The Lord’s care in death (v. 4)
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 tranquillity 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.’
4 In contrast with the joyous experiences of the sheep (1–3), the pilgrim pathway traverses harsher terrain. Shadow of death is really ‘deepest darkness’ which includes, of course, the darkness of death. But in these experiences the he of vs 1–3 becomes the you, significant of closer personal touch, and the leader (2) comes alongside (with me). The darker the shadow, the closer the Lord! And he brings every strength, rod and staff. The duplication denotes completeness. Rod (Lv. 27:32) possibly signifies protection; staff, possibly, support (Ex. 21:19).
23:4. The fourth blessing from the Lord’s leading is protection. If one finds himself in a valley of deep darkness (or shadow of death), he need not fear. The Lord is with him and will protect him. The rod and staff are the shepherd’s equipment to protect the sheep in such situations. David was comforted by the Lord’s presence and protection. Believers are never in situations the Lord is not aware of, for He never leaves or forsakes His people (cf. Heb. 13:5).
23:4 And we need not be afraid of death. In the valley of the shadow of death there is no need to fear, because the Shepherd is right there with us. The sting of death is sin—sin unconfessed and unforgiven. But Christ has robbed death of its sting for the believer. He has put away our sins once for all. Now the worst thing that death can do to us is really the best thing that can happen to us! Thus we can sing:
O death, O grave, I do not fear your power;
The debt is paid.
On Jesus in that dark and dreadful hour
Our sins were laid.
—Margaret L. Carson
It is true that Christians may have a certain foreboding about the suffering that so often accompanies death. As one old saint was overheard to say, “I don’t mind the Lord taking down my tent, but I hope He takes it down gently!”
It is also true that we usually do not get dying grace until we need it. But the fact still remains that death has lost its terror for us because we know that dying means going to be with Christ—and this is far better. “To die is gain.”
The Shepherd’s rod and staff are sources of comfort, protection, and guidance. Whenever necessary He may use the rod for correction also. Most sheep need this ministry from time to time.
23:4 The valley of the shadow of death can refer to any distressing time in our lives. The awareness of our own mortality often comes with sickness, trials, and hardship. But the Lord, our Protector, can lead us through these dark and difficult valleys to eternal life with Him. There is no need to fear death’s power (1 Cor. 15:25–27). You are with me: The Good Shepherd is with us even in what seem the most difficult and troubling situations. Your rod and Your staff: Ancient shepherds used the rod and staff to rescue, protect, and guide the sheep. Thus, they become symbols of the Good Shepherd’s loving care over His flock. The sheep are not alone, their Shepherd is standing over them, guiding them into safety—just as the Lord stands over us and protects us.
23:4 the valley of the shadow of death. Phraseology used to convey a perilously threatening environment (cf. Job 10:21, 22; 38:17; Pss 44:19; 107:10; Jer 2:6; Lk. 1:79). Your rod and Your staff. The shepherd’s club and crook are viewed as comforting instruments of protection and direction, respectively.
23:4 The shadow of death may be the shadow that death casts, or it may be, as the ESV footnote has it, “deep darkness.” Perhaps the idea is that in a valley in the desert (or wadi) in Judah one can encounter deep shadows, and cannot know for sure who (bandits) or what (animals, flash floods) lurks in them; even in such periods of suspense and danger, the faithful find assurance that God is with them, and thus they need not fear.
23:4 a dark valley The psalmist acknowledges that life will not always be characterized by green pastures and quiet waters (v. 2). He will walk through darkness or gloom (107:10; Job 10:22).
evil The Hebrew word used here, ra’ah, can refer to harm or trouble (Job 2:10). Even in difficult times, the psalmist will not fear any harm.
you are with me The psalmist does not fear because of Yahweh’s presence, which protects him from harm (Psa 138:7; Isa 43:2).
Your rod and your staff Tools used by shepherds to guide sheep. Having sheep pass under a rod was a way of counting them (Lev 27:32). Here, the rod symbolizes Yahweh’s protection and care. Elsewhere, it serves as a symbol of divine discipline (Ps 89:32; 2 Sam 7:14).
 Ellsworth, R. (2006). Opening up Psalms (pp. 48–50). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Motyer, J. A. (1994). The Psalms. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 500). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
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 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 580–581). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
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