“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
Whole books could be written on just this one verse, and maybe they have. Let’s just look at two elements of this verse.
“The Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
That sounds rather ominous to me. Something we all would avoid with all our strength. But as we go through life, I think we find that as much as we would like to avoid this valley, we cannot. “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” can be different things to different people. We cannot avoid “the Shadow of Death” which, for some, can mean cancer, the death of someone we love, the loss of a job, the failure of a marriage, terrorist attacks, or natural catastrophes. Jesus told us that “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) But Jesus immediately follows this up with “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” That is definitely good news! And this is why it is a Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is not Death itself because Death has been defeated, rendered powerless. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross destroyed death. Yet the shadow of death still hangs over everything we do, because we will still physically die. And shadows can be very powerful.
As a kid I enjoyed trips to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. One of the exhibits was a light experiment. It had a bunch of things that looked like light bulbs but inside each was a little thing that had four “vanes” with white on one side and black on the other. When a light shone on these things they spun – the brighter the light the faster they spun. But when a shadow blocked the light, they stopped spinning. Yes, light is very powerful and shadows can be devastating to light. But shadows do not destroy it.
We walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and it is very hard for us, painful sometimes. But Death itself cannot touch us because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. And it is helpful to remember that when walking through a shadow, light has to be shining, shadows don’t occur without light. The Light of Christ is shining, even though Death may cast its shadow at times.
The other thing I want to look at from this verse is the phrase “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” When I think of “rod” I think of the Proverb that says, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” A “rod” is an instrument of discipline. Not an instrument of pain, so much, or punishment, but discipline. Some lessons are hard. They may involve pain. But the lessons that God teaches us with His rod are comforting for this reason. If God were an impersonal God who didn’t care a whit about us, why would He waste time disciplining us? But the fact that He does love us so much that He sacrificed His only Son Jesus to save us from our sins shows that when we face trouble or hardship or pain, we can see that God uses it to teach us. At the very least it shows us how much He loves and cares for us.
A shepherd’s staff is used to keep sheep in the fold. That’s the idea here. Sometimes the sheep have to be rapped on the rump to keep them in the fold and sometimes that is what happens to us. Sometimes God needs to get our attention and sometimes He does it in painful ways.
Yet God indeed loves us. Only a God who loves us deeply would go out of His way to get our attention the way He does. And only a God who loves us deeply would send Jesus to live and die to save us from our sins.