When You Go Through the Valley
On a recent trip to Israel, I had the privilege of walking where Jesus walked. Our group also explored sites and locations of important places and events in the Old Testament. After spending a couple of days in the Jordan River Valley, we headed west toward Jerusalem. We read through the Psalms of Assent as we followed the path Israelite pilgrims took on their yearly visit to the Temple. On the way, we stopped at the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
This valley was one of the main routes travelers took to Jerusalem. It’s a deep canyon of rock, and because it is deep, it is dark. While we were there, a Bedouin shepherd watched over his sheep frolicking on a nearby hillside; their baa’s echoing across the canyon. A sixth century monastery was built right into the canyon walls, at the site where it is believed Elijah was fed by ravens. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is so named because travelers were at risk from the thieves and bandits hiding in the shadowy darkness, looking for people to rob. Wild animals lurked in the shadows as well. It was this road that Jesus referred to in the parable about the Good Samaritan.
The Valleys of Life
The phrase, “valley of the shadow of death,” also occurs in Psalm 23: “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” (v.4). Psalm 23 is a psalm of confidence in God’s care for his people. Just as a shepherd meets the needs of his sheep, the Lord provides for us.
In this psalm, David used the phrase “valley of the shadow of death” metaphorically, yet metaphors are often based on real things. For the Israelite familiar with traveling through a dangerous valley, such as The Valley of the Shadow of Death, it likely helped them identify with the metaphor. They knew what it was like to journey through the darkness, wondering when something or someone would jump out at them from the shadows. To be reminded that God watches over his people would have given them confidence in all their valleys—real or figurative.
While we don’t travel through dark valleys in a physical sense, we understand it in a metaphorical sense. Our dark valleys today might look like physical suffering and chronic pain. We might experience loss and sorrow. We might face persecution in our work or culture. We might go through emotional valleys of doubt, despair, or fear. We might experience temptations to sin from within and without. In all of these valleys, it can feel like we are all alone.
Psalm 23 reminds us that it is God who leads us through the valleys. No valley we face is unexpected. They are placed before us by a sovereign God— for our good and his glory. Sometimes he calls us to walk through those valleys, like the Israelite called to sacrifice at the Temple each year. And like the Israelite pilgrim, we can be certain that communion and worship with God will be the reward for our journey.
Whatever the valley, God is our shepherd and promises to be with us.
God is with Us
This passage describes the shepherd’s rod and staff as a comfort, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” A shepherd was known to carry a staff to use in keeping and guarding his sheep. As our shepherd, God also comforts us with his rod and staff.
He uses his rod to rule: A shepherd used his rod to rule over the sheep. He told them where to go; he was their master who led them from one grazing hill to another. Likewise, God is our ruler; he reigns over all things. He governs our life. He determines where we go. He is the one we look to for guidance and wisdom. When we go through dark valleys, he is the one leading us. As our shepherd, we can trust him to bring us to the other side.
He uses his rod to count: A shepherd often used his rod to count his sheep as they walked by him. Our Father chose us in Christ to be a part of his flock and he knows each of us by name. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). When we wander from God, he goes to whatever lengths necessary to bring us back to him, “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (Matthew 18:12). When we walk through dark valleys, we can rest assured that our shepherd never loses one of his sheep.
He uses his rod to guide: A shepherd used the crook of his rod to pull back sheep when they wandered from the flock. He also used it to chastise them. When they were slow or distracted, he used the rod to prod them. So the Lord does with us. As the writer to Hebrews 12:5-6 said, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Sometimes our dark valleys are places where the Lord brings us for purposes of training or discipline. We can trust that he does so out of love.
He uses his rod to protect: The shepherd also used his rod to protect his sheep from wild animals. God protects us from evil. Some valleys are so dark it seems as though God has forgotten us. It can be tempting to doubt his love and goodness. We can be confident that our shepherd will never leave us or forsake us. There is nothing and no one that can keep us from his love. He will keep us from all evil (see Romans 8:38-39).
Christ and the Valley
All of Scripture points to and is fulfilled in Christ, including Psalm 23. He is the son of David promised in Ezekiel 34, the shepherd who would rule over, provide for, and protect his sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11).
Jesus walked through the valley of the shadow of death before us. We can rest assured that our Savior knows the way through whatever valley we walk. He knows what it is to feel the shadows of death creep over him. He knows what it is to face evil, temptation, enemies, and emotional turmoil. As Spurgeon wrote, “As surely as this Word of God is true, your Lord has felt he chill of the death-shade. There is no gloom of spirit, apart from the sin of it, into which Jesus has not fallen! There is no trouble of soul, or turmoil of heart which is free from sin, which the Lord has not known.”1 Our Savior journeyed through the valley, sacrificed his life on the altar for our sins, and conquered death when he rose from the grave.
Psalm 23 is a comforting psalm, reminding us that we don’t walk through the valleys of life on our own. We have a Good Shepherd who went before us and even now leads us, guides us, and protects us.
1. An excerpt from Charles Spurgeon's sermon "The Valley of the Shadow of Death."
Christina Fox is a graduate of Covenant College and received her Master’s in Counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She serves on the national women’s ministry team of the PCA and is the editor of enCourage. Christina is a conference and retreat speaker and writes for a number of Christian ministries including TGC and Ligonier. She is the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope through the Psalms of Lament and Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish. You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/ChristinaFoxAuthor.