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The Valley of the Shadow of Death

By David A. DePra

He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. 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. Thou prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (Ps. 23:3-6)

When David wrote about walking "through the valley of the shadow of death," he was clearly saying that this was a continuation of his walk in "the paths of righteousness." David says, "He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake – yes, and even though these paths of righteousness take me through the valley of the shadow of death, nevertheless, You – my Shepherd -- are there with me in that valley."

Have you ever realized that following Jesus Christ on the paths of righteousness will take you through such a valley? A valley of the shadow of death? Sure. In fact, not just maybe. If you want to follow Jesus Christ you will have to walk through such valleys many times during your life. Such experiences are actually central to our CALLING:

For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. (I Peter 2:21)

If you want to follow Jesus Christ on the paths of righteousness, expect to carry a Cross. Expect to suffer. Of course, that sounds negative. But this suffering is not a thing unto itself. It is necessary because we are being set free – being prepared for our true destination. What is that destination? To dwell in the "house of the Lord" forever. The "house of the Lord" is the Lord’s inheritance. It is what God has for us in Jesus Christ.

The paths of righteousness ultimately lead us to this "house of the Lord." We get on those paths of righteousness, not by works, but by faith in Christ. At that point our destination is sure. But God wants to make us fit for our destination. He wants to make us able to live and function IN the house of the Lord. So He must take us through a place which is geared toward doing that: The valley of the shadow of death.

The Valley

A valley is a low place. It is a place surrounded by mountains. Mountains and the valley go together, for if you are to have a valley, you must have something that makes it a valley – namely mountains. Because a valley is surrounded by these mountains, you cannot see what is on the other side of those mountains. You can only see what is in the valley.

This tells us one characteristic of the spiritual valley of the shadow of death. It is a low place – a place of humility. And while we are walking through it, we cannot see where we are going to end up. The "mountains" make that impossible. They are too high around us to make it possible for us to see our destination.

Herein we see one temptation, as we walk through this valley: To get focused on what is IN the valley, instead of where our journey through the valley is taking us. This can lead to discouragement and despair.

This is a picture of trials. When we are IN a trial, our perception is localized. We cannot see what is on the other side of the trial. We can see only the trial. And it really does seem like we are surrounded by imposing mountains. We cannot see where we are going, or perhaps even WHY we are going. What we can see is nothing but CONTRADICTION to the faithfulness of God. And at these times, such a condition can be quite overwhelming.

Jesus gave a good example of this tendency when He talked with His disciples about His impending death and resurrection. He said:

A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. (John 16:21)

When we are in the valley suffering, all we can think about is the pain and uncertainty. We want it to end. Our goal is to get OUT of the valley. But God’s goal isn’t to get us out of the valley. He just got us IN. He wants to take us through the valley, so that when we do emerge, we will arrive at our destination able to live in harmony with God forever.

What do you think you are going to be doing forever? Sure, you will be living in the house of the Lord if you are saved. That is certain. But will you know HOW to live? Will there be a harmony and love in you for God that will enable you to live with Him in all the dimensions He desires?

If you were given a tremendous inheritance in this life, but had no clue as to how to function in it, how much of it would you value? How much could you enjoy? God is calling us home to HIS HOUSE. But on the way He is not only teaching us how to live, He is setting us free from those things which hinder living with Him. The valley is where this takes place.

As mentioned, however, we cannot see – in this valley – where our destination is. We can only see the valley. The solution, of course, is never to try to see what we CANNOT see. We are wasting our time trying to see over these mountains. We CAN’T. Neither can we understand everything – it is not given to us to understand. Such a condition is NORMAL for life in the valley.

However, there is something we can do. David says, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." Thus, despite not being able to see where I am going, I can trust the One leading. Despite not being able to see God, I can nevertheless believe that God sees ME – and is WITH ME.

Herein is a simple, yet profound Truth: God is just as much with me with I can’t see Him as He is when I can see Him. God is just as much with me if I can’t understand Him, as He is when I think I can understand Him. MY PERCEPTION of God is not the barometer for His faithfulness. He is WITH ME regardless of my perception -- on the paths of righteousness.


Thou Art With Me

David says, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." In this, we see a simple statement of faith. But as simple as it is, it is something that will govern our entire lives. For the fact is, the only way I can "fear no evil" is if I do believe that God is "with me."

Of course, there are many people in this world who fear no evil, and could not care less whether God is with them. But these folks are able to walk along through life with a false sense of security only because they are not presently walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In other words, their life is like a house of cards, and nothing is testing it. So they march along deluded – as one who has built their house upon the sand. The storm is yet to come.

Then there are others whose house of cards IS tested. Perhaps it even crumbles. But they simply retreat down a path – other than the paths of righteousness – for security and provision. And many of them spend their lives there. They never seek God. Indeed, some harden their hearts towards them.

David is talking about someone who is already in the FLOCK of Jesus Christ. This is someone who The Good Shepherd is leading in paths of righteousness, right into the valley of the shadow of death. As one of those people, David says, "I will fear no evil in that valley." Why? "Because I know that God is with me."

In the final analysis, when everything is said and done, all trials of faith boil down to that one choice: DO I BELIEVE GOD IS FAITHFUL? Do I believe God is with me, or don’t I? Whenever you are in a trial, make yourself face that question. Come back to it again and again. Come to terms with it.

Why? Why is it important to face that question? Well, not only does it cut to the root of the matter, and will likely save you confusion, and serve to bring things quickly into the light, but if you DO believe God is with you, and come to realize that you do, you will start ACTING LIKE IT. You will see the folly of saying, on the one hand, that you DO believe God is with you, and then, on the other hand, continue thinking and acting as if God isn’t with you.

If I pray things through to God, as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God will bring me to this question: Do I believe that God is faithful to me? Right now? In THIS thing I am in? No matter what it looks like? No matter how circumstances have conspired to contradict the faithfulness of God? No matter how much my reactions, emotions, and fears, and understanding, seem to deny that God is with me? If I believe that God is with me, I am going to see that I must put aside – and treat as LIES – anything that says otherwise. No matter how real they seem.

Does this seem like it is a step in the dark? IT IS. You are in the valley of the SHADOW of death, aren’t you? You are walking – taking STEPS – through that darkness, aren’t you? If you want to follow Jesus Christ, you are going to have to take many steps in the dark.

Now understand: There may be a shadow cast over your understanding. There may be a shadow cast over your ability to function correctly in an emotional sense. But despite all of that uncertainty, you can be certain of God. A step by faith into what is darkness to my flesh and natural life, is always a step into the light – from God’s perspective.

When I refuse to trust my understanding, and instead choose to trust God, what I am really doing is relinquishing CONTROL of my life, and unconditionally surrendering to God. And if I will truly do that, there will come a tremendous freedom in my relationship with Him, which I cannot realize any other way.

One of the biggest deceptions among Christians is the notion that if we understand HOW God is faith, then it means He is faithful. There comes an emotional security with that. But it is a mirage. God’s faithfulness is never dependent upon whether we can understand. Ever. His faithfulness is completely independent of our understanding.

God wants to push us to the point of choice – where we will either say, "Thou art with me," or will say, "I don’t believe you are with me." The former is the choice He wants us to make. If we say, "Thou art with me," then He will say to us, "If you do believe I am with you, then take the next step on the path of righteousness through this valley."

We will find that if we take that next step – in faith – that AS we walk we will find power to keep going. But none of this will happen if we turn back, take another path, or stand still and refuse to move. No. We must say, "I will fear no evil. Why? Because You are with me. And I am willing to risk everything on Your faithfulness."

Thy Rod and Thy Staff

The most common reason why we hesitate to take any step by faith is that we are afraid that it will be the wrong one. Many of us WANT to follow Jesus Christ – we desire to obey God. But if God doesn’t clearly map out our next few steps, we are afraid that we will jump to wrong conclusions, or end up on the wrong path. Thus, we stagnate and become frozen with fear.

God has THAT possibility covered. David writes, "Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me." The rod of a shepherd beats off predators. The staff guides the sheep, and keeps them on the right path if they start to stray, or rescues them if they get caught in a bad place. David says that he takes comfort in knowing that God will be as a Shepherd to him if he begins to get off the path of God’s will.

God already knows that even if we want to do His will that it is possible that we will make a wrong choice. Do we think He has never thought about that possibility? Of course He has. Thus, David is telling us if we will move forward in faith – under the motivation of "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me" – that God will honor such a faith. He will be faithful to use His "rod" and "staff" to see to it that we find our way back onto the paths of righteousness – if we happen to stray off.

If we have open hearts to God, seeking Him for His will, do we really think it is possible for us to want to do God’s will more than He wants us to do it? No. Thus, it is not possible to miss God’s will if we continue walking in faith. It does not depend on our understanding. It depends on HIS faithfulness.

Lean Not Upon Your Understanding

We have to get this straight, once and for all: God wants us to walk by FAITH. And in order to get us to do this, God will deliberately orchestrate situations and trials in our life which are impossible for us to understand. He will see to it that we cannot "think our way through" this valley through which we are traveling. Our understanding will NOT function there. But if we will put our trust in our understanding aside, and walk by faith, God will be there to faithfully see to it that we get through.

Ask yourself: Do you want to be guided through life by YOUR understanding? Or by GOD’S understanding? If you want to be guided by GOD’S understanding, then guess what? You have to start doing what Proverbs says to do:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not upon your own understanding. In all of your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths. (Prov. 3:5-6)


Now, an amazing thing happens if we will trust God, and not our own understanding: In time we will grow to understand what He understands. You see, God WANTS us to understand. But He does not want us to TRUST our understanding. He wants us to trust Him.

God never tells us to check our brains at the door of the kingdom of God when we enter. But we don’t get in there, or live in there by understanding. We live by faith. The understanding follows, because by faith, we become one with the mind of Jesus Christ.

When I trust God, I am unconditionally surrendering to Him. That makes me one with Him, and thus, makes my mind one with His mind. Once I have the mind of Christ, I will understand. This takes time. But the Bible proclaims, "By faith we understand."

God is able to override all of our mistakes and all of our clumsiness in a redemptive way – if we surrender to Him. If we are walking by faith, His rod and staff will comfort us. He is the GOOD Shepherd.

The Shadow of Death

The valley through which the paths of righteousness will take us, as we follow Christ, is the "valley of the shadow of death." This is a place which is obviously quite scary. Otherwise, David would not say, "I will fear no evil." There would be no need to say that if there were no evil in that valley TO fear unless David believed, "Thou are with me."

I must make this surrender of faith in the face of contradiction and opposition – from circumstances and even my own understanding of God. But once I do that, David says, "Thou prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over." These things symbolize freedom and victory over the things IN the valley of the shadow of death.

David states that God will "prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." Note that the enemies are still present. This is saying that God is able to feed David, and David is able to eat at ease, in the presence of his enemies – because God’s victory, and David’s faith, are just that certain.

To eat in the presence of your enemies, and that at a table, denotes a boldness. It means you are not hiding or fearful. Of course! David has already said, "I will fear no evil, for you are with me." Indeed, David will take it even a step further. Not only will he refuse to hide from his enemies, he will sit and eat at the table of the Lord right in front of them.

David also says that God will "anoint his head with oil." This is what a host did for a guest. It was something which supposedly refreshed the guest. This is showing that despite the trials in the valley, God will always give us what we need to stay strong and alert.

Finally, David says, "my cup runs over." In other words, God’s provision will be so abundant that it will not be able to be held by the cup.

But wait. Notice that David makes it a point to say that God Himself is doing all of these things for him. God Himself prepares the table. God anoints his head with oil. God overflows his cup. This would never be possible if David had the resources to do these things for himself. What we are therefore seeing here is a person who has been brought to the end of his own resources. Now God is free to bless Him and minister to him.

Do you want God to minister to you? Do you want to be a recipient of His blessings? Then let Him take you through a valley where you will come to the end of all of your own resources. Let Him reduce and deplete you to the place where your faith is in Him only. At that point, God will be able to pour out His blessings.

The reason God is not able to bless us is never because He is unwilling. No. It is because we are not fit for the blessing. God can’t bless us if we will take what He gives and use it to our own destruction, or to feed our pride. Thus, He must first reduce us and bring us into a realization of the value of what He has for us. Then He can trust us with a blessing.

God is not going to subsidize self-will, disobedience, or unbelief. Therefore, until He knows that we will value and do right by His blessings, He may withhold them. God wants us to surrender ourselves to Him in the valley. Then He can trust us with His purpose for our lives.

If you can eat from a table prepared by God in the presence of your enemies, you can eat from His table anywhere. This is victory. It is a picture of one who is so convinced that God is in control that he is able to let God feed Him wherever He is.

The results of finding such a victory IN the valley of the shadow of death are wonderful. We see this is the next words of David. He says, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Goodness and mercy shall FOLLOW David because David has laid down a path by his faith that goodness and mercy can travel. God is free to bless David with goodness and mercy because David is following The Good Shepherd.

All of this takes David into the house of the Lord – into the purpose of God, in the here and now, and for eternity. It is the destination for one who is following Jesus on the paths of righteousness, through the valley of the shadow of death, and on to HOME – where we belong with God.*

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