"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."
The question was submitted as a topic for my 500th blog regarding the "valley of the shadow of death" as found in Psalms 23. I must say that in all my readings and quoting of this Psalm, I have never really thought that much about that one particular phrase. It seemed to just "be there" and nothing more. Obviously there is something profound with the statement or the use of words would have been different.
There is a road that goes between Jericho and Jerusalem known as the "shadow of death" due to its narrow way and steep sides. If this path was known by David, then it very well could be the actual place he is referring to. As a shepherd, he was very much aware of these types of narrow trails that if the sheep got on them, would usually result in the death of many sheep sliding down into the ravine.
The usage of the word "shadow" implies it is late in the day when the sun has already gone behind the rocks and thus the ravine or valley would be darkened by late day shadows. The darker it would get, the more treacherous the attempt to navigate the trail. As it would get darker, the temperature would drop and the risk of hypothermia increases. Also as darkness descends, the vicious wild animals appear looking for their evening meal.
David's soothing voice of confidence in this verse is that even if he must walk through the valley of death late in the day with shadows abounding and potential for disaster with every step; he would fear no evil. In other words, he was able to walk through this valley with peace. Why? Because he knew God was with him and that God's rod and staff would guide him and bring him comfort.
The shepherd's rod and staff were not instruments of fear used to beat sense into the sheep or punish them for straying. These tools were simply used to keep the sheep on the "straight and narrow". When the sheep would veer off course, the shepherd would gently nudge the sheep to the right or left to keep them on the trail instead of falling into the valley of death.
Much has been said and written over the years by truly great preachers on the symbolic side of the "valley of the shadow of death". Perhaps the two greatest were "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" by John Bunyan and the classic sermon on the subject by C. H. SPURGEON. For some very intense reading on this subject, may I refer you to sermon number 1595 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. Here is a link to the full sermon preached by Mr. Spurgeon in 1880.
I do believe that the phrase in question has both a literal physical meaning as well as a symbolic one as well. I believe that when David wrote the 23rd Psalm, he was drawing upon his firsthand knowledge gained through years of being a shepherd. From this perspective, I believe David was predominantly stating in Psalm23:4 his complete and utter trust in God's ability to lead and guide him through the actual valley of death as well as all situations where fear normally would prevail.
But, I believe from God's point of view, the depth of meaning found in Psalm 23:4 goes far beyond the narrow trail leading through a valley known for death to many principles dealing with life. God knew that every person would sooner or later have to walk through the shadow of the valley of death as their physical life came to an end. From this perspective, the emphasis on this verse is found in the comforting words that "God is with us" and there is no need to "fear any evil" for God will make sure we stay on the straight and narrow which leads to His heart.
Removing the fear of death is a huge topic in the Bible since Hebrews speaks of the slavery such fear brings to those who spend a lifetime afraid of dying. God does not want His children cowering in fear of what lies on the "other side". He wants us to know that when that moment comes when we literally find ourselves walking in the shadow of the valley of death, that He will be right there with us holding our hand and leading us to glory where there is no more pain, sorrow or death.
As much as we fight to live (it being a natural response God placed within us), there comes a time in every person's life when the hope of what is to come overrides and replaces the pain of what has been. There comes a time when God's promise of peace melts away all the fear of the unknown. It is God's desire that the passing from this life not be one full of agony and trepidation but rather one of total peace in knowing "He is with us" and that "His rod and His staff will comfort us" as they lead us into God's very presence to begin our eternal state of fellowship with Him.
I pray this helps to unlock the meaning of Psalms 23:4 and sheds some light on the mysterious phrase; "the shadow of the valley of death". Whether in our daily walk or at the end of this earthly life; I pray we all can know beyond any shadow of doubt, that our God is with us and thus we have nothing to fear. I pray that we understand that God's rod and staff are always there to guide us, protect us and bring us the comfort of knowing our lives are in His hands and we will soon be eternally with Him.