A Study on Psalm 23 #5
v4. 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. (NIV1984)
v4. Even though I walk through the darkest valley… (NRSV)
David’s psalm continues and he declares that even in the most extreme of difficult circumstances he will not fear.
Consider where we have come from in verse three, the shepherd is leading us in right paths. We are following the shepherd, he knows the way, yet we find ourselves in the darkest of valleys. How can this be? This is the dilemma which the Book of Job addresses. Job’s friends essentially expound their understanding of God’s activity in the lives of those who follow him. What they said can be summarised in this way; if you obey God then you will be blessed with worldly success and life will be good, if you do not obey you will suffer under the hand of God, you have abandoned God and he will abandon you. This understanding, as the book of Job goes on to explain, is inaccurate. Even those who are walking with God can experience difficult times, the darkest valley.
I have provided two translations of part of todays verse, both are legitimate and together bring out the shades of meaning in the Hebrew. The point is the direness of the circumstances. Note that David, as the sheep, is helpless to bring comfort to himself. The natural state for the sheep in this situation would be anxiety and fear, possibly to the point of (to mix our metaphors) being caught in the headlights and unable to move (rabbits incase you were wondering). But David says he will not fear and he supplies the reason, ‘…for you are with me…(and) comfort me.’ The presence of the shepherd brings comfort. The rod and staff speak of the fact that the shepherd is equipped to deal with any eventuality. The shepherd has brought me here and even though I may not know where this path leads I am confident that he does and no matter what happens he will remain with me and see me home to the fold. And even if I have taken a wrong turn and got lost on my own he will find me and bring me back to the flock, v3 ‘he brings me back’.
Here is the confidence we have, Emmanuel, God with us, our risen Lord who has had all authority given to him by the Father and who will never leave us or forsake us, he is with us always.
David specifically says that the rod (baton, cudgel) and staff (shepherds crook) comfort him. The rod is a weapon, a means of defence and offence – the shepherd is able to defeat (has defeated Hebrews 2:14-15 and Revelation 5:5-6a & 9) the enemy whether that be the wild beasts of the dark valley or thieves and bandits. Nothing can snatch me out of his hand, he can keep me safe. The staff can be used to guide/direct sheep or even lift lambs in the crook at the top. Mostly though the staff provides a means of support for the shepherd, a mobile ‘post’ upon which he can rest, an aid to help with his footing and balance. The human shepherd knows how to look after his own needs so that he is best able to care for the sheep, not distracted by his own aches and pains, his physical needs. Don’t think that God is distracted and as a consequence is not aware of your need, that he does not see or understand. He see and understands. He is with you, undistracted, fully present, the God of all comfort and an ever present help in times of trouble when we find ourselves in the darkest valley.
But after all this is said we may think to ourselves, ‘I am afraid!’ That’s ok. David needed to be comforted. Anxiety and fear were present, but then he saw the shepherd with his rod and staff and that sight brought comfort to his rising sense of anxiety and fear. When the darkest valley causes us to be anxious and fearful our psalm encourages us to see the Shepherd. Scripture also tells us to bring our anxiety to God in prayer, Philippians 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:7. Praise and worship quiets the voice of the enemy who would seek to exploit our sense of disquiet, Psalm 8:2. In all of this look to the promise of Scripture, our heavenly Father will comfort us in all our trouble, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.
In Exodus 15 we read the Song of Moses. In this passage Moses and the Israelites sing of God’s deliverance from Egypt and the nations. Some of the verses remind me of the verse before us today. Note first the context (I am quoting the NRSV FaithLife Logos Bible Software 8.12):
9The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them (the valley of the shadow of death)… 13“In your steadfast love you (the Shepherd) led the people whom you redeemed; you guided (crook) them by your strength to your holy abode… 16…by the might of your arm (rod), they (the nations) became still as a stone until your people, O Lord, passed by, until the people whom you acquired passed by. 17You brought them in (back to the fold) and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established. 18The Lord will reign forever and ever.”
This is our Shepherd. We will fear no evil because he is with us and in his ability to protect and see us through the darkest valley we find comfort. Amen