Understanding Psalm 23: What is the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.” Psalm 23:4

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.” Psalm 23:4

Understanding Psalm 23: What is the Valley of the Shadow of Death? by Steppes of Faith

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me.” Psalm 23:4

I love old movies. I could binge on the TCM Channel all day long. Love stories, drama, comedy…I love it all (the clean ones anyway). I noticed in the more serious films, there often seemed to be a scene where someone was praying their last prayer before being killed by the bad guy. In other films, as a prison guard leads a prisoner to the death chamber, the priest stands there praying. You’ve probably seen this too. In these movies and others, the characters are reciting one of the best-known verses in the entire Old Testament. I’m talking about Psalm 23:4, the one about walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

When we read this verse, we often picture someone walking through a tar-black valley and Satan himself hovering over them with his black hood and sickle waiting to pounce on them. Well, at least that’s what I picture. But as we’ve seen so far in this study of Psalm 23, things aren’t always what they seem.

Another Mistranslation

In translating the ancient Hebrew, the “valley of the shadow of death” as we know it isn’t quite accurate. The Hebrew word is sal-ma-wet, which means “darkness.” Some translate it as “dark shadow.” Either way, the root word for both versions is the same as it is for death, which is probably why many Bible translations say “shadow of death.” However, this would not fit in context with the rest of Psalm 23.

First, Psalm 23:4 is not a reference to any spiritual darkness or the terror we feel when we’re heading to the grave. Rather, it is a reference to how we should regard the dark times in our lives. Financial, medical, relational…whatever is causing us to feel as if we’re walking in uncertainty or confusion, these are the dark times. These are the dark valleys.

That doesn’t mean we ignore how it applies to us spiritually. Walking in spiritual darkness separates from the Father and that only makes things worse. Thankfully, we can trust that God is always with us, which we read in line two of verse four.

“I will fear no evil for You are with me.”

So, even when we are encountering death, we no longer need to worry about it because of His faithfulness and saving grace. Paul reminds us of this in 1 Corinthians 15:54-56.

“So, when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Can we say hallelujah to that?

We can go through dark, tough times and even endure death—of ourselves or someone we love—but we don’t need to fear. God has already given us the victory over every circumstance because of Jesus’ work on the cross.

Psalm 23 is where we learn another name of God-- Jehovah Shammah. He is our good Shepherd.

Jehovah Shammah of Psalm 23

Another way the image of Satan looming over us is not in context with the rest of Psalm 23 has to do with the fact that we are the Lord’s sheep and He is our shepherd, Jehovah Shammah. Remember that the entire chapter has to do with God being the shepherd and us being His sheep fully dependent on Him.

Let’s be honest. Sheep aren’t that smart. They’re cute and all, but like other animals, they have no concept of death. They can, however, understand the difference between light and dark. They behave differently on sunny days than they do on days when the skies are full of thick, dark storm clouds. And, they seem happier in a sunny, open field but fearful in dark, closed-in, seemingly dangerous valleys. We, like sheep, intuitively understand this too. It’s not rocket science.

Psalm 23:4 reminds us that we have nothing to fear even though we may feel overwhelmed by it. The Lord is our shepherd, He knows what He’s doing, and He promises He will guide us through the valleys until we reach the sunny, open field on the other side. He is with us and won’t ever leave us. And if we happen to stray away in the valley, He promises to leave the other 99 just to find you, wherever you may be.

This is a great, precious promise we should all cling to. God is constantly with us, gently leading us, and forever faithful through every valley and over every mountain.

Can I get another hallelujah?

God is Faithful in the Valley

The Lord’s faithfulness is certainly reason to praise Him. Let’s also remember how verse four ends for yet another reason:

“Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

If you missed my explanation of this part of verse four, you can read it here. I highly encourage you to read it over because the Lord’s rod and staff are amazing sources of comfort during the darkest times of our lives. Knowing how He uses His rod and staff will help you understand just one more way He loves us so incredibly. I know I’ve found myself thinking about it more since I did that research, and it’s only made me love and trust Him more on the bad days.

Grace and Love

The Lord is so good to us. He promises to never leave us no matter what we’re facing. He provides peace, sustenance, protection, and guidance all because of His amazing grace and unrelenting love for us. How about one more hallelujah for that?

But, what happens after we pass through the valley of darkness? What happens after He leads to the sunny, open field? What will we find when we get there? The answer to this is in verse five. We will talk about that next time in the conclusion of this study of Psalm 23.

In Psalm 23, God promises to lead to you to the light after you pass through the valley of darkness.

Your Turn

What have you pictured in your imagination what the valley of the shadow of death is? Has it changed knowing it’s not about doom and gloom but rather about how we face hard times? How does it affect your view of God’s faithfulness? Let’s talk about it. Leave your thoughts and comments below, or you can message me by clicking here. I love getting your comments. I hope to hear from you.

Further Reading

Got Questions always does a nice job explaining the Scriptures, and they did it again with Psalm 23:4. They explain more about our relationship as sheep to God the Shepherd. You can read all about it right here. (Not an affiliate link, just great information to help you grow your faith)

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