“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psa. 23).
In our continuing study of Psalms 23, today we will look at, “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….” Without a doubt, this is one of the most famous of all the verses in the Bible. This is the one that funerals worldwide are known for, and I am sure we have all heard it preached at one time or another. But what does it mean? Sheep have no concept of death. They do not understand that the things they do that are contrary the shepherd’s instructions will lead them to their death. They are blissfully unaware of the dangers of an errant mindset – of trying to do things their way. But the shepherd is not. He carries a big stick to protect them from the dangers around them, especially as day turns to night and darkness gives cover to the evil lurking in it.
The author originally used the Hebrew word “salmawet,” which means “deep darkness.” When it was translated, it was clarified with two words, “sel,” which means “shadow,” and “mawet,” which means “death.” They would then finish it by saying, “valley of the shadow of death.” As we know by now, the author is describing death – our mortality and understanding thereof. With the exception of those who are alive when Jesus makes His triumphant return, we will all die. That is as basic a fact of life as breathing is. No amount of money, education, wisdom, good looks, luck, or bargaining will help us escape it, and for most people on earth, that is a scary reality.
Dying is believed to be the #1 fear of man, but it need not be so, the writer tells us. He is confident that when death comes to meet him – when he is walking in the deep darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, his Shepherd will be with him. That fear of dying is almost always rooted in fear of the unknown. What truly happens to us when we die? David says, “Since you have God, you know what will happen,” so why fear? Your Shepherd is with you every step of the way. Not only at the moment of death, but before that, as we travel the last miles to that moment, His is with us. Like a good shepherd, His rod and staff will give us a sense of comfort, knowing that He is there to protect us.
Instead of fearing death, we should fear not living. Instead of fearing evil that can harm us and even speed up our moment of death, we should embrace the reality of the presence of God and enjoy life. That knowledge removes the fear and anxiety, replacing it with a comfort only He can give us. Sheep do not have a concept of death, so they don’t know they should live every moment as if it could be the last. But we, who are aware of it, have the opportunity to live our best lives and make every second count. Moreover, knowing God is with us also means He was with our loved ones before they died. Not only is it comforting to know we are going to be OK, but it is also comforting to know they are too.
I am sure my dad doesn’t remember this anymore. I don’t think I have ever told him, but maybe he will read this and remember. I was small, perhaps 4 or 5 years old. My dad took me to visit a friend of his who worked in a tire factory. To this day, I vividly remember that factory’s horrendous smell and booming sounds. I was scared…really scared. The sounds, the smells, and the unfamiliarity of the dirty, scary factory were too much for me. I remember my dad picking me up and me sticking my head in his neck. I could feel his hands around me and smell his cologne, and I calmed down – I felt safe. To this day, I love the smell of Old Spice. How much safer am I in the arms of the omnipotent Creator God-Shepherd. I fear no evil, and I know that when my time comes to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He will pick me up, and I will feel His arms around me…and I will know I am safe.