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 23:4
How He Leads
Up until verse 4, the sheep in Psalm 23 are passive. They are being made to lie down and being led and being restored, but now there is the actual movement of the sheep in their walking and going somewhere. And here is where the little phrase that opens the verse (“Even though”) signals to us an image ahead that will present the major theological surprise of the verse, and its ultimate comfort. For the journey that one might expect to be making while walking in paths of righteousness (Ps. 23:3) is not the movement the psalm actually focuses on in verse 4. Our great familiarity with this psalm as a whole might cause us to miss the stunning way the shepherd leads the sheep for his name’s sake.
It is true that God accompanies the speaker and takes care of him or her in a general sense in Psalm 23—and in a culture of religious sentimentality, this is appealing. But come with me for a closer look. In fact, the great surprise is how God accompanies the speaker: the sheep is on the move from the Lord’s leading on the right paths in verse 3 into his leading in verse 4 onto the valley path. The unexpected development in the story of Psalm 23 is that the good shepherd’s paths of righteousness sometimes include the valley of the shadow of death. If I find myself in the valley of deep darkness, it is because he has led me there.
It is clear in this verse that we have not left the shepherd-sheep relationship behind; our companion has a rod and a staff in his hand, and in verse 5 the active verbs will resume to describe the activity of our host toward us as he nourishes us and leads us safely to his dwelling place. It is simply unwise to assume—as some do, unthinkingly—that we have a shepherd who leads us to peace and tranquility but has no say over how sheep come to find themselves in a threatening gorge. No, the valley of the shadow of death, the days of deep darkness, do not mean we have left the paths of righteousness; in fact, they are where the shepherd’s paths of righteousness are sometimes located. This is how he leads.
I say this is a surprise because we need to reckon with the terrible intensity of the image that dominates the verse: “the valley of the shadow of death.” The commentators tell us that while the translation of the word for “valley” is straightforward, the word translated “shadow of death” is more contested and more complicated. It is a single Hebrew word that can mean “deep darkness” (as the ESV footnote reads). In many other places in the Old Testament the word is translated as exactly that, for instance in Job 24:17, where it appears twice:
For deep darkness is morning to all of them;
for they are friends with the terrors of deep darkness.1
Place of No Return
But, as many commentators also realize, it is not as simple as relegating the translation “the valley of the shadow of death” to a bygone but badly judged era of translation whose abiding value lies only in feelings tied to the lyrical power of the King James Version. The fact is, as Peter Craigie observes, that “the expression may have been used deliberately to convey the threat of death,” and he points to another text in Job as evidence:
Are not my days few?
Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer
before I go—and I shall not return—
to the land of darkness and deep shadow,
the land of gloom like thick darkness,
like deep shadow without any order,
where light is as thick darkness. (Job 10:20–22)2
Here the metaphorical idea of deep darkness is very clearly tied to a place of no return: the world of the afterlife. This is death, not simply described but poetically depicted, with a choice of (non)color and a concentration that speak immediately to our emotional sense of what dying means. It is a journey away from the light of the known into the obscurity of the unknown, away from the warmth of the sun to the cold of the shade and the shadow. The valley’s deep darkness is a perfect metaphor for death’s encroachment on life.
Several writers have firsthand experience of valleys of darkness in Palestine, places where “the water often foams and roars, torn by jagged rocks. . . . The path plunges downward . . . into a deep and narrow gorge of sheer precipices overhung by frowning Sphinx-like battlements of rocks, which almost touch overhead. Its side walls rise like the stone walls of a great cathedral.”3 Kenneth Bailey tells of his own encounter with such a place where, in 1957, a flash flood thundered through a deep and narrow gorge, killing some fifty French tourists and giving the literal sense of “the valley of death” to an actual physical place.4
The valley of the shadow of death, the days of deep darkness, do not mean we have left the paths of righteousness; in fact, they are where the shepherd’s paths of righteousness are sometimes located. This is how he leads.
We do not know exactly where or what David had in mind as he wrote. But, in a sense, it is the undefined and open-ended nature of the metaphor that is such a help to us. In his day, the terrors of wild animals and bloodthirsty foes were present in the physical valley so that the reality of death crouched at the door for any traveler. In our day, we most likely encounter deep darkness in different ways. Yet, in the same way, death sends its shadow ahead of time across our lives. Richard Briggs builds on the work of Old Testament scholar Jon Levenson to argue that, in ancient poetry, death is understood not in our modern clinical sense of the precise moment the heart stops beating but rather as a malignant terror that casts “its influence (indeed, its ‘shadow’) even within what we would now call the land of the living.”5 The wise believer knows that from the moment we are born, we are always in the presence of death. It is just that for most of us the shadow has not quite reached us yet; the sun is so high in the sky that we are unaware of it. It can take a valley and the first sight of death’s shadow to make us realize that this truth applies to us by name the same as to everyone else. We are always dying.
This idea is also expressed in the unexpected way the punishment of death works out in the book of Genesis. God’s prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam and Eve contained the warning “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17). The surprise, of course, is that on the day they ate of it, they did not die. Or did they?
The unfolding story of Scripture reveals that Adam and Eve’s death began that day even if it did not arrive in full that day. From the moment they vandalized the garden in their rebellion against their loving heavenly Father, introducing sin into the world, they embarked on a one-way journey to an appointment with death that began to cast its long shadow over the once-perfect creation. As John Calvin says in commenting on Genesis 2:17, “The miseries and evils both of soul and body, with which man is beset so long as he is on earth, are a kind of entrance into death, till death itself entirely absorbs him.”6 From the moment of Adam’s fall, “death began its reign in him.”7 But the fact that death is so clearly introduced into the world by God himself means that we may say, I think, that the curse of death in the world is God’s curse, in the same way that Martin Luther is reported to have said that the devil is God’s devil. In other words, God is in charge of them, not they in charge of him. He is not part of the curse, and he is not implicated in the evil works of the devil, yet God is the one ruling the world completely and perfectly.
God of the Valley
My prayer for you is that you come to know the valley you are in to be God’s valley and your good shepherd to be the one who has led you there. At this very moment, you might feel more lost than ever, in deepest darkness like a shroud, but your Lord Jesus is not standing there beside you lost or scratching his head wondering what to do. It may not yet be part of your theological framework that all things, including each valley, come from God’s fatherly hand. But it needs to be. For if God is not in charge of the valley, how do you know he can get you through it?
Many years ago I remember hearing John Piper advise those teaching in youth ministries that the very best thing they could ever give their young folk was “Big God Theology.” The words of the catechism portray just such a big God. It’s the God we meet in every part of the Bible’s story, from beginning to end. Adam and Eve’s fall into sin in the book of Genesis did not take God by surprise or leave him unexpectedly considering his options. He did not send Jesus into the world as Plan B, because he came as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). This is the God of Amos 3:6, where the prophet asks,
Does disaster come to a city
unless the Lord has done it?
God stands behind everything that happens in the world—everything, absolutely everything—but he does not stand behind good and evil in the same way. The disaster that strikes a city is always the Lord’s doing, even while he is never the author of evil; he remains in control of everything while he is not tainted in his glory by the evil we do.
Supremely, we see all of this in the valley path our shepherd himself walked throughout his life, a path he traveled to the point of the deepest darkness in his sacrificial death on the cross. But the death of the Lord Jesus displays a stunning truth: his experience of the valley was the work of “lawless men” (Acts 2:23), a despicable deed of delivering him over to death by denying him in the presence of Pilate, who had the power to release him (Acts 3:13), and at the same time, this deliverance was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The execution of our shepherd as the climax of his lifelong experience of the valley of the shadow of death is the supreme example in Scripture of how God so often leads his children: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). The shepherd who leads was led out to die by sinful men; this path to death was God’s road to a world of unimaginable good.
This underlying profound belief in the sovereignty of the shepherd and his providential care at every step of the way is why David sings of walking “through” the valley. Through. Your valley right now, however its oppressive walls are formed—from depression to death or a thousand other kinds of darkness besides—is not the destination but the journey. For the Lord Jesus, his path was the humiliation of his incarnation and the cross of his atoning death, and then the crown; for us too the road of walking with our shepherd is suffering now, then glory after. But whatever the valley, you are walking through it. Jesus is not up ahead asking for directions. He is not lost. He knows where he is leading you. He knows there is a way through it and out of it because that was his own experience of the valley; he has been there ahead of you and for you.
- Richard S. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 90.
- Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 207. Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd, provides the most detailed recent discussion and, by a different route, also defends the well-known reference to the shadow of death in translation (88–93).
- Kenneth E. Bailey, The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament (London: SPCK, 2015), 47. Here Bailey is citing the shepherd M. P. Krikorian in his book The Spirit of the Shepherd: An Interpretation of the Psalm Immortal, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1939), 68–69.
- Bailey, The Good Shepherd, 47.
- Briggs, The Lord Is My Shepherd, 94.
- John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King, vol. 1 (1847; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 127.
- Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, 1:128.
This article is adapted from The Lord of Psalm 23: Jesus Our Shepherd, Companion, and Host by David Gibson.
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