One of the most familiar passages of Scripture is the one we call “The Shepherd’s Psalm,” or Psalm 23.
At just 118 words in English, it’s one of the shortest psalms (just 57 words in the original Hebrew). Maybe that is one of the reasons it is so well-loved. I learned it so long ago I can’t actually remember when I didn’t know it, or at least the first phrase: “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Even for people who no longer live in rural settings, the idea of a shepherd—someone who takes care of other creatures—is amazingly comforting. To refresh your memory, the whole Psalm reads like this (and this is the way I learned it):
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth 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 preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth 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.
As I read those words, I am also reciting them in my mind—they are so familiar! One phrase in particular has always been especially meaningful to me: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”
The “valley of the shadow of death” provokes a very powerful visual image. What is the “shadow of death?” Some commentators have suggest that the translation should have actually been, “yea though I walk through the deepest darkness,” which is still very powerful but doesn’t have the punch of the translation we learned as kids.
But whether deepest darkness or shadow of death, the real point is in that last phrase: “thou art with me.” It’s incredible to think that no matter how dark the way, no matter what shadows cross our paths, no matter what frightening mysteries await us, God is with us.
In his book about the Shepherd’s Psalm, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “God does not, God cannot promise us happy endings in a world where laws of nature and human cruelty take their daily toll. God’s promise is not that we will be safe, but that we will never be alone.”
Not alone! God is with us—guiding, leading, protecting, shepherding us. As Rabbi Kushner writes, “Move on, taking one step and then another, no matter how dark the valley in which you find yourself. There has never been a tunnel so long that it did not ultimately emerge into daylight or a night so dark that it did not ultimately yield to the dawn.”