“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”What a familiar, beloved psalm is the twentythird, the “Shepherd Psalm”! It uses such beautiful imagery, such rich, accurate figures to bring peace and comfort to our souls. It is so obvious that David speaks out of the deep, personal experiences that God had given him as a shepherd caring for his father’s flock. As inspired by the Spirit, this is a soul-strengthening Word of God that we cherish in our hearts.
Especially is that true of this fourth verse. With the previous verses all seems well—peace, joy, and contentment. But now the psalmist begins, “Yea, though. . . ” Now he is emphasizing the fact that we may rejoice in Jehovah’s guidance and protection even though our pilgrim journey takes us through the darkest and most threatening experiences of life. Notice, too, that now the sheep begins to speak intimately to his shepherd. The personal pronouns “I” and “thou” enter the conversation. “. . .I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” What comfort is ours, even through the valley!
Our Need of Protection
Both in the land of Palestine and on many larger sheep ranches in North America, as well as in other parts of the world, most of the efficient sheep men take their flocks up to the rich mountain pastures during the summer. But this often entails a difficult and dangerous journey. The hill country of Judah is broken up by narrow and precipitous valleys or ravines through which one must pass in order to get to the good pasture. These valleys abound with dens and caves that provide hiding places for both wild beasts and robbers. In these valleys there are dangers of flash floods, avalanches, poisonous plants, and fierce storms. This all makes plain what the psalmist means when he speaks of walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.”
We must understand that the psalmist is not speaking only about the day of our death. Sometimes this verse is limited to that. But it is not so that in the previous verses we see that the needs of this present life are taken care of, and that now this verse concerns our death—that even then our Shepherd will take care of us. That is true, of course. But this Word of God means much more than that. Not only is Jehovah with us when we make that final journey, when we are upon our deathbed, but He is with us throughout our life here on earth. And this latter idea is even on the foreground. The point is that all through our life we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. All of Scripture teaches that we lie in the midst of death; that we die every day; that we carry about with us the body of this death. David is not merely referring to our physical death, but to all the dark and bitter experiences of our lives. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He does not say that we stop there or that we die there, but rather that we walk through. And our walk is our life, our whole pilgrim journey in the midst of this world.
There are those who have made light of these dark, frightening experiences. They emphasize that David speaks only of the “shadow” of death. It has been said that only fools and young children are afraid of shadows. After all, the shadow of a sword cannot cut, and the shadow of a dog will not bite. But one who has actually walked through the valley would not utter such foolishness. For where there is a shadow, there is a reality casting the shadow. From this point of view, it is very dangerous to make light of the dangers and adversities that we encounter in life. Spiritually, the dangers are very real: Satan, the wicked world, and our own sinful flesh. And the adversities of our lives are very real: afflictions, sorrows, hardships, and death itself.
We are inclined to ask, “Why do we have to walk this path, this dangerous, frightening way through the valley of the shadow of death? Of course, we cannot fully comprehend the reasons while we are yet on this side of the grave. But we are assured in God’s Word that it is for our own good. It is to prepare us for our place in glory. It is to strengthen our faith in our Shepherd and to draw us nearer to Him. It is to make us realize our dependence upon Him.
But it all comes down to the fact that our all-wise, all-knowing Shepherd knows that this is the best way. So it is with the earthly shepherd too; he knows that the best route to the lush mountain grass is through the valleys. The valleys have the gentlest grades, springs and pools of water to drink, and the best forage for the sheep. Yes, the shepherd is aware of the dangers there. But in spite of the hazards, the shepherd also knows that this is still the best way to take his flock.
In this connection, we must remember the nature and characteristics of sheep. In addition to being very weak, helpless, and defenseless animals, they have very little persistence. They give up very easily. When they face adversity, affliction, or danger, they often simply give up and die! And that is our nature too! How easily we become anxious, upset, frightened by the adversities and dangers of life. When the dark shadows sweep over us and the path we tread grows gloomy, we can easily slip into despair, into a spiritual pessimism. Sometimes we just feel like giving up.
We must understand that David did not speak of the valley of the shadow of death to strike fear into our hearts or to discourage us. Rather, he would impress upon us that our safety and security are found in our Shepherd. Thus, the question is not whether the valley is dark or merely dim with the shadow of death. The question is, How do we get through it?
Our Comfort in Jehovah
The grand testimony of David in the light of potential danger was: “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Notice carefully that he did not say that he would encounter no evil. Such a statement would have been contrary to his own experience as well as to the teaching of God’s Word. David did not derive comfort from the weakness of the enemy. He did not find comfort from his own inherent strength. But he was comforted by the fact that Jehovah, his Shepherd, was with him.
So we need not fear because Jehovah is with us! The presence of the Lord has provided encouragement for His people throughout the ages. When Jacob was at Bethel the Lord promised, “And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest. . .” (a). As Joshua stood on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready to lead that great throng of Israelites into Canaan, the Lord strengthened him with the word, “There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” ( ). When Jesus commissioned His disciples, He encouraged them with the words, “. . .lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” ( b). Yes, it is in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, that God is with us to save us and deliver us. He is Emmanuel, “God with us”! He is our “good shepherd”! ( ).
That makes all the difference as we walk through the valley! The presence of our Shepherd is a source of strength and courage for us. Look back over your own life and see how the Shepherd’s hand has upheld you and sustained you even in the darkest hours. Reflect on Father’s faithfulness in every crisis, in every frightening circumstance of life. Has not His grace always been sufficient?
And as a further explanation to bolster our confidence David adds, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The rod and staff refer to two distinct implements that were the common equipment of the ancient shepherd. A shepherd boy would take great pride in the selection of a rod and a staff suited to his own size and strength.
The rod was a short stick or club that was the main weapon of defense for the shepherd and his sheep. A shepherd who had become skilled in the use of the rod could swing it and throw it with great accuracy. With the rod the shepherd had a means of protection and kept the flock safe. The rod could also be used in the shepherd’s hand to examine and count the sheep. The Lord speaks of this inas passing under the rod. This means not only coming under the shepherd’s control and authority, but also to be subject to his most careful and intimate examination.
The staff, more than any other item of his personal equipment, identified the shepherd as a shepherd. No one in any other profession carried a shepherd’s staff. It is uniquely an instrument used for the care and management of sheep, and only sheep. Normally, the shepherd’s staff was a long slender stick with a crook or hook on one end. It was carefully selected, and shaped and cut to best suit the shepherd’s own personal use. In addition to leaning upon his staff for support, the shepherd used the staff in the care of his flock. Skilled shepherds of old could use their staff to gently lift a newborn lamb and bring it to its mother if they became separated. In the same way, the shepherd could use the staff to reach out and catch individual sheep to draw them close to examine them. The staff was also used for guiding the sheep. With his staff the shepherd could gently prod the sheep into a new path or through a gate. With his staff the shepherd could often reach a sheep that had fallen into a hole or off the edge of a small cliff.
The staff is essentially a symbol of the concern and the compassion that a shepherd has for his sheep. Whereas the rod conveys the concept of authority and power, of discipline and defense against danger, the staff speaks of all that is longsuffering and kind. So we see that the rod and staff are the symbols of a well-prepared shepherd, and provide him with clear identity. Together they clearly represent the Word of God. The tools God uses to shepherd us are the Holy Scriptures. The Word of God is wielded to defend us from our spiritual foes. That Word is used to discipline when we stray from the flock. The faithful preaching of the Word guides us in the straight and narrow way. What comfort and encouragement that Word provides for us! “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me!” Even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we have comfort knowing our Shepherd is with us, yea, that we belong unto Him!
Do you know this comfort? Do you have that blessed assurance that your Savior is with you? Do you have the calm, quiet confidence that He is there, moment by moment, day by day, to direct every detail of our lives? That He is there to guide, to sustain, to protect, to preserve as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death? That is comfort!
Then our way in the midst of this world is not so bad. Even peering ahead as the valley grows darker in these last days, we are able to sing with the psalmist,
“Thy way was in the sea, O God,
Through mighty waters, deep and broad;
None understood but God alone,
To man Thy footsteps were unknown;
But safe Thy people Thou didst keep,
Almighty Shepherd of Thy sheep.”
Psalter #211, stanza 3