Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me. —Psalm 23:4
The key to understanding Psalm 23 is recognizing that it’s geographically progressive. This was a flock on the move. It began in the lowlands near Bethlehem, the Negev, or Jericho, where spring pastures were available. As the summer progressed, the flocks migrated northward, eventually arriving in the tablelands referred to in the next verse (“You prepare a table before me”). In Genesis 37:14-17, the sons of Jacob followed a similar itinerary with their flocks, going northward from Hebron, to Shechem, to Dothan. This trekking inevitably led through valleys and canyons.
Verse 4 begins with the words “even when,” linking it to the preceding verse. God leads us in the right paths, even when our circumstances appear dark and difficult. Sometimes our route threads through dark valleys as we face stress and strain, grief and sadness. During such times we “fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.”
The shepherd’s presence was the greatest comfort for the sheep. So was his rod, a club used against predators. The staff was helpful in snagging sheep that strayed too near precipices.
With this verse we’ve reached the halfway point in Psalm 23, a comforting thought. It means the valley doesn’t last forever. In the next verses we’ll discover highland tables, overflowing cups, unfailing goodness and mercy, and an eternal home.
Notice that a subtle pronoun shift occurs in this verse. Until now, it’s been “The Lord… He…” He lets me lie down in green pastures…. He renews…. He leads…. Now, in the valley, it becomes You: “You are with me; Your rod and staff—they comfort me.” At this point the Twenty-third Psalm becomes a prayer.
When David wrote Psalm 23:4, he may have based his imagery on the wadi Kelt, a deep canyon near Bethlehem. In the Middle East, the word wadi designates a deep ravine or dry valley, and the wadi Kelt is a rugged canyon that stretches from the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area to the Jericho-Jordan River area. For many years when I led trips to Israel, I’d request a bus driver willing to drive us through the wadi Kelt. Not all drivers will take this route because of its drastic cliffs and hairpin turns. On our last trip to the Holy Land, I was disappointed to learn that this old road was blocked by the Israeli government because suicide bombers were using the wadi Kelt to slip into Jerusalem from Jericho. We were only able to drive a portion of the way. This is the route Jesus would have taken in biblical times, and He used this location as the setting for His story about the good Samaritan. It’s the traditional “valley of the shadow of death.”
The shadow of a dog cannot bite; the shadow of a sword cannot kill; the shadow of death cannot destroy us.—Charles Haddon Spurgeon
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