“While we don’t travel through dark valleys in a physical sense, we understand it in a metaphorical sense. Our dark valleys today might look like physical suffering and chronic pain. We might experience loss and sorrow. We might face persecution in our work or culture. We might go through emotional valleys of doubt, despair, or fear.”
On a recent trip to Israel, I had the privilege of walking where Jesus walked. Our group also explored sites and locations of important places and events in the Old Testament. After spending a couple of days in the Jordan River Valley, we headed west toward Jerusalem. We read through the Psalms of Assent as we followed the path Israelite pilgrims took on their yearly visit to the Temple. On the way, we stopped at the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
This valley was one of the main routes travelers took to Jerusalem. It’s a deep canyon of rock, and because it is deep, it is dark. While we were there, a Bedouin shepherd watched over his sheep frolicking on a nearby hillside; their baa’s echoing across the canyon. A sixth century monastery was built right into the canyon walls, at the site where it is believed Elijah was fed by ravens. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is so named because travelers were at risk from the thieves and bandits hiding in the shadowy darkness, looking for people to rob. Wild animals lurked in the shadows as well. It was this road that Jesus referred to in the parable about the Good Samaritan.
The Valleys of Life
The phrase, “valley of the shadow of death,” also occurs in Psalm 23: “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” (v.4). Psalm 23 is a psalm of confidence in God’s care for his people. Just as a shepherd meets the needs of his sheep, the Lord provides for us.
In this psalm, David used the phrase “valley of the shadow of death” metaphorically, yet metaphors are often based on real things. For the Israelite familiar with traveling through a dangerous valley, such as The Valley of the Shadow of Death, it likely helped them identify with the metaphor. They knew what it was like to journey through the darkness, wondering when something or someone would jump out at them from the shadows. To be reminded that God watches over his people would have given them confidence in all their valleys—real or figurative.
While we don’t travel through dark valleys in a physical sense, we understand it in a metaphorical sense. Our dark valleys today might look like physical suffering and chronic pain. We might experience loss and sorrow. We might face persecution in our work or culture. We might go through emotional valleys of doubt, despair, or fear. We might experience temptations to sin from within and without. In all of these valleys, it can feel like we are all alone.
Psalm 23 reminds us that it is God who leads us through the valleys. No valley we face is unexpected. They are placed before us by a sovereign God— for our good and his glory. Sometimes he calls us to walk through those valleys, like the Israelite called to sacrifice at the Temple each year. And like the Israelite pilgrim, we can be certain that communion and worship with God will be the reward for our journey.
Whatever the valley, God is our shepherd and promises to be with us.