For the background of this verse, which depicts a scene of fearful danger for the sheep, opinions differ whether “the valley of the shadow of death” is a figure of speech for death or an actual valley in the Holy Land. There is, apparently, a deep ravine, which was known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, lying south of the robber-infested road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This narrow and winding valley, about 4½ miles long, with precipitous cliffs towering up some 1, 500 feet high in places on both sides, was only 10 or 12 feet wide at the bottom. Travel through the valley was made dangerous by gullies, some 7 or 8 feet deep, which crossed the path.
On account of climatic and grazing conditions, shepherds took their flocks through this valley for seasonal feeding each year, and this was an arduous task. In many places, a firm foothold on solid rock was so narrow that sheep were unable to turn round, and so, according to an unwritten law among shepherds, it is said that the flocks were led up the valley in the morning and down towards the evening, to avoid a disastrous clash between two flocks meeting in a narrow defile.
Added to the difficult terrain of this valley, there were dangers from robbers hiding in caves and waiting to molest or attack a passing flock of sheep. As sheep are terrified of death, the robbers’ favourite trick was to throw a carcase into a flock of sheep, causing them to scatter in fear, and then they became easy prey for the thieves.
“Though I walk through says the sheep upon entering this fearful valley. Not the preposition “into”, which contains the thought of remaining, was used, but wisely the preposition “through”, expressing the prospect of coming “out of’. The valley was not a destination for the sheep, but a means of access from one pasture to another, chosen by the shepherd.
With the shadow of death lurking around the corner from either the hazardous path or the hidden robbers, the sheep as a timid and easily frightened animal could have said fearfully, “I am afraid”. Instead, he turns to his Shepherd and says courageously, “I will fear no evil”. Fear is very real to many of us, particularly when passing through a gloomy valley. One may argue against fear. Another may deride it. Someone else may try and shame it. But all such attempts will be in vain.
“The fear of man”, that inward feeling of timidity, “bringeth a snare”, Prov. 29. 25, but an equally great snare is “the praise of men”, John 12. 43. The fear of man can affect our spiritual well-being as it did Joseph of Arimathaea, who kept his discipleship secret and did not make it known to others, 19. 38.
To some believers, “the fear of death” is very real and it keeps them in bondage, but Christ, through death, has triumphed over the devil who had the power of death, Heb. 2. 14f, and so there is no reason to be afraid of it.
If we tend to be fearful, we need to remember that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear”, 2 Tim. 1. 7, and “perfect love casteth out fear” 1 John 4. 18, meaning that as the love of God is perfected in us, no room is left for fear.
In that fearful valley, this fearless sheep adds confidently, “for thou art with me”. Before proceeding further with this fourth verse, we may now note the change in the personal pronouns used. In the previous verses, the Shepherd is spoken of in the third person, but in this and the following verses the Shepherd is spoken to in the second person. In the green pastures where divine provision is the leading thought, it was enough to use the personal pronoun “He” four times of the Shepherd. Now with the risk of death in that dreadful valley followed by danger from enemies in the next verse, there was the need to draw near to the Shepherd-Guide, using the closer form of address, “Thou”, three times. Under a clear sky with everything proceeding smoothly, we may content ourselves with talking about the Lord. When clouds darken the sky, and when adversities overtake us, we hasten to speak to the Lord.
Knowing the perils and the dangers of the valley, the sheep, looking up into the eyes of the Shepherd, says confidently, “I will fear no evil”, giving his reason with emphasis upon the personal pronoun, “for thou art with me”. Reassured by the presence of the Shepherd, the sheep no longer feared the robbers’ evil intentions. Although this frightful valley is not actual for us as it was for the sheep, we sometimes pass through a dark valley. How do we react? The natural reaction in the valley of pain is resentment; in the valley of calamity, despair; in the valley of bereavement, rebellion. If it is the valley of pain, or the valley of calamity, or the valley of bereavement, or even some other valley, we should be able to turn to the Lord and say, “Thou art with me”, for He is nearby and just at hand, knowing that He will never leave nor forsake us. Down in a dark valley, we need to be persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth can separate us from Christ or from His strong grasp of love for us.
How did Joseph react in the valley of the shadow of death? For refusing to satisfy the lusts of a wicked woman, this innocent young man was cast into a dark Egyptian dungeon, not knowing whether deliverance would one day come or death would be his lot, “But the Lord was with Joseph”, Gen. 39. 21. In spite of death stalking through the gaol, Joseph was not despondent, because he knew that the Lord was with him in the dungeon.
Think of David! He said, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there”, Psa. 139. 8 R.V. It mattered not whether he was in the heights of heaven, the abode of God, or in the depths of Sheol, the waitingplace for the Old Testament saints; he was not alone, but he was assured of the presence of His God. Irrespective of location or conditions, we, like David, should realize that the Lord is with us.
Imprisoned at Rome and at the time of his defence before the imperial tribunal, Paul said “no man stood with me, but all men forsook me … Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me”, 2 Tim. 4. 16f. Forsaken, but not forgotten, for the Lord was with him. Although we may be forsaken by man, we are not forsaken by the Lord, for He is always at our side.
This fourth verse continues “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. A shepherd’s equipment was simple: a rod and a staff, otherwise a club and crook respectively, both of which differed in size and purpose. Both were needed in this dangerous valley or elsewhere in rugged countryside.
A shepherd’s rod or club was about two feet long with a knob and iron spikes driven into it at the end. If a lion, bear or some other wild beast of prey, concealed by boulders or bushes, pounced upon his sheep, the shepherd attacked it with his rod and clubbed it to death. Elsewhere, David recalls his personal experience of rescuing a lamb from a lion’s mouth, and on another occasion defending his father’s sheep from an attacking bear, 1 Sam. 17. 34f. The shepherd’s rod afforded protection, and gave comfort to the sheep in the hour of danger.
As the flock of God, we have an adversary the devil, who is not merely an influence of evil, as some allege, but a person. This unseen opponent is always ready to oppose and accuse us, and “as a roaring lion, (he) walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”, 1 Pet. 5. 8. This metaphorical description of our enemy is indeed forceful, for he is depicted not as a lion dozing but roaring as any lion does with pangs of hunger, and he roams around seeking someone to seize and decimate. In such circumstances, the two-fold watchword to us is: “Be sober”, in the sense of being free from intoxicating influences that make us spiritually drowsy; “be vigilant”, that is, be watchful and keep awake, involving spiritual alertness. “Whom resist”, says Peter, meaning we should not succumb to the devil, but oppose and withstand his onslaught, standing firm in the faith.
The shepherd’s staff, or crook, was about 6 feet long, and it had several uses. In the rainy season, the shepherd crossed a stream dry-shod by placing his staff in the middle and leaping over it. Other times, he used its hook to recover a straying sheep caught in a thicket; cf. Gen. 22. 13.
Sometimes we may have strayed or stumbled through our own folly and sin, finding ourselves in peril and separated from the flock of God, but the Great Shepherd searches for us, seeks us out and extricates us with His staff. Although Ezekiel 34. f2 is prophetic of Israel’s regathering, it is illustrative of our Shepherd’s search for us: “As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered, so will I seek my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day”. Not permitting us to be overwhelmed and lost, our loving Shepherd patiently seeks us out, recovering us with His crook.
It was in the Valley of the Shadow of Death that the shepherd required his staff. According to one writer, about half-way through the valley, an 8-foot gully cuts across the path. Here, the path on one side of the gully was about 18 inches higher than the other, and so the shepherd stood on one side and coaxed his sheep to jump across. If a sheep slipped into the gully, the shepherd put the hook of his staff around the animal’s neck and hauled it back to safety.
No wonder the sheep said to his Shepherd, “thy rod and thy staff comfort me”. To the sheep, the Shepherd’s rod was a symbol of defence against a possible attack from a wild beast; the Shepherd’s staff was emblematic of help for the sheep in a precarious position. Both the rod and staff brought comfort to the sheep when passing through this dreaded valley.
With the green pastures and still waters left behind, we find ourselves passing through a valley of gloom. It was in the valley where the Shepherd’s rod and staff brought comfort to the sheep. Our comfort in not material but spiritual.
There is “the comfort of the Holy Ghost”, in which persecuted believers of the early church walked, and it is available for us in the valley of persecution or affliction, Acts 9. 31. As the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is ever at our side, imparting strength, encouragement and support, and so giving us comfort as we pass through.
The “comfort of the scriptures” has, of course, been the experience of many godly souls, Rom. 15. 4. There is a tendency to restrict ourselves to the New Testament, but this verse shows that the Old Testament Scriptures, so often neglected, are of permanent and binding value. As we imbibe the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, then in the hour of weakness and exhaustion down in the valley of depression, we are supported by the comfort derived from the Scriptures, and such comfort animates and empowers us to press forward.
Another is the “comfort of love”, Phil. 2. 1. True, the word “comfort” used here (occurring nowhere else) is different from that in the other two references, and it contains the thought of “a stimulating force”. In the valley of loneliness, we feel alone and unwanted, nobody caring for us, but the love of Christ, a divine force, stimulates, bringing comfort to us.
From these scriptures, we may deduce that the Lord comforts us in affliction and tribulation, but we are then responsible to comfort others, who are burdened and troubled; cf. 2 Cor. 1. 4, even as certain fellowworkers had been “a comfort unto me”, says the apostle Paul, as he suffered imprisonment in Rome, Col. 4. 11.
(To be continued)
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