A Study of Psalm 23:4
“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.” (Psalm 23:4)
The 23rd Psalm, probably the loveliest of all the Psalms of David, has been without doubt utilized for the comfort of God’s children everywhere for so long as they have had the privilege of knowing it. Even many of those who know not Christ, the natural man of this world, or those who only profess a head knowledge, have found a sentimental comfort from these words. But this Psalm is directed, as is all of God’s word, to the living and not to the dead.
All of the 23rd Psalm is tender and edifying, but there is a particular point in verse four which renders special comfort in the lowest ground in which we must travel. And to that we would primarily direct our attention as the Lord may bless. As the verse begins with a “Yea” it refers back, no doubt, to the things David had previously stated in the first three verses. David exclaims that he had no wants, because the LORD was his Shepherd; that he found sweet satisfaction in lying down in green pastures, and that he was gently led beside still waters. His soul had been graciously restored, and the path of righteousness was his for the LORD’s name. “Yea”, he says, “even though I have these things, I must walk through this dim valley of the shadow of death.” “But”, he interjects, “I will fear no evil.” What a sublime and blessed state, for any of the children of God to be able to say in any circumstance, “I will not fear.” The fear of the LORD is clean. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of life. However, the fear of other things, external things, worldly things, quickly gendereth strife, darkness and confusion. So, the Sweet Psalmist is blessed to say he will fear no evil. When is this? When he walks through this valley. This is a valley of the shadow of death. Not of death, itself, but of the shadow of death. This is a valley where David says he must walk, and so we believe all of the family of God must walk in their journey from life to death, and then to life eternal.
David is not bodily dragged through this dread valley. He does not go kicking, clamoring, and pleading that he might escape such a wretched trial. Neither does he attempt to hurriedly dash through as if to be rid of the trial as quickly as possible. But rather, he soberly and deliberately, and with great consolation, walks each step of the way, knowing that it is the LORD that directeth his steps, and that every move he makes is under the guidance of his great LORD and Shepherd, Jesus Christ. “Yea, though I walk through the valley”.
Most all who have given any consideration to the subject would think of a valley as a low place, usually barren, with mountains on either side. To the left, mountains, to the right, mountains, and before and behind an open space, empty, barren, lonely. Nevertheless, a place where our journey must take us. In this valley when we look to the left or to the right and see these mountain peaks, they may remind us that on either side of our journeys loom the mountains of the law, on the other side the mountains of sin and transgression. They stand up like formidable obstacles to hinder us from deviating in the way. We cannot stay long near them, and we cannot escape them. We must walk, dreadful as it may seem to be, through our valley journey, as David did his many centuries ago.
David describes his valley as “the valley of the shadow of death.” As noted before, not the valley of death, but of its shadow. A little consideration on this point would reveal for us the clear assumption, and more too, that in order to have a shadow, there must be two ingredients present in direct proximity. There must be light, and there must be an object on which that light may shine its effulgent rays. And, so it is in the valley of the shadow of death. For death to cast a shadow there must be a light. For David to see the shadow, he needs but look about him. For as he walks through this valley, the light goes with him. Our dear Redeemer, on more than one occasion, said, “I am the Light.” The only light poor pilgrims need is the light of Jesus. And as they travel through their valley journey, the light goes with them. (Thou art with me.) Oftentimes their eyes are dim that they cannot see. At other times fear drives them to close their eyes, but when enabled to look, they may see the result of the light going along with them. For everywhere they look will be the shadow. And how is it that this shadow is so near? It must be that it is the result of the light shining upon the traveler himself As the light of God shines forth upon the pilgrim traveler, the body of this death casts a dreadful shadow.
The Apostle Paul, on one occasion, said, “I die daily.” He described the body in which he lived as an earthen vessel, or a tabernacle which must be taken down, and with many other expressions he so described this frail and fragile housing. But the most vivid and lucid description he gave was in Romans seven, “Oh, wretched man that I am. Who shall deliver me from the body of this death.” And so it is, not only Paul, but all of God’s chosen, tabernacle in a body of death. Death is our lot. The Adamic man is the dying vessel, and a vessel of death, for sin reigns in its members. And so it is that as we travel from our birth to the end of our journey, we bear about in our body, not only the marks of death, but death itself. In Adam we all have died, and but for grace, eternal death would be our lot. But as the LORD is our Shepherd, and goes with us, and makes us not to want, His great and glorious light shines upon us, and in us. And so the shadow is cast; it is the shadow of death which can best be seen in the valley setting. And so we see, reminding us all the steps of our journey, that death is in our members and that our members are death itself; that from dust we have come, and to dust we must return. But the joy is that we will fear no evil, for He is with us. As David describes, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
As David began elucidating on his comfortable situation in this Psalm, in verse two he speaks of his shepherd as “he” several times. “He maketh me; He leadeth me; He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me.” And so he speaks of him, (David’s shepherd) somewhat abstractly, but as he enters into this valley, and he sees the shadow of death cast from his own members, he speaks more personally, as if to find some comfort or assurance. “Thou art with me.” He no longer speaks about the Shepherd, but he speaks unto the Shepherd. “Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” What a vast difference it is when we see the somber situation of our own captivity, and then by grace look upon the glory of our dear Redeemer. We no longer wish to speak about Him, but rather our vivid longing is to speak unto Him. We turn from the secondary things, to the primary, and we seek communion with Him.
And so it would be, as with David, so with us. When traveling through this valley with the great exaggerated walls about us, journeying step by step, dying daily, grieving over sin, mourning transgressions, yet in all that, we are made not to fear, for He is with us, and we are blessed to commune from time to time with Him. The more we see the shadow, the more we know from whence it came. And yet at the same time we realize that the Great Light has shined and revealed to us out of darkness what we are and what the Great Saviour and Shepherd is. And thus we commune with Him every step of our journey. And not only that, but we find comfort in the Shepherd’s tools, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” So blessed it is to discover comfort even in the presence of death. And the only comfort we shall find is the comfort of the things of our LORD, whether it be His rod or His staff, they are His and they are for our benefit. And so we could blessedly say, even in the valley of the shadow of death, “For we know, all things work together for good to them that love God; to them that are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
J.F. Poole – 1989