Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”
As God enabled David to write this verse, it was not out of sitting in an academic circle of other men who were discussing the pros and cons of God’s ability to protect us, or if there were other linguistic and theological motifs that might better explain how we as human beings deal with issues of fear and uncertainty that we encounter, and which at times can even consume our every waking thought. No, this was something that God had made very real to David through all of the ‘real life experiences of near death encounters’ he had confronted throughout his life. There is indeed an area of life that we must all go through in order for God’s Word to become a reality in our lives, versus merely an intellectual assent we make in agreeing with doctrinal positions of our faith. In other words, the doctrinal expressions of faith must move from a mental confession with our brain through our mouth, to that which becomes a foundational aspect of our very soul and the basis and essence of how we live, move, and function in all areas of our lives. This is what occurred with David in order for him, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to pen this incredibly true and absolutely essential statement of living faith for all who come into a saving relationship with the One, True, Living God through Jesus Christ.
“When I continually walk”
First of all, I prefer the translation, “Also, when I continually walk … ” versus, “Even though I walk … ” because, from my perspective, I am fully convinced that is what David had lived, and he knew he would continue to live and face throughout the remainder of his life as he walked with God in the path God had called him to. This does not mean, however, that this was a daily occurrence for him, but rather it was a continuous and ongoing encounter of events and experiences wherein, metaphorically, “he could not see his hand in front of his face.” The result of these encounters, which were small, as well as large and far reaching, is that fear could consume his thoughts so as to potentially render him in a mental and emotional paralyzed state, which is what can happen to all of us.
At that point, he would be tempted to strike out on his own in order to deliver himself from such perceived danger, versus trusting in God and waiting upon His promised deliverance. The former always produces even more fear and anxiety, which can also lead to an all consuming, unabated, emotional grasping for self-deliverance. This in turn can of itself become an emotional addiction that never brings genuine deliverance and peace, but rather a deep enslavement to fear and its control of one’s life. On the other hand, the latter, which is trusting God and waiting upon His promised deliverance, will bring genuine deliverance and peace. However, for that to occur, one MUST first go through “the valley of the shadow of death,” holding on to God’s promises by faith, committed to the death to not give into fear anymore, but rather to really trust in God and His promised provision, deliverance, etc. –as the old Baptist hymn puts it, “there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
“The valley of deep, emotional darkness”
Secondly, the phrase, “the valley of the shadow of death,” may be better translated as, “the valley of deep, emotional darkness.” The Hebrew word צַלְמָוֶת (salmawet) is typically translated as “shadow of death,” which is both accurate and good, but the translation that I believe far better presents what David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was trying to convey is “deep, emotional darkness,” which is what the “death-shadow” was –that is, a place where one had no hope or purpose in living anymore, but only “a deep, emotional darkness” enveloped his or her life. The verb from which this noun comes is ַצָלַל (silal), and it has a dual meaning: )1(“to sink down or be submerged”; and )2(“to be or grow dark.” Thus, the “death- shadow” is a metaphor for one sinking into a deep, emotional depression, where there is a metaphorical “emotional darkness” that one “sinks” into, and in so doing, there can at times appear to be no way to come up out of this submersion. This verb is used in Exodus 15:10of the actual “submersion” of the Egyptian troops into the Red Sea as they were pursuing the Israelites: “Thou didst blow with Thy wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters” (Exodus .)15:10The phrase, “they sank,” therefore, is the Hebrew verb ֲצָֽלֲלוּ ָ(salalu), which obviously comes from צָלַל (silal), with the meaning “to submerge.” Thus, the “submersion into emotional darkness” is a very real experience that we as human beings can frequently encounter, but as believers in Christ, Jesus can and will lift us out of that metaphorical “death-shadow” and place us on metaphorical dry, solid ground of spiritual, mental, and emotional health and soundness.
“Fear no evil”
The following statement by David in this verse, however, is the key to the spiritual, mental, and emotional victory we are desiring, and that is, “I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” The phrase, “I fear no evil,” is literally, “I will continually not fear evil,” as the verb “I fear” is in the Qal imperfect, implying an ongoing and continuous action. As I already stated above, the most oft repeated command in the Bible is, “do not fear” and its corollaries (e.g., don’t worry, don’t fret, etc.), and the second most oft repeated command is “trust in the Lord” –they are the antithesis of each other, with the former bringing enslavement and tyrannical oppression, and the latter bringing freedom, peace, and the discovery of one’s true identity as a child of God!
However, it must be stated that to come to that place of not allowing “fear” to rule and control one’s spiritual, mental, and emotional life, which in turn can also affect one’s physical well being, is not an easy thing to do, but through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, He can do it within us! We read the following in Paul’s epistle to Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2Timothy 1:7). Therefore, if “God has not given us a spirit of fear,” then where does it come from? The answer is that it comes from the enemy of our souls, Satan, “a murderer . . .a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Therefore, learning to distinguish between Satan’s lie and God’s truth can only come about as you abide in God’s Word and prayer, and in so doing, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Rod and staff of comfort
God, therefore, has a metaphorical “rod and staff” whereby He “comforts” and protects us as we daily surrender to Him. I say this because His protection and deliverance for us who are His children is conditioned on our surrender to His Lordship of our lives – that is, if we surrender, then we will indeed experience His blessing, but if we choose to do things “our way,” versus following and obeying Him in faith, then we will in turn experience the consequences of our disbelief, which is motivated and coerced by the “fear” that Satan spiritually, mentally, and emotionally assaults us with. That fear is constantly saying, “God cannot help us in this situation,” and, as pointed out above, that is the testing time for us to either believe and trust God to do what He says He will do, or to flail around in fear like a drowning man in the ocean without a life vest.
However, the life vest of God is immediately at hand for us as His children through holding onto the promises of His Word, and we do that by surrendering “daily” to His Lordship over our lives: “And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. 24 “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Therefore, to “lose our life for Jesus’ sake” is to say, “Yes, O Lord, I believe and trust your Word in this situation, and I am going to believe and follow what you say, versus be led by my emotions which are motivated by the fear that You will not keep Your Word, and I in turn need to act independently of You if I am going to survive this situation.” God gives us a choice, and He also enables us to believe and obey Him, but we must make that choice to say, “Yes, O Lord, I choose to believe and trust You”: “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ — that is, the word of faith which we are preaching” (Romans 10:8).