“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
This is the heart of Psalm 23. In fact, “Thou art with me” is in the exact center. In Psalm 23, everything until now has led up to these words; everything that follows will draw on them.
“Yea” informs us that just as the Shepherd leads us down paths of righteousness, He also leads us into the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes the paths of righteousness lead into death.
What is death?
Death is a valley.
Death is like a valley. It is not a wall, pit or cliff. It’s a valley. The good news about valleys is that they open up broadly into new lands. Valleys are a common feature of all beautiful landscapes and always lead somewhere. They always open up. That’s the thing about valleys – they are “through” passages. It’s not a dead-end trail. It’s a valley.
As we think about valleys, we must think about the children of Israel at the Red Sea. It sure didn’t seem like a valley. It looked like a dead-end. They were trapped on a shore, the Egyptians behind them and a massive Red Sea in front of them. But the same God that led them in will lead them out in a miraculous way. He will do the same for you.
What would life be like without any valleys? There wouldn’t be a mountain top. You can’t have a mountain without a valley. There would be no summit. We would only live in the flatlands. No highs and lows.
Yet, the only way out of the valley is through it. If you’re in a valley, keep walking. In a valley, we want to lie down. But we are to lie down in green pastures, not dark valleys. If we lie down nothing will change. But if we keep walking, eventually we will come through. No valley goes on forever.
Often, we wish God would air-lift us out of the valleys we are in. But there is much to gain by going through the valley. The valley is usually the best path to the mountain top. Valleys are often well-watered routes. It is in the valley that we find refreshment from God Himself.
Death is a shadow.
This is not called the “valley of death”. There is a Death Valley in California. But this is the valley of the “shadow” of death. There’s a difference. For a believer in Jesus, death is a shadow.
Three things to remember about shadows:
- Shadows are always bigger than reality. Just like a man 5 ½ feet talk can cast a 12 foot shadow, our fear of the problem is always greater than the problem itself.
- Shadows cannot hurt you. There’s a difference between being run over by the shadow of a truck, and being run over by the truck itself. Shadows are an image without substance. They can scare you but they can’t hurt you.
- There’s not a shadow without a light somewhere. The light of God will never disappear from your life. Don’t look at the shadow. Look instead at the light, and the shadow will fall behind you.
Death is an enemy.
David does not say “There will be no evil.” He just says he will “fear no evil.” The Shepherd does not make evil go away. In fact, a shadow lets us know that there is a reality causing the shadow – Death. But death is not the ultimate destination as we go through this valley. But death is a valley we all must face. However, because Jesus faced the reality of death, we only face the shadow of death.
There are experiences other than death that are dark and fearful. Some valleys we go through can be far worse than death. Disease, disability, legal problems, financial pressures, loved ones in crisis, war, children in trouble, marriage on the ropes, loneliness, addiction, depression, terminal disease, old age. Any time of sorrow or grief or trouble is a valley of the shadow of death.
What David says is he “will not fear it.” While shadows cannot hurt you, you can be afraid of it. I won’t pretend for a minute that the valley isn’t dark and difficult. I won’t pretend to have an easy answer to the question, “Why must this happen to me?” I can only say that it happens to us all. We all will go through the valley of the shadow of death. But we don’t have to be afraid it.
We live in fearful times, stoked by a 24/7 media that makes tragedies from around the world part of our everyday experience. Perhaps not since World War 2 has a generation been exposed to such uncertainty and fear. You may not be able to control the valley, but you can control your response. You don’t need to be afraid.
Death is an opportunity.
Did you notice the change in the pronoun in this verse of Psalm 23? Up to this point, the psalmist has spoken of his Lord in the third person: “He”. But now, as he comes into the shadows, he talks to him by saying, “Thou art with me.” The rest of the psalm becomes an intimate conversation. This is the secret of getting through the valley – get personal in your relationship with God. The valley gives us an opportunity to get closer to Jesus and get to know Him better.
The shepherd doesn’t send us into the valley. Our shepherd walks with us through the valley, so that He can protect us from the evil that lurks there. Could it be that the Lord brought us to this valley and is walking with us through it so we can be closer to Him? …so we can hear His voice and feel His presence and all fear is removed? Dark valleys make God more real to us than ever before.
Thou art with me! This sentiment is more about faith than it is about courage. I do not fear because the Lord is present. I do not fear because I have faith in God. Fear is a choice.
So what can you do?
- Get close to Jesus. If you’ve been told the Christian life is an easy life, you were lied to. It is full of dark, scary valleys. Expecting the world to treat you fairly is like expecting the lion not to eat you because you are vegetarian. God doesn’t promise life will be fair. But He does promise He will be with you.
- Don’t be afraid. Trust Jesus. Life is bumpy. So let every jolt along the way simply confirm that you are still on the right road. For all the power that evil has, it doesn’t have the power to make you afraid. Trust God.
- Don’t remain in the shadow. I’ve known people who went into a valley and never made it through to the place where the sun could shine on them again. Why did they stay? In some cases, they felt they deserved it. Others enjoyed the care others gave them in the valley and continued to receive sympathy. Some just got comfortable in the valley and forgot it was possible to live anywhere else. Like if they continued, they left behind their loved one. But the loved one would want them to continue through the valley. The valley is not something we get over, but it’s something we get through. The same love that makes the death of a person hurt so much is the love that can keep us walking through the valley. The valley is a temporary lodging, not a permanent home.
- Bring comfort to others in their valley. The words “I will fear no evil for thou art with me” are the Bible’s clearest response to the question of why bad things happen to good people. God does not explain; God comforts. You can’t explain away the valley. But you can be with someone.
“Thou art with me” This is a good elevator speech about what it means to be a Christian. Suppose you are standing in an elevator going to the 3rd floor of a building. A stranger gets in and presses #4. He says, “I see you have a cross on your jacket (or necklace). I’ve always wanted to ask, as a Christian, what do you believe?” You have 10 seconds. I don’t recommend reciting the Apostles Creed. You don’t have time to tell your salvation story or go down the “Romans Road” quoting Bible verses. But suppose you answered, “I believe that through Jesus Christ, I am never alone.” As the door opens and you exit slowly, you finish, “In other words, God is always with me. Thanks for asking.” That’s not a bad response.
The Apostle Paul writes the same thing most memorably at the end of Romans 8. He writes, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). God is always with us.