A Closer Look

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”David, 2nd King of Ancient Israel, in Psalm 23:4

Valley of Armageddon–Megiddo National Park, Nazareth, Israel

Psalm 23 is quite possibly the most popular Psalm in the Bible. Millions have memorized it’s comforting words which are often spoken at funerals, but they are also life sustaining words when we are going through difficult times. Years ago I memorized the NKJV version of Psalm 23 which reads as follows:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

This psalm has been the subject of previous blog posts on this blog along with several  others among the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. For this particular blog post, I will focus specifically on verse 4 which states:

Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

Wiktionary.com defines “valley of the shadow of death” as (1) The world–a place where darkness and death are figurative valleys one must walk through as part of the human experience; and (2) a very dangerous place. (Quote source here.)

In an article published on March 3, 2017, titled Life’s Dark Valleys,” by Dennis Lee, senior pastor of Living Waters Fellowship, he write:

There’s an old Arab proverb that says, “All sunshine and no rain makes a desert.” Today we’d say, “If you never have difficulties, then you’ll get all dried out with no depth or maturity.”

It takes both good and bad times to mature a person. Life is a mixture of pleasure and pain, of victory and defeat, of success and failure, of mountaintops and valleys. This Sunday morning we’ll be looking at how we can navigate the dark valleys of life.

In Psalm 23:4 King David said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

In Israel there’s actually a valley called “The Shadow of Death.” I’m told it’s a steep, dark, and narrow canyon where the sun only reaches it when it is directly overhead. David may have led his sheep up this valley.

The Bible often talks about valleys as tough times. Joshua talks about a Valley of Calamity. Psalm 84 uses the imagery of people passing through the Valley of Baca, or weeping, and Hosea talks about the Valley of Achor, or the Valley of Trouble.

While thinking about these valleys, other valleys mentioned in the Bible came to mind. Mostly these valleys are mentioned as places where battles were fought and victories won. The Valley of Elah is where David won a great victory for Israel over the Philistines by defeating the giant Goliath. (1 Samuel 17:19)….

Today valleys are not well thought of. We talk of being in despair as being in a valley. When asked how we’re doing, if we’re not doing well we say we’re in a valley. But our valleys don’t have to be places of despair.

When Hosea saw the Valley of Achor, the Valley of Trouble, he saw it as a door of hope. (Hosea 2:15). That door of hope is nothing less than Jesus Christ. Jesus in John 10:9, said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”

Jesus is not only the door, but He is standing at the door of our hearts knocking. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20) (Quote source here.)

In answer to the question, “What does it mean to walk through the valley of the shadow of death?” GotQuestions.org gives us the following answer:

Psalm 23:4, which reads, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (ESV), is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. It is commonly used during funerals or by those approaching death. The message of Psalm 23:4 is one of comfort. We do not need to fear. God is with us, and His presence gives us strength and hope.

However, “valley of the shadow of death” is possibly not the most accurate translation of the original Hebrew text. The NIV, NLT, and HCBS translate the phrase as “darkest valley,” resulting in Psalm 23:4 reading as, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley . . . .” The Hebrew word for “shadow of death” is sal-ma-wet, which means “darkness” or “dark shadows.” It contains the same root as the Hebrew word for “death” (ma-wet), so it is easy to see why some Bible translators include the mention of death in Psalm 23:4.

In addition, the concept of darkness fits much better in the context of Psalm 23Psalm 23, especially verses 1–4, uses the language of a shepherd and his sheep to describe our relationship with God: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. . . . Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:1–4).

Sheep do not understand the concept of death. They do understand, though, that entering a dark valley can be dangerous. The point of Psalm 23:4 is that, even when we might have reason to be afraid, we do not need to fear, because God is with us, and He will take care of us. He, like a shepherd, knows what He is doing and has our best interests in mind.

So, it does not appear that “valley of the shadow of death” is the most accurate translation in Psalm 23:4. A “dark valley” connects much better with sheep lying down in green pastures and beside quiet waters. However, the main point of Psalm 23:4 still definitely applies to death. Many people fear death, and those facing death certainly feel as if they are in a “dark valley.” But even in death we do not need to fear, for God is with us, and He will protect and comfort us through it all. (Quote source here.)

In an article published on March 13, 2014, titled, Psalm 23–I will fear no evil,” by Christine Miller, author and blogger, regarding the second part of the first sentence in verse 4 which states, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” she writes:

I have looked up the definitions and roots of each word and phrase. This element of the structure could be expanded to say:

Even if I come to, whether I am brought to it by the actions of others, or whether it is the proper destination of my path in living an unwise manner of life, the deep valley overshadowed by death, of very thick darkness so that I can not see my way, I will not tremble or be afraid of the wickedness of others in acting against me, of calamity or deep distress, or the outcome of the worst case scenario. Fear would be a reasonable response if I were facing this valley alone; however, I am not alone. Yehovah, whose name means, Deliverer, Redeemer, Releaser from bondage, Restorer of those who are estranged to Himself; the Creator of the universe, so He who has the ability to act on my behalf; the Ruler of the universe, yes, even You are with me, an active participant in my life, whose presence accompanies me, and is my constant companion no matter my circumstances.

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”Isaiah 9:2

And that light, is Jesus Christ, our Lord. “For lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:20 (Quote source here.)

Regarding the last part of verse 4 which states, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me”–in answer to the question, What are the rod and staff in Psalm 23?” GotQuestions.org provides the following answer:

Psalm 23 is a beautiful poem that uses the image of God as shepherd. David, who penned this psalm, had been a shepherd himself and understood the parallel between the task of a shepherd caring for his sheep and of God caring for His people. Sheep are totally dependent on the shepherd for food, water, leadership, and guidance as they move from place to place, just as we are dependent upon God for all that we need. Sheep depend on the shepherd for protection from a wide range of predators and dangers, just as we look to God as our Protector and Defender. In the New Testament, Jesus reveals Himself to be the Good Shepherd of His people (John 10:1114), fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that God would come to shepherd His people (Ezekiel 34:7–1623).

Psalm 23:4, addressing the Lord Shepherd, says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David bases this description on the practices of shepherds in his day. Shepherds of the time commonly carried a rod and staff as essential to their work.

The rod mentioned in Psalm 23 is a symbol of the Lord’s strength and protection. The rod was a sturdy wooden stick used as a weapon to fight off wild animals who might have hoped to make an easy meal out of an otherwise defenseless flock of sheep. The shepherd also used the rod to help him keep count of the sheep within the flock (as alluded to in Leviticus 27:32). Young David recounted an incident to King Saul in which he probably used his shepherd’s rod: “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it” (1 Samuel 17:34–35).

The staff mentioned in Psalm 23 is a symbol of the Lord’s guidance and lovingkindness. The staff was a long, slender stick, often hooked at the tip, used primarily to direct the flock. Sheep are notorious wanderers, and once away from the shepherd’s watchful eye, they get into all sorts of trouble (Matthew 18:12–14). The shepherd used his staff to keep his sheep out of danger and close to himself. If a sheep became trapped in a precarious position, the shepherd would loop the curved end of the staff around the neck of the sheep and retrieve it back to safety.

W. Phillip Keller (1920-1997), in his bookA Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23,” comments on the uniqueness of the shepherd’s staff: “In a sense, the staff, more than any other item of his personal equipment, identifies the shepherd as a shepherd. No one in any other profession carries a shepherd’s staff. It is uniquely an instrument used for the care and management of sheep—and only sheep. It will not do for cattle, horses or hogs. It is designed, shaped and adapted especially to the needs of sheep” (from chapter 8).

Together, the rod and staff of Psalm 23 paint a picture of the divine Shepherd who wields them. He is strong, competent, and trustworthy; He is present with His sheep, able to defend them and watching over them through all the dangers they face. Knowing that we have such a Shepherd who is ready to protect us from danger, keep us close, and rescue us when we go astray truly is a great comfort to us, the sheep. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the words from Psalm 23:4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me….

Your rod . . .

And your staff . . .

They comfort me . . . .

YouTube Video: “Valley” by Chris McClarney:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here