Through The Valley
“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.”—Psalm 23:4
As we picture a day in the life of a sheep, we see the sheep entering a time of darkness and shadows. The word though suggests to me that it may not happen. It is not when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, rather though. But is not death the most certain thing about life? No necessarily, for in 1 Thessalonians 4 we read of that great moment when our Lord Himself shall come again. It is thrilling to know that when the Lord will come back there are those who will never pass through the valley. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to travel to heaven on the cemetery by-pass road!
But if that is not for us, let us look at this word though. If we do go through the valley, then you can be sure that every provision is made for us there by the Shepherd of the sheep. I believe the valley here refers to every dark experience through which we pass on the journey, as well as death. God’s overall plan for His people, you see, is to prepare them for service in glory. And so the dark places in life have their purpose and meaning as they get us ready for that which is the ultimate purpose of God.
Follow the sheep into this valley and look at the place. A shepherd will only allow the sheep to go there at evening. In the daytime it is a place of intense, suffocating heat and he takes them there in the evening when it is cool. Thus it is a fearsome place, one from which the sheep would shrink instinctively because of its dark shadows, its overbearing rocks and trees and foliage. But they tell me that sheep go quite calmly into the valley as long as the shepherd is there.
What is this valley in the experience of a child of God? The margin of the RV suggests this: “though I walk through a valley of deep darkness.” You don’t have to wait until you die to do that. I am sure everyone of us can look back to such a valley of deep darkness through which God has already brought us. It could be a valley of sorrow, the times when this can be shattering in life and leave us bereft and alone. Or the valley could be pain. Sometimes the Lord takes us through this dark valley of pain to know the truth of the words of Jesus when He said to His disciples, “Thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.” Maybe it is the valley of fear. How many people are in darkness because of fear. Afraid of circumstances; afraid of people; afraid of the future; afraid because there are so few people they can trust. They are just afraid. Others go through the dark valley of misunderstanding where everything they say is misconstrued or misrepresented. What a dark valley that is. To some it is the valley of loneliness. Lonely, even though they are always in a crowd. It is not as if they are out miles from anywhere, but the greatest loneliness of all is to be alone in the crowd. To some people it is the dark valley of frustration. Nothing has gone right, everything seems to have gone wrong until they have gotten into a valley of absolute depression.
We don’t have to wait for death until God puts us through a valley of deep darkness. And I’ve found this about such a valley: it is often darker because we try to find an easier way out and try to escape. Remember in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his fellow traveler thought Bypath Meadow was a lovely place—but when they hopped over the fence and got into it they found it was disastrous. Here is a place to which God leads His sheep: into some valley of darkness, of loneliness. And the thing that God is watching all the time is the reaction of the sheep to the valley.
What is our reaction when we enter a dark valley? What is the reaction of the sheep when it goes through the darkness, through the valley of the shadow? It is peace. I find that a strange atmosphere in this verse and it thrills me the more I read it. The strange sort of quietness of the atmosphere, the calm of it all. Peace in the inward heart: “I will fear no evil.” If you could feel the pulse of that sheep, if you could put your hand on its heart, you would find that both pulse and heart were beating steadily. No panic; the sheep is absolutely calm. Contrast these two verses in the Bible: Psalm 56:3 and Isaiah 12:2. Psalm 56:3, “What time I am afraid I will trust in thee.” In other words, in spite of my fears, in spite of my tremblings, I will trust and obey. Trust in the Lord and do the thing that frightens you. Take your stand for Jesus, terrifying as it may seem. Face the threat of what may happen if you are true to Him. To be frightened about what is going to happen—but to do it and to trust Him—that is wonderful.
There is something else thrilling. Here is not only inward peace, but a sense of outward bearing that conveys peace. “Though I walk through.” I would not be surprised if that sheep had to be dragged through; I would not even have been surprised if it had to be drugged and brought through unconscious. I would rather have expected it to run as fast as it could or at least to trot through hurriedly. But I find that it walked. Peace in my heart means peace in my demeanor, in my manner. So often it is the reverse. So often we reveal by our outward panic the inward storms. I believe that to walk through a world like this in days like these with peace on your face and calm in your manner, especially when going through a deep valley of darkness, is to bear evidence that God is absolutely real and that the greatest reality of life is Jesus Christ. It is a tremendous testimony to the glory of God. The secret is in Philippians 4:6-7: “Be careful for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Be careful for nothing, be prayerful for everything, and be thankful for anything that happens. That is the secret of peace—not the kind of peace that everybody can understand, because it is independent of circumstances, but outward peace.
But the sheep had something more: “Though I walk through the valley.” A forward look of peace. This valley is not the end. There is an exit from it as well as an entrance into it. And God never takes any of us into any dark valley but that there is a way in and there is a way out. However long it may be, eventually the sheep is going to get through. You never find a tunnel on a sideline; tunnels are always on the main line, leading somewhere. You go through a tunnel; it is not the end. There are twin rails called trust and obey that take you through the tunnel. The trouble with most Christian people is that when they get into the tunnel they get right off the rails. They start to doubt God. “Why should this happen to me? I might as well give up my religion and testimony.” How sad it is when people go like that. But how wonderful it is when God puts you into a tunnel just to grip right hold of those rails and the Shepherd leads you through. The sheep never doubts because it knows the shepherd will take it through and therefore it has forward peace.
This does not all happen by accident, but for a reason. There is one little word that is the key to the whole thing. This wonderful verse turns on the pivot of the word for.“For thou art with me.” What is the reason for this peace in the darkness of the valley? It is the presence of the shepherd. The Lord as Shepherd does not cease to lead us because we get into a valley. Remember the Mount of Transfiguration and immediately after it the valley. Mark 9:9 says, “they came down,” Peter, James, and John. But was that all? Behind them was the glory of that experience on the mountain, before them was the perplexity of the valley, the demon-possessed boy. That was a comedown! But you see, beside them was Jesus. His presence was the answer. He did not leave them to face it alone.
Have you been going through a valley of darkness in some area of your life? Here, then, is the secret of that sense of inward peace and outward demeanor, that forward look of confidence. Because right in the valley, “Thou art with me.” Look at one or two things here. The shepherd’s crook: “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” The staff is a big, long, strong implement with a curved head, a round crook at the end. The shepherd never travelled without this in his hand. If the sheep got a bit careless in the journey, a tap from the staff would remind it that it was getting into danger. If it got into real trouble, then that crooked end would be the thing that would be held out to rescue the sheep and pull it back again. It is a tremendous comfort to know the Shepherd has the crook in His hand. Sometimes the Lord, very quietly, gives you a tap when you become careless. Maybe you have been getting into trouble and He has put out the staff to bring you back to Himself. What a comfort it is to know that the Shepherd always has the staff.
He has something else too: he has a rod. The Eastern shepherd’s rod is a formidable looking thing. It has a great round head made of strong, heavy oak with nails sticking out of it all over. The staff speaks to me of the gentleness of the Shepherd. The rod speaks to me of the authority and power of the Shepherd. In the New Testament the rod is used three times in the Book of Revelation concerning our Lord. “He shall rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). I think you and I have to recognize that as we are sheep and He is our Shepherd, not only has He the staff to comfort, but He has the rod to rule. And the Shepherd who cares for His flock has sovereign rights over every one of them. They belong to Him, they are His.
This rod speaks to me of His sovereign choice. Do you know how sheep were selected for sacrifice in the Old Testament? Look at Leviticus 27:32: “Concerning the tithe of the herd or of the flock, even of whatsoever passeth under the rod, the tenth shall be holy unto the Lord.” Picture it this way: Here are all the sheep in a great pen. They have all been put into this enclosure. There is a narrow entrance and the shepherd stands here with his rod in his hand. As the sheep come out of the pen, one by one, he takes his rod with its nails, dipped in some kind of material that stains and marks, and every tenth sheep, as it passes by, he touches with his rod on its head and it goes out from that pen branded, marked for sacrifice. That is what Paul means when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ.” I have been branded, marked the rest of my life for sacrifice. That is the Christian. You and I are not here to play around with Christianity—here just to patronize the church and attend the services. We are here to be men and women branded by Jesus as His own, for the rod that marks is His sovereignty, His right to rule.
One last word concerns the shepherd’s company: “for thou art with me.” Notice an interesting thing: up to this point in the psalm the shepherd has been referred to as he. But now in this valley of deep darkness and for the rest of the psalm it is no longer he but thou. I think the sheep has become more intimate with the shepherd in the valley of darkness. And I think it has taken some of these valleys that we dread and from which we have often sought an easy way out to make us intimate with Jesus. Enoch and Noah lived among ungodliness, but they walked with God. All through those days they had peace because they walked with Him, and you and I may walk through every dark place with Jesus like that.
To sum it all up, there are two words that I put together in this verse and I find myself going over them again and again. They are: though thou. To link these together somehow makes this verse real in my heart. Put them together yourself; get them into your mind and into your soul.