff -- correspond to separate ministries the Lord performs, both of them a great comfort to the Christian: "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

The rod corresponds to the Lord delivering and protecting the Christian from his enemies. He defeats them -- personal enemies; intangible enemies; spiritual enemies -- of course, not by clubbing them but by his sovereign power over people, forces, events, and spiritual entities by which "he worketh all things according to his will."

Life contains many "valleys of the shadow of death." Death itself, sickness, terminal illness -- all the things I have previously mentioned. And the Christian as the Lord's sheep can confidently say "Thy rod doth comfort me and will comfort me from now until I am in the heavenly kingdom, the heavenly sheepfold." "Thy rod doth comfort me!"

And the staff corresponds to the Lord tending his sheep. With that staff the shepherd frequently pulled the sheep from danger with the crooked end. The sheep might be wandering toward a precipice or a thicket of thorny bushes and the shepherd would reach over the crowd of sheep and pull him back.

And in the same way the good Shepherd reaches out and saves the Christian. No doubt you have had the sovereign , Heavenly Shepherd reach out with his spiritual equivalent of a staff and so direct events that your way was totally reconfigured from what might have been to what did indeed come to pass. How many times in your life just a little prodding from his staff changed the eventual direction radically -- for, as you know, just a slight veering off from one path may eventually lead in a totally different direction in literal wildernesses or in the pathways of life.

Can you think of several instances where this happened to you? Where the Good Shepherd has reached out with his long staff and pulled you back just as you were about to fall into a spiritual ravine? O what a comfort is the staff of our Shepherd -- just knowing that there is such an entity! O, how faithful he is to keep us in the pathway! We are profoundly thankful for the many times he has kept us from straying from the fold!

And sometimes he has mercifully given us a poke or even a good swift rap with the staff to teach us a greatly needed lesson. How many times can you look back and see that the Lord was straightening you out when you were about to get in trouble with other sheep or lag behind the rest of the flock where predators could hurt you or destroy you and the Shepherd gave you a real swat with his staff that hurt you at the time but is now ever so appreciated. Or you were a willful sheep who wanted to take side paths of experimentation that would eventually lead you to hurtful environs, estranged from the main flock and in danger's way. This is what is called "chastening" in the N.T. It is not punitive or a matter of retribution but "chastening." The N.T. Greek word for it is the word for the training of children. This is what the shepherd does.

Unless you go to heaven right now, you can't avoid a certain number of "valleys of the shadow of death" in your future. That's the kind of world we live in. But to know the Lord and to know that he is sovereign and that he is indeed your Shepherd first with a gentle conviction "the Lord is my shepherd," and then with a firm faith "The Lord is my shepherd; he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me bedside the still waters." And finally with strong, mighty faith: "The Lord is my shepherd; Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me. They rod and thy staff, they comfort me!" 

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