Often the phrase “the Valley of the Shadow of Death” is used at funerals. Probably most people think of this phrase meaning death itself. It could even mean to some that when a person dies, they actually do walk through a valley that is shadowed by death.
However, we must put this entire Psalm in proper perspective. David, the writer, was a shepherd before he became king. He wrote these words as a reflection on his experience with sheep. It was his responsibility to see that they were fed, watered, and protected. Sheep have no way to defend themselves nor to provide for themselves. They totally rely on their shepherd for all their needs and safety. Therefore, let us review the Psalm in the perspective of the sheep.
It opens by declaring that the Lord is the shepherd of the flock and that whatever the needs of the flock are will be provided for them.
The sheep enjoy places where they can eat and relax. They do not like to drink water that is moving. That is why verse two says still waters.
The sheep declares that his being relies on the shepherd because he is led on a path that is good since the shepherd chose it. He is then in a place of rest and relaxation even if he has walked many miles to get to this place; he is restored.
We will skip verse four for further explanation later.
Picture the sheep gathered together where they are grazing, but in a place where other animals can bring harm to them. For instance, a wolf or a lion would love to have one of them for dinner. The anointing of oil is a sign that the sheep has been chosen by the Shepherd. No doubt, if one of the sheep were to be injured the oil would be applied to that wound.
Verse six is a compilation of both the animal and the believer. By the sheep following the Shepherd, he will always be in a place of goodness and mercy. By the believer trusting in God, he will likewise be in a place of goodness and mercy so much so that ultimately, he will dwell in the house of God forever.
Now let us return back to verse four.
Skip the first phrase so that we might understand it better.
The sheep, or the believer, has no need to fear any kind of evil or harm because the Shepherd or God is with him. In those days the Shepherd carried a rod and a staff. The rod was used to fight off the animals. The staff was to guide or protect the animals from harm if something should happen to them unawares. For instance, if a sheep would fall into a ditch, the shepherd would use the staff as a hook to pull the animal out safety.
So, you see that should a person or animal in this case be walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, God as the great Shepherd has a means to protect him and to retrieve him from a fall.
If we are to follow the entire theme of this Psalm, we must not take it out of context. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is not death! Like sheep who were grazing in pastures, there was always the danger of death by attacks from an animal. Death loomed over them. Death’s shadow was upon them. Death did not overtake them because they are protected by the Shepherd. The sheep were walking through the pasture where there was a danger of death.
Every single human being is walking through that Valley of the Shadow of Death. Whatever pasture where we might find ourselves, we have God looking out for us, providing for us. The living are the ones that happen to be walking through the valley. In the valleys mountains throw their shadows down early in the day. In the valleys where we all live death is spreading its shadow upon us meaning that it has not claimed us. Take this all to be glorious that as we walk through our own separate valleys, God is with us.