Several years ago, my family took a trip to the Southwestern United States. We landed in Las Vegas (since the flights there are often low-cost), but one of the first stops was not to a casino. Instead, we went to a store and loaded up the rented minivan with water and sports drinks. We also set out rules for our children about getting plenty of water and electrolytes even when they weren’t thirsty. The heat and dryness of that desert region heighten the risk of physical harm for those who do not remain focused on their hydration.
In that same region (although we didn’t visit it on that trip) is a place called “Death Valley”. Here, the desert gets even more serious (especially compared to our family vacation in an air-conditioned minivan mostly driven on highways!) For those stuck in that valley without the proper supplies, the risk of death is real. (Having said that, the U.S. National Park Service would like for you to have a safe trip if you visit: https://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm.)
In that light, let’s continue looking at Psalm 23. I like how the King James Version starts off verse 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 KJV
Your “valley of the shadow of death” probably isn’t a National Park. Instead, it might be the darkest time that you can remember, or it might be confronting mortality itself (whether from external dangers, or an illness within your own body). It might be a time of actual darkness, whether around you at night, or in your heart or soul.
Even in those times, though, God is there to help us through. Psalm 119:105 confirms that God’s word is “a lamp for my feet” and “a light on my path”. In a similar metaphor, Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), His birth was prophesied to be a light to Gentiles (Luke 2:29-32), and His ministry fulfilled a prophecy from Isaiah related to light (Matthew 4:15-16). John 1 describes Jesus as the “true light” (John 1:9), and Jesus declared Himself to be “the light of the world” (from John 9:5; see also John 12:46).
In fact, commentators [Tesh & Zorn, p.209] point out how Psalm 22 is a contrast to Psalm 23. Psalm 22:1 starts with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and we can see images of Jesus’ suffering elsewhere in that Psalm. Psalm 23 is the good news for the flock, though, which we know today (i.e., centuries after David wrote that psalm) was achieved through the suffering of the Good Shepherd. As the commentators wrote, “Unless we have known of the sufferings of the shepherd, we cannot fully appreciate the shepherd’s care of the flock.”
Some preachers and teachers might describe how the shepherd’s rod and staff had different purposes. I think of them as what we might call “the carrot and the stick”, although a commentary suggested that the rod was for defense and the staff was for helping navigate rough terrain [Tesh & Zorn, p.212], perhaps more like a quarter staff and a walking stick to us. Whether or not that is what was intended here, God’s direction is loving and helpful (including times when we are inclined to despair), but even His discipline is a loving choice, provided for our good. (See Proverbs 3:11-12, cited in Hebrews 12:5-6 ;see also Revelation 3:19.)
As you walk through your own “valley of the shadow of death”, whether today or in the future, know that there is a guide who not only has the resources to get you through, but also loves you enough to see that you make it to an eternal land where you can spend forever with Him. In this fallen world, there are shadows, but Jesus Christ provides a light even when we feel trapped in the dark. Don’t fear – just follow Him.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for November 20, 2022
- The Lookout, November 20, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press NIV Commentary, Psalms, Volume 1, S. Edward Tesh and Walter D. Zorn, © 1999, College Press Publishing Co., Joplin, MO.