When do you usually hear a reading of the twenty-third psalm? Funerals and deathbeds, right? We have consigned this little gem to those two occasions, probably because of the translation, “the valley of the shadow of death.” Yet, if we had simply done a little study—very little, in fact—instead of just accepting what we always hear and assuming it the beginning and end of the matter, we would have found many other uses for this psalm.
“The valley of the shadow of death” is actually one Hebrew word--tsalmaveth—and it can mean “deep darkness.” It is, in fact, translated that way in the modern versions. Yes, in Job 38:17 it seems to refer to physical death, but in Jer 2:6 it refers to the wilderness wandering, certainly a dark era for the people of God. In Jer 13:16 it refers to the coming destruction and captivity, perhaps their darkest period. In Job 34:22 I am not certain what it refers to, but it certainly isn’t death. This is important because all of us experience times of deep darkness in our lives. To know that God is with us during those times too, not just at death, is a comfort beyond any other.
And do notice this, God is the one leading us to and through this dark place. In fact, coming immediately after “he leads me in paths of righteousness” (literally, “right paths”), this dark place is the right place for me to be. It may be a severe trial, but for some reason I need to be there. It is right for me to be there, and God will lead me “through” it. He will not put me there and leave me there. Even something as severe as losing a child, becoming disabled, or becoming terminally ill, is one He has led me to and through, accompanying me all the way.
But there may well be other kinds of dark places I must go through, and will realize He has been with me when I get out on the other side. That is, if I have remained His faithful servant, trusting in His wisdom and care. As long as He is with me, “I will fear no evil.” It may be that His presence involves correction or discipline (His “rod and staff”), but I know that He loves me and this is the right place for me to be, and that even in this dark place, “goodness and mercy follows me,” that is, “pursues” me. His goodness and mercy are on the hunt for me, even in the dark places--especially in the dark places.
Don’t miss out on the gold in this little treasure chest just because you have heard it all your life. Use it to help you navigate those dark places, with Him as your guiding star. Trust Him, as this particular genre of psalms is called, the Psalms of Trust, or Psalms of Confidence--in God.
You can make it through the dark to a light beyond, which is also implied, for you can’t have a shadow without a light shining somewhere.
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple, Psalm 27:1-4.