Some realities can become so familiar that we no longer see them. The painting fixed firmly on the living room wall eventually vanishes. What is well-known is not always well-beheld.
So it can be with David’s masterpiece in Psalm 23. The beloved lyrics hang in the living room of the Church, but we can fail to see it after a time. We see it upon so many coffee cups with picturesque backgrounds that we can be left seeing a cliché instead of God-inspired comfort. Without another backdrop — one often not serenely depicted — the peace that this beloved psalm promises remains unseen.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever. (Psalm 23:1–6)
Consider all the terrain in the journey. Staring at the Psalm anew, we consider all is not calm streams and green pastures. David writes, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” This is the valley of deep darkness. A valley concealing bandits and predators. A valley where enemies lurk disguised, and fear taunts the imagination — not a scene for coffee cups. But it is in comfort’s invasion of even this place that makes the psalm the most beloved throughout history.
Consider who leads there. We do not often consider who leads us into the valley. This path of deathly shadows was not self-chosen. The sheep, sheepish as they are, do not walk willingly into unlit places. They aren’t a lion to be so careless; dark paths are where sheep die. So how did David end up walking there of all places? His Shepherd led him.
Christ, the good Shepherd, lays us down in green pastures, leads beside still waters, and guides us through dark valleys. How important to realize this. When life overwhelms us, we are tempted to believe that — if we were truly his — we would never travel into such places. But David thinks otherwise. When he writes, “I shall fear no evil for you are with me,” David does not see a Shepherd scratching his head wondering where they took a wrong turn. David trusts that his Shepherd meant for him to pass this way.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” His Shepherd, our shepherd, makes his people dine in front of those who seek their life.
Consider that he comes prepared. And the Shepherd shows that he came prepared for this route. In the shadows, David could see the silhouette of weapons. The vulnerable sheep, seeing his Master armed, sings, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
David, a shepherd himself, knew these were not for decoration. And he knew his Shepherd well enough to know that he was not a hired hand to flee when the wolf came (John 10:12) — as he had not left him when Goliath charged forth. He knew that the shadows bow to him. David couldn’t see all dangers ahead of him, but he could see who was with him — what should he fear?
Consider why he leads along these paths. Some seasons he graciously allows us to sit in green pastures and enjoy sunny days. At times, he leads beside still waters, not the overwhelming currents that often carry sheep with heavy coats down to the bottom of the river. These are sweet times.
But in all his leading, along his many paths that he brings us, “He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name sake.” He leads towards things that make us more like him. Sometimes this means learning to rest in green pastures. At other times this means the comfort of walking with him beside still waters. At other times it means following him into the shadows. In all the different paths, our eternal good, his glory, and our Shepherd-likeness are the guiding principles.
Consider one vital word. David uses a well-chosen expression, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” He leads us through. This dark valley was not the final destination. The deep darkness was not his final resting place. It was a hallway leading elsewhere. Surrounded by peril, enemies, and uncertainty, he knows that he will walk through it with his Lord leading him.
Consider where all his paths will lead. Sometimes the Shepherd ensures that these dark valleys remain just shadows. Having sung David’s song countless times, three Hebrew boys defied the bear Nebuchadnezzar, knowing that their Shepherd was there to save them if he chose. But if not, they resolved that they would remain faithful. As they went into the flames, their Shepherd stood with them. And they left untouched.
But sometimes we don’t leave untouched. Death comes. Tragedies fall. Hearts break. Persecution comes. Sometimes the hoped-for deliverance doesn’t arrive. What then? Does he still lead “through” such valleys? He does.
Jesus, the great Shepherd, led Stephen, the first martyr, through the dark valley of death itself to the place that all his paths ultimately lead: to himself. Stephen “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” leading him into glory. Goodness and mercy pursued him all the days of his life — including this day (Psalm 23:6).
No matter when death finally comes, Jesus, his Shepherd and ours, leads through death itself to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). God himself is the end of David’s journey in Psalm 23. The valley of the shadow of death, even when it is more than shadows, leads directly to the Shepherd himself. All are but rivers, roads, and valleys leading to our eternal home, him.