Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
Psalm 23 is perhaps the most known and memorized psalm out of all the 150 psalms in the Bible, no? There are no lack of analyses and exegeses on it by various scholars, preachers, and laymen alike. It is perhaps rather unfair to break up such a poetic psalm and study it in verses – each verse in this psalm is so closely linked to the others. But it is precisely because this psalm is such a landfill of treasure, that it makes more sense for me to study it verse by verse – not as each separate and individual verse, but in the context of the entire psalm and in reference to the entire Bible.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley – Some versions render this ‘the valley of the shadow of death’, which is perhaps more detailed and precise in this context – it is the darkest valley, no doubt, but it is also one where you can see and feel the shadow of death. The phrase the shadow of death has also been used in several other places in the Bible – Job was especially fond of using the phrase, and it has appeared in a few psalms and in Jeremiah – this trend shows a lot, no? They were people who were in the midst of great suffering, people who found themselves on a path gloom and grief, with the future seemingly dark and dangerous. People who found themselves in solitude, abandoned and alone. What is the valley of the shadow of death? It certainly does suggest death, but on top of that, perhaps sorrow, suffering, danger, solitude and so on. Treading a path through a valley alone is no easy feat. Add to that the darkest valley, where you don’t know what your feet will land on next. Do you believe that God will lead you? In the preceding verses, we’ve already been told – he leads me beside quiet waters [Psalm 23:2], and he guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake [Psalm 23:3]. For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end [Psalm 48:14]. It is one thing to know that somebody will lead us when we are afraid and in a difficult path. It is an entirely different thing to know that our guide is capable of leading us out of the valley of the shadow of death. Our God is no blind guide. He leads us with the certainty of leading us out – He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness, and broke away their chains [Psalm 107:14]. It is an absolute assurance for us.
I will fear no evil, for you are with me; – What are some of our current fears? Perhaps the devil, perhaps our enemies. Perhaps of sin. Perhaps of death. Perhaps of the unknown. Well, the unknown probably isn’t quite evil, but there are many things that can be evil. Yet because God is with us – The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? [Psalm 118:6], and because we know that our God is Lord Almighty, creator of the heavens and the earth, he is omnipotent and he is able, and he is certain stronger and more powerful than all that is evil, we don’t have any cause to fear. When we do not know and we cannot see what our feet will land on next, when we do not know where our next step will lead us, when we no longer bear the confidence of finishing our current path safely; we can still make that step without fear, because our God is an awesome God. Doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt, of course, but God will certainly deliver us in his own way. Why is God with us? Psalms 23:6 says Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. It takes that little bit of effort from our side as well. God is there, but we need to go to him. We need to turn to Him. We need to seek him, and we will find him. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze [Isaiah 43:2].
your rod and your staff, they comfort me – some have suggested that there is an element of chastisement and correction or judgement in the idea of the rod and the staff, especially the former; though we haven’t really got any evidence in the Bible where this term is used to refer to the rod of punishment. Furthermore, the rod of chastisement would not seem to fit in a verse that speaks of suffering and pain; and it would provide little comfort, contrary to what the psalmist said.
You ought to know that Psalm 23 uses the analogy of the Shepherd very heavily, especially the first half of it – well it’s rather blatantly used in the first verse too – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want [Psalm 23:1]. Hence, it is with the context of shepherding that we will look at the rod and the staff – it has been suggested that the rod is what the Shepherd uses as a crook – to guide his sheep, to defend against predators and pests; while the staff is what the Shepherd uses to walk, to lean on, to rest on [Micah 7:14]. If we follow along this explanation, we can say that God’s words are our rod; and provided strength and guidance; while God’s promises are his staff, which We can depend on, and gives us hope. We can find great comfort in them. In John 10:1-18 Jesus spoke about the idea of shepherding – I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep [John 10:11]. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— [John 10:14]. Indeed, what more can we ask for? A shepherd who knows us – and whom we know, and who is willing to lay down his life for us – what does this mean? It means we are absolutely secure in his watch. We will be led to green pastures, we will be led through the dark valleys, we will eat a lot, we will grow fat, and we will be guarded from the predators that wants to eat us.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
There are probably a million tunes to how this psalm has been sung over the years. I’m not going to offer you a specific one, because I’m sure you have your preferred hymn of Psalm 23. If you don’t have, do find one – it makes memorizing this psalm a lot easier. We all have our own valleys of the shadow of death. What I would consider my own valley of the shadow of death may greatly differ from yours – because we’re different. It’s a path that, at some points in our lives, we’ll have to tread on. When that point comes, I hope we would have learnt how to depend on his rod and his staff as a source of comfort.