Yea, 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. Psalm 23:4 (NKJV)
When a shepherd leads his sheep from one place to another, he often has to lead them down in deep valleys. These valleys would be especially dark at nights. There were many dangers in the valleys that weren’t on the top of the mountains. There were dangers from cliffs. There was added danger from wild animals and bandits. Many times the only thing that stood between the sheep and certain death was the shepherd with his rod and staff. A rod was a club that was worn on the belt. A staff was a large walking stick that was used as a weapon. The sheep would be safe as long as they followed very closely to their shepherd. With him, there was protection. Apart from him, they would needlessly be exposed to danger.
David is probably not thinking about the time of death in this passage. Instead, he is thinking about hard times in life. These are times when there seems to be more pain than pleasure. Times when there seems to be more sorrow than joy. Times when there seems to be more darkness than light, times when there seems to be more enemies than friends. Times when there seems to be more despair than hope. The dark, dreary, scary, hard and confusing moments of life are what David is referring to here.
During these times, David said he didn’t have to be afraid because his Shepherd was with him. David took comfort from the presence of God in his life. As long as God was with David, he had nothing to fear because God was his protector. As long as David stayed with God, God would stay with him and keep him safe through the difficult circumstances of life. It is important to notice that even when he followed God, David had to go through the valley. Some valleys just have to be gone through.
I love what commentator Albert Barnes said about this. “God will lead and guide me in the path of righteousness, even though that path lies through the darkest and most gloomy vale—through deep and dismal shades—in regions where there is no light, as if death had cast his dark and baleful shadow there. It is still a right path; it is a path of safety; and it will conduct me to bright regions beyond. In that dark and gloomy valley, though I could not guide myself, I will not be alarmed; I will not be afraid of wandering or of being lost; I will not fear any enemies there—for my Shepherd is there to guide me still.”
One thing I really like about what David says here is that David wasn’t just theorizing about these things. David wasn’t someone who had lived in an ivory tower of peace and tranquility and then said that everyone should find comfort in God’s presence. David had been through the dark valleys of life. David had experienced these times first hand and could testify that his Shepherd had been with him all the time and had taken care of him. David spent several years running from the King of Israel. During this time, King Saul had hunted David like an animal with the intent of killing him. David had firsthand knowledge of what it was like to take comfort in God’s presence while he was in the dark valley.
Times like this will certainly come into our lives. However, I don’t need to tell you that do I? Anyone who has lived for very long has gone through these times. Maybe it was the death of a loved one. Maybe it was a family crisis. Maybe it was a physical illness. Maybe it was a time when strife and conflict seemed to follow you around. Whatever it was, you’ve been there and so have I.
When Jesus is my Shepherd I have a promise that He will be with me during these times. He will protect me during these times. His presence during these times will give me comfort. Going through these times is hard enough as it is. It would be terrible to imagine having to go through them alone. When Jesus is my Shepherd, I don’t have to. This is what we need and with Christ as our shepherd, it is what we have. His presence is what we need and with Christ as our shepherd, it is what we have.
For further study read Psalm 18:4-19.
What was going on in the Psalmists life?
What did he do during this time?
How did God respond?
How does it encourage you to know that your Shepherd is always with you?
 Barnes’ Notes on the Old Testament.