Living Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Psalm 23

Life is a mixture of pain and pleasure, of victory and defeat, of success and failure, of mountain tops and valleys.  There is an old Arab parable that says:  “All sunshine and no rain makes a desert.” That’s one way of saying, it takes good times and bad times to make a person mature. If you never have any down times, dark times, gloomy times in your life you’re in danger of growing very superficial and immature. Today we're going to look at God's antidote to the Dark Valleys of life.

Lets begin with an overview of this beautiful psalm (based on the NIV Study Bible notes).

The psalm can be divided into two balanced stanzas, each having four couplets (a couplet is one line of Hebrew poetry): (1) stanza one: vv. 1-3 (2) stanza two: vv. 5-6. The triplet in the middle (v. 4 d-f) is then a centering line, focusing on the Shepherd-King's reassuring presence with his people. It serves as a transition between the two stanzas, concluding the shepherd-sheep motif of the first and introducing the direct address ("you") of the second.
I. The Lord Is My Shepherd (23:1-4)

II. The Lord Is My Host (23:5-6)

Psalm 23 is then a psalm of trust and confidence.
It expresses confidence in God's goodness--in this life and in the life to come. The personal way in which the psalmist speaks of God, the imagery of God's soothing guidance, and the ensuing confidence in God have all been factors in making this one of the most charming and beloved of the Psalms.

The Lord Is My Shepherd (23:1-4)

23:1 The first word of the psalm, "The LORD," evokes rich images of the provision and protection of the covenant-God. The emphasis of the psalmist is on "my." The metaphor of the shepherd is not only a designation or name of the Lord, but it points toward the relation between God and his covenant-children: "I shall not be in want."

23:2-4 The image of "shepherd" arouses emotions of care, provision, and protection. A good shepherd is personally concerned with the welfare of his sheep. Because of this the designation "my shepherd" is further described by various aspects of God's care: "he makes me lie down . . . he leads . . . he restores . . . he guides"; and by the resulting tranquility, "I will fear no evil."

    The shepherd's care is symbolized by the "rod" and the "staff." A shepherd carried a rod to club wild animals and a staff to keep the sheep in control. These two represent God's constant vigilance over his own and bring "comfort" because of his personal presence and involvement with his sheep. The "green pastures" are the rich and verdant pastures, where the sheep need not move from place to place to be satisfied. God's care is constant and abundant. The sheep have time to rest, as the shepherd makes them to "lie down." The "quiet waters" are the wells and springs where the sheep can drink without being rushed. Through these means, God renews the sheep so that they feel life in his presence is good and worth living.   

The nature of the shepherd's care also lies in guidance. He leads his own in the "paths of righteousness." "Righteousness" here signifies "right" in the sense of "straight," i.e., the paths that bring the sheep most directly to their destination. He does not unnecessarily tire out his sheep. Even when the "right paths" bring the sheep "through the valley of the shadow of death," there is no need to fear.

The idiom "shadow of death" portrays death as a deep shadow or as deep darkness. This imagery is consistent with the shepherd metaphor because the shepherd leads the flock through ravines and wadis where the steep and narrow slopes keep out the light. The darkness of the wadis represents the uncertainty of life. The "straight paths" at times need to go through the wadis, but God is still present. The shepherd who guides is always with the sheep. The presence and guidance of the Lord go together. He is bound by his name ("for his name's sake") to be present with his people.

The Lord Is My Host (23:5-6)
5 The Lord is the host at a banquet "table" laden with food and drink. Before entering the banquet hall, an ancient host would anoint the honored guests with oil made by adding perfumes to olive oil. The overflowing "cup" symbolizes the care and provisions of God, previously represented by "green pastures" and "quiet waters." In the presence of God, the guests forget their troubles and tears.

6 The "goodness" of God is demonstrated in his abundant care and promises, evidence of his blessing. The "love" of God is his covenantal commitment to bless his people with his promises. The psalmist's experience of God's "goodness and love" is equivalent to dwelling "in the house of the LORD," a phrase that signifies abiding in the environs of salvation. The believer gets a taste of everlasting fellowship with God.

Now lets go back and dwell on verse 4 which is at the centre, the very heart of this beautiful psalm. "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."  (Psalm 23:4). We are going to mediate on that one verse this evening as we try and make sense of what is happening in our world.

What do we learn from this psalm? Even in our darkest valleys, our darkest days, God is there.  In
Israel there is a real Valley of the Shadow of Death.  It's a steep, deep and narrow canyon.  The sun only hits the bottom of it when it's directly overhead at high noon.  The rest of the time the bottom of the canyon is dark.  David probably led his sheep through the valley of the shadow of death as he was growing up. 

As you look in the Bible, the term "valley" also refers to all kinds of rough times in life. 
Joshua talks about the Valley of Calamity. Psalm 84 talks about the Valley of Weeping. Hosea talks about the Valley of Trouble.

This verse of Psalm 23 in Hebrew actually means The Valley of Deep Darkness.

1. How do I handle the dark valleys of life? 
There are five facts about valleys that you need to remember whenever you go through a tough time:

1.1  Valleys are inevitable

They are going to happen so you might as well count on them.  You have just come out of a valley, or you're in one right now, or you're probably headed toward one.  Valleys happen throughout life -- one right after another.  After every mountain top there is a valley.  Jesus was very realistic about it.  In John 16, He says "In the world you will have trouble."  It's not a matter of if, it's when.  It's going to happen.  You're going to have difficulty, disappointment, discouragement in life.  There will be times of suffering, sorrow, sickness.  There will be times of frustration, failure and fatigue.  They are going to happen.  They are a normal part of life.  Don't be surprised by it. 

1.2 Valleys are Unpredictable

You can't plan them, time them, schedule them.  Valleys are always unexpected.  They usually come at the worst time -- when you don't have time, when you're unprepared.  Have you ever had a flat tire at a good time?  They just happen.  And usually when you least need them and it's most inconvenient.  It would be very great if we could schedule our down times in life.  You can't plan life like that. Valleys come suddenly.  They are unpredictable.  Have you noticed how easily a good day can become a bad day?  Just one phone call, just one letter, one email, one routine doctor's check-up, a freak accident.  Valleys just happen.  Jeremiah 4:20 says "Disaster follows disaster... In an instant my tents are destroyed, my shelter falls in a moment." 

1.3 Valleys are Impartial

No one is immune to them.  No one is insulated from pain and sorrow.  No one gets to skate through life problem-free.  Everybody has problems -- good people and bad people.  Problems, trials, difficulties, disturbances, downtimes, depression doesn't mean you're a bad person.  It means you're a person.  It doesn't mean you're an evil human being; it means you're a human being.  The Bible is very clear that good things happen to bad people and sometimes bad things happen to good people.  Valleys are impartial.  They don't care how good or bad you are. In Matthew 5:45 Jesus says, "It rains on the just and the unjust too."  When we go through a difficult time -- a valley in life -- the first reaction is always "Why me?"  Yet really you should ask "Why not me?"  Do you think you should be exempt from all the problems everybody else has to go through?  Do you think you should be the only one in the universe that never has a tragedy, a loss, looses a loved one?  Instead of saying "Why me?" just realize it's going to happen because you're a human being.  Remember this is not heaven.  Things are not perfect here and there are problems and difficulties.  Disasters and tragedies happen to all of us. 

1.4 Valleys are Temporary

They have an end to them.  They don't last.  They are not a permanent location.  David says, "Even though I walk through the valley..."  The valley is not something you stay in your entire life.  It's something you go through -- a circumstance, a situation that has a season to it.  When you're in a valley you often think it's a dead end, but it's not.  It's like a tunnel -- there is a beginning and end.  You go through the tunnel and eventually you're out of it and back out in the light again.  They don't come into your life to stay.  They come to pass.  A paraphrase of I Peter 1:6 "There is a wonderful joy ahead, even though the going is rough for a while down here."  He admits that sometimes you're going to go through tough times.  It's going to be rough.  Life is tough.  You're going to have it.  But it's only for a while.  There is wonderful joy ahead.  He's talking about Heaven.  There are no problems in heaven, no valleys, no dark days.  While you may be harassed down here, in heaven you'll have no problems.  If you know the Lord Jesus Christ, that's where you're going.  He says don't get discouraged.  Even if you live 80 or 90 years and have a problem your entire life, that is insignificant compared to the thousands and millions of years in eternity problem free.  He says, even if it's your whole life it's just temporary compared in light of eternity. "Our troubles are short lived and there is an eternal glory which outweighs them all."  They won't last; they will be short.  But he says, there is an eternal glory.  This is important.  Pain can be productive.   There will be a benefit for our problems if we respond in the right way.  While we have the temporary hassles there is long term, eternal benefit when you go through a valley and respond to it correctly.

1.5 Valleys are Purposeful

God has a reason for taking you through the valleys.  Whether it's doubt, depression, despair, discouragement, defeat -- He's got a reason behind it.  I Peter 1:6-7 "At the present you may be temporarily harassed by all kinds of trials."  He says temporary (NIV “ A little while”) -- they aren't going to last forever.  You are temporarily harassed with problems here.  And there may be all kinds of trials.  There are financial valleys, relational valleys, emotional valleys, all kinds of different trials.  "...This is no accident -- it happens to prove your faith..."  The valleys are not just a freak of nature.  God wants to build your faith in the valleys of life.  We love to enjoy the mountain tops, but you don't build faith on the mountain tops.  You build faith in the valleys of life.  When everything is going fine and great you don't really need God.  But when you come face to face with a dark valley, you get on your knees.  Faith is strengthened in the valleys.  Faith is tested and proven in the valleys. When you don't feel like serving and trusting God, praising God... that's where your faith is tested.  Not in the good times of life, but in the valleys. 

1.5.1 Every problem has a purpose
Even the little tiny ones, the inconsequential ones, the things that seem like mere irritations.  They have a purpose.  God can teach you character.  He wants to change you, mature you.

1.5.2  Faith is built in the valleys of life

God wants to build your character.  He is far more interested in your character than He is in your comfort or your convenience.  God's goal in life is not to just make life comfortable for you.  He wants to build character.  He's more interested in your holiness than He is in your happiness.  Holiness lasts, happiness doesn't.  Happiness comes from holiness anyway.  He wants to make you like Jesus Christ.  He wants you to develop the character of Christ.  If God is going to make you like Christ, He is going to take you through all of the circumstances of life He took Christ through.  Was Jesus exempted from suffering?  Absolutely not.  What makes you think you're going to be exempted?  Did Jesus go through times of loneliness?  Yes.  Will you?  Yes.  Was Jesus ever tempted to be discouraged?  Yes.  Will you?  Yes.  Was Jesus ever misunderstood, maligned, criticized unjustly?  Yes.  Will you?  Absolutely.  What makes you think you're any different?  You're going to go through valleys.  God wants to build character in your life.  It's not by accident.  Does God cause accidents and tragedies?  No.  God does not cause accidents and tragedies.  God is a good God and He cannot cause evil.  He cannot do evil.  Can God use accidents and tragedies for good?  Absolutely.  He can use even the evil done to us by others, turn it around and bring good out of it by building character in us.  He definitely uses the tragedies and valleys of life in our lives.


2. What do you do when you go through dark valleys?

What does David say in Psalm 23? "I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."


2.1 Refuse to be Discouraged

"I will fear no evil."  I've always thought Christians should be the ones wearing all of the "No fear" T-shirts.  I will fear no evil; I fear nothing.  That's what David says as a Christian, who puts his faith in God.  "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death".   It says "I walk" -- not "I run through it" or "I panic and run the other way".  To walk means calmly, deliberately make steps through the valley.  David says "I'm not going to be afraid.  I will calmly walk through the valley."  So refuse to be discouraged.  You can't go around the valley.  You can't go under the valley.  You can't go over the valley.  You can only go through the valley.  Here he says "I will not fear evil".  Will implies a choice.  It implies an act of volition, decision.  I will not be afraid.  If you are discouraged this evening, it's really because you're choosing to be discouraged.  I don't have to know your problems.  You're choosing to be discouraged.  Discouragement is always a choice.  Always.  You don't have to choose to be discouraged, but you're choosing to think discouraging thoughts.  You're choosing to look at all the negatives.  You're choosing not to look at Christ and all the positive things.  You're looking at all of the negatives.  That's a choice.  You can choose to change, too.

That's what God wants you to do -- choose.  It's a deliberate act. How do I choose to not be discouraged?  By focusing on God's power rather than on your problem.  That's how you do it.  You can take two people and put them in the identical situation -- a chaos, tragedy, crisis -- one of them will be blown away by it, the other is actually strengthened by it.  One of them falls apart, one of them is strengthened through it.  The difference is what you're focusing on.  You need to focus, not on your circumstance, but on
Christ.  Not on the situation, but on the Savior.  Not on your problem, but on God's power. Colossians 1:11 says "God will strengthen you with his own great power so that you will not give up when troubles come, but you will be patient."

Human energy runs out.  After a trial of a certain length of time, you don't have any energy left.  No stamina.  Human endurance has an end to it.  It runs out.  In the valleys of life you need a power source bigger than yourself.  If you think you're going to make it through all the valleys of life on your own power -- forget it.  You're not going to.  You don't have enough power to handle all the things that are going to hit you in life.  You need a power source beyond yourself to key into. Ps. 34:18 "The Lord is close to the broken hearted and He saves those who are crushed in Spirit." 
Jeremiah 29:11 "I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, not harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."

2.2  Remember that God is with you

David said, "For You will be with me.  You're with me every moment."  God not only promises us His power in the valley, He promises His presence.  You will never go through a valley in life by yourself.  You will never go through a dark day alone.  God has said, "I will be with you."   Isaiah 43:2 "When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you.  When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown!  When you walk through the fires of oppression, you will not be burned up -- the flames will not consume you."  You're not going to drown, burn up, die -- God says I am with you.  He will be with you every step in the valley.  God says there is nothing to fear when Jesus is near.  God does not set up in heaven, looking down on you saying, "I sure hope they make it!"  He's there with you in the valley, walking with you, hand in hand.  God says, I will lead you through this. As we have noted in verse 4 of Psalm 23 there is a strategic change in the language. In the first part of the psalm all of the pronouns are in the 3rd person -- he talks about God:  "He leads me beside still waters,  He guides me into green pastures, He restores my soul".  David is talking about God. But when he gets in the valley it changes to second person pronouns.  He starts talking not about God but to God.  "You are with me. Your rod and your staff comfort me."  It's the valleys of life that bring us face to face with God.  All of a sudden the ultimate becomes the intimate.  When I'm going through the valley I don't want to talk about God, I want to talk to God.  Religion becomes a relationship.  Any mature believer will tell you that the times they have been closest to God were in those face to face encounters that happen only in the valley.  When you're in the valley and you're spent, depleted, perplexed, in despair and you're talking directly to God, He becomes real and God says, "I'm with you.  You're not in this by yourself."  We enjoy the mountaintops but we come face to face with God in the valleys of life.  He'll never be closer than when you're in the valley.  Revelation 2:10 "Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.  I tell you the devil will put some of you in prison to test you and you will suffer.  But be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life."

2.3  Rely on God’s Protection and Guidance
David reminds himself that God's rod and staff comforts him.  The rod and staff were the two basic tools that a shepherd used to protect and guide the sheep.  A rod was basically about two foot long, at the end of it was a heavy knot.  Shepherds were very skilled at hurling the rod, like a missile, at anything that would attack the sheep.  God is saying, "When you go through the valley, I'm defending you.  I'm protecting you."  The rod of God will protect you.  God says "I'm going to defend you, protect you."  When you're going through the valley, the dark valley of life, God is not setting in heaven unconcerned and apathetic.  The Good Shepherd fights for you.  While you're fighting for your life in that depression, God is fighting with you.  He's fighting off spiritual forces.  He is your defender and protector. That's what the rod represents.

"Your staff comforts me." 

A staff was a long stick with a crock at the end of it.  The shepherd uses a staff to guide and comfort. He will use the staff to draw the sheep in close to him.  He will use the staff to lift them up when they're down.  He brings them in close with their staff.  He also uses the staff to guide them.  When you go through the valley, you're not going through it alone.  God's going with you and He's using His rod and staff to protect and guide. He will guide you to a level of strength that you will be able to say like
Paul did in Phil 4:12-13 "I know how to get along with humble means.  I also know how to live in prosperity.  In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

When you go through a valley of life the scary parts are the shadows.  In the darkness you just see the shadows on the wall of the valley as you're going through that canyon.  And you're thinking "How am I going to make it?" 
David says, "When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death"  -- he didn't walk through the valley of death, but the valley of the shadow of death.  One day, someday, a shadow is going to fall over your life.  Count on it.  You will experience one of those shadow moments.  When those times come you need to remember three important things about shadows:

2.3.1  Shadows are always bigger than the reality
Fear is always greater than the actual problem.  It's the fear that is enormous. 

2.3.2  Shadows cannot hurt you
Ever been run over by a shadow?  There is a difference between the shadow of a truck and the truck itself.  Shadows are image without substance.  They cannot hurt you.  They can scare you, but they cannot hurt you.  They are just shadows.

2.3.3  There is no shadow without a light somewhere
When you're going through a dark valley, you think the sun has stopped shining.  God is dead.  I'm all alone.  You can't see at all and you think you're in total darkness.  But any time there is a shadow it means there is a light somewhere.  When you start to get afraid of the shadow in the dark valleys of life turn your back on the shadow and look directly at the light and the shadow falls behind you.  When you're afraid, don't look at the shadow.   Turn in the exact opposite direction and look at the light and the shadow falls behind you. 
Jesus said, "I am the light of the world, who ever follows me will never walk in darkness." (John 8:12).  When you look at Him you cannot be afraid of all the other shadows around you.  They fall behind you.  If you look fat the world you'll be distressed.  If you look within you'll be depressed.  If you look at Christ you'll be at rest.  It's your choice.  It all depends on what you're looking at.  Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.  Don't look at the shadows.  When you're walking through the valley, look at the light. 

Ps. 34:19 "The good man does not escape all troubles -- he has them too.  But the Lord helps him in each and every one."  If we went around the church asking what kind of week each of us has had we would observe that

Christians have disappointments.  Christians get sick.  Christians experience tragedies.  Christians lose loved ones.  Christians have financial problems.  God's people have family problems.  Believers go through valleys just like everybody else.   But there is a difference and it's a big difference. The difference is that while believers and non-believers go through the same valleys of life, the difference for the Christian is not the absence of the shadow but the presence of the Shepherd.  God is with you. 

I am deeply indebted to Rick Warren for the inspiration and much of the content of this sermon. For more information on his ministry visit: The image is taken from the BBC website