Psalm 23: 4 …. “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.” (ESV)
It is only natural for us to shrink from physical death, which is the separation of body and soul. Death is an intruder into God’s creation. It came into this world as a result of mankind’s sinful rebellion against God. But, as Matthew Henry notes, the terror of the word ‘death’ quickly gives way to ‘four words which lessen the terror’.
shadow A dark shadow may appear to be quite frightening, but it has no real power to harm us. And death, unpleasant and forbidding as it may be, cannot finally do any real harm to the child of God. Henry T. Mahan writes: ‘… Christ has removed the substance of death and only a shadow remains. A shadow is there but cannot hurt or destroy.’
valley While admitting that the valley is ‘deep indeed, and dark, and dirty’, Matthew Henry calls it a fruitful place and concludes that death offers ‘fruitful comforts to God’s people’.
walk David describes his activity in the valley as walking, which is regarded as pleasant and restful.
through How thankful we should be for this word! The valley of death is not the stopping place for the children of God. It is a travelling place. Matthew Henry notes that the saints of God will not get lost in it but will come out safely.
The Lord himself was the basis of David’s peace about death. As David contemplates his death, he sees himself entering a dark valley. Suddenly he is aware that someone else is there in the shadows. It is the Lord himself. As he gazes upon his Lord, David sees that he is carrying a rod and staff. The rod was a heavy club the shepherd used to kill predators, and the staff, a long pole with a crook in one end, used to round up the sheep and to guide them along.
The sight of those instruments causes David to realize that he has absolutely nothing to fear. His shepherd is there to kill the enemies of fear, doubt and guilt and to guide him safely through. The same Lord who was shepherding him through life would shepherd him through death.
It is important to notice the change in personal pronoun as David reflects on his shepherd. In verses 2 and 3, David speaks about his shepherd (notice the fourfold use of ‘he’). But when he comes to the valley of death, David drops the ‘he’ in favour of ‘you’ and ‘your’. He was able to look upon the prospect of death with peace and tranquility because he knew that it would mean meeting his glorious shepherd face to face.
If we would have the same peace about death as David, we must have the same shepherd. We must always keep in mind as we deal with this psalm that it is all predicated upon the opening line: ‘The Lord is my shepherd’.
We cannot have what the shepherd produces without having the shepherd. If we want to enjoy the full measure of David’s peace, we must have the full measure of his faith. We must recognize that we desperately need a shepherd. We must recognize that only God can rightly shepherd us. And we must wholeheartedly turn to God, renouncing our reliance on ourselves and on any other shepherds.
On the basis of what David says about death in this psalm, Matthew Henry writes: ‘A child of God may meet the messengers of death and receive its summons with a holy security and serenity of mind.’