|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."
I. FIRST, THINK ABOUT THE VALLEY 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.
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?
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
"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.
II. AND YET THE PSALMIST IS ABLE TO AFFIRM HIS FAITH.
1. "I fear no evil!" or as the K.J.V. puts it "I will fear
III. SEE THE REASON FOR THIS LACK OF FEAR.
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
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!
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!"
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
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."
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
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!"