For many people, the word valley calls forth an image of a flat, grassy expanse lying peacefully between mountains, like a dale or a meadow. However, this is not what the word means or what Old Testament valleys were like. A valley was a deep ravine or gorge. It was narrow, dark, and damp and usually encased by steep stone walls, making it virtually inescapable. Valleys were frequently located at the foot of towering cliffs. They were extremely dangerous: snakes, wild beasts, and criminals lurked in their darkness.
Since grass grows in Palestine during a very short season, shepherds struggled to feed their flocks the rest of the year. Often, it became necessary to lead their sheep into valleys where green plants grew in the cool, damp soil at the bottom. Passing through valleys was also necessary at times in order to reach pasture on the other side. Some scholars think the valley of the shadow of death was the name of an actual valley, an extremely dangerous one, through which shepherds and their flocks were forced to cross.
Valleys are symbols of the darkest times of life. The valley of the shadow of death speaks of life’s gravest circumstances, fearful occasions when death is a real possibility, such as…
- severe illness or disease
- a sudden attack on your health
- a serious accident
- deadly weather conditions
- a violent, criminal attack
- a terrorist attack
- famine or extreme poverty
David testified that he was not afraid to walk through life’s darkest valleys. Although he was defenseless in himself, he was not alone in the peril: his Shepherd was with him. The Lord would protect him and keep him close to His side. David was comforted—turned from fear and terror—because his Shepherd was skillfully armed with His rod and His staff. The rod was a club the shepherd fashioned and carried to fight off wild animals and thieves. It was a deadly weapon. The staff was the instrument the shepherd used to deal with his sheep. It was not a weapon but a tool. The shepherd leaned on it for support as he journeyed across rough ground and rocky crags. Most staffs had a hooked end that the shepherd used to catch a sheep’s leg or neck to pull it out of a hole or back into the fold. The shepherd would nudge a sheep with his staff when it began to stray or when it was hesitant to move along with the flock.
David was fearless in the valley because he knew his Shepherd would protect him from all deadly threats, including his own waywardness. His Shepherd would keep him close to His side in the darkness and would be with him through every step until he passed safely through to the light on the other side.