by Wesley C. Parker
I don't know how it ever came to be that funerals ended up claiming primary ownership of Psalm 23. There’s no question that the Psalm speaks peace and comfort to us in the midst of death and dying, and we are right to seek that comfort from our good Shepherd there. But what if we’ve so identified “the valley of the shadow of death” (which properly translated is actually just “the valley of deep shadow”) with death and dying, that we’ve missed its intimate connection with what the Psalm teaches us in the previous verse? What if the “valley” of verse four is simply a description of one of the “paths of righteousness” in verse three?
Paths of Righteousness
If we understand “righteousness” as describing God’s holy, moral, sinless perfection, then I think it’s appropriate to see the “paths” that our good Shepherd is leading us on as all the different means God uses to make us look more and more like Him. Recently in our church, we’ve been going through a series on the spiritual disciplines, and you could say Psalm 23:3b is like David’s definition of spiritual discipline. For what is a spiritual discipline but a pathway God leads us to - and we then walk in - that makes us look more and more like Him?
When you move to verse four, however, there seems to be a missing link for us (at least I’ve always missed it), because although David has given no indication as such, we almost always assume he’s no longer talking about paths of righteousness in verse four. So this is how it usually goes:
Paths of righteousness = happy paths through Candyland that God leads us on to make us more like Him.
Valley of shadow of death = dark, scary, difficult paths that God goes with us through, but doesn't actually lead us into.
Light in darkness
If you’re familiar with the Lord of the Rings Series by J. R. R. Tolkien, you may remember the scene in Arundel just before Frodo heads out on his long journey where Galadriel gives Frodo the Star of Eärendil saying, “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” And isn’t that just how it is with light in dark places? When all other lights go out, doesn’t it cause us to gaze all the more intently and desperately on that light to see the next step in front of us?
In John 10:11 Jesus tells us that He is the good Shepherd of Psalm 23. In John 1:4, John calls Jesus “the Light of men” and then goes on to say in verse 5, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (ESV)
All together now
If we see the valley of deep shadow as nothing more than one of the paths of righteousness that our good Shepherd leads us on, then I think that helps us to see purpose behind all the circumstances of life; even the incredibly difficult ones. It should also encourage us to seek out times of distraction free focus on God in His word and through prayer ourselves, as we practice the discipline of silence and solitude.
He is the good Shepherd who leads us and walks with us, even through the dark valley of death. Yet He’s also the same Shepherd who leads us through valleys where all other lights go out so as to train us to fix our gaze all the more intently on Him.