Psalm 23:4 Commentary | God With Us: Guarding & Guidance

Psalm 23:6 Meaning

Psalm 23:4 Text & Translation

גַּ֤ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע כִּי־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּדִ֑י שִׁבְטְךָ֥ וּ֝מִשְׁעַנְתֶּ֗ךָ הֵ֣מָּה יְנַֽחֲמֻֽנִי׃1

Even though I walk through the darkest valley | I fear no evil because You are with me | Your rod and your staff comfort me (Ps 23:4, AT)

Shadow of Death?

The Hebrew word צֵל (ṣēl) means shadow, and the Hebrew word מָוֶת (māwet) means death. If you put them together, you get the word here צַלְמָוֶת  (ṣalmāwet) — hence the popular translation, “shadow of death” (cf. Ps 23:4, KJV; Ps 23:4, ESV; Ps 23:4, NASB).2

However, this can be misleading. For it likely does not refer to “clinical death”.3 More than likely it is just a superlative, describing the highest degree of darkness (i.e., “dark as death”).4

In English we sometimes use “dead” as a superlative when we say we’re not only tired, we’re “dead tired”.5 We also might tell someone who is in error: “You’re dead wrong!”

Thus, it stands to reason that “shadow of death” really refers to “deep darkness”6 and “extreme danger”,7 which can include the threat of death (cf. Job 38:17),8 – but not necessarily.9

That being said, elsewhere in Scripture, we do see this word used likely in reference to literal death:

Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness [ṣalmāwet]? (Job 38:17, NIV)

But it is also used more broadly and metaphorically. In the great messianic prophecy of Isaiah it reads:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness [ṣalmāwet] a light has dawned (Is 9:2, NIV).10

And, yet again, as in verses 1, 2, and 3 (Ps 23:1-3), the vocabulary the psalmist uses recalls the Exodus:

They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness [ṣalmāwet], a land where no one travels and no one lives?’ (Jer 2:6, NIV).11

I say all that to say, even though I have read this psalm at numerous funerals, this word and this psalm have much broader applications than to merely times when one is near death.12

That is, whatever our “darkest valley” (Ps 23:4, NIV; Ps 23:4, NRSV; Ps 23:4, HCSB) — in every metaphorically dark moment in our lives — we do not have to fear. For God is with us.

God With Us

Before, the psalmist sang about the LORD who leads and guides (Ps 23:1-3). Now the psalmist sings to the LORD: You are with me!13 This is much more personal language.14

If we look closely, we see that the psalmist addresses the LORD directly in verses 4 and 5 (Ps 23:4-5) and refers to the LORD in the third person in verses 1-3 and 6 (Ps 23:1-3, 6).15 Isn’t it interesting that this more personal language coincides with more darkness and danger?16

In the other lines, when things are apparently going well, it’s “The LORD” is my shepherd, “He” refreshes my soul, etc. for the sake of “His” Name. When times get rough in these middle lines, it’s “Your” rod, “Your” staff… “You” prepare a table, “You” anoint my head with oil… “You” are with me (Ps 23:4-5).

As it’s been said, sometimes we don’t look up at God until we are on our backs.

Also, in times of trouble, we often find out who we can really depend on. Some people switch it up on us when times get rough. Here, the psalmists switches to more personal language, for God is an ever-present help in times of trouble (Ps 46:1). God is with us.

The word with (עִמָּד | ʿimmād) is actually related to the word Immanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל),17 which means “God with us” (Mt 1:23). And this divine withness — this divine presence — is a theme that runs throughout Scripture:

[To Abraham] I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen 28:15, NIV).18

[To Jeremiah] But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jer 1:8, NIV cf. 1:19; 15:20; 30:11; 42:11; 46:28).19

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Is 41:10, NIV; cf. Is 43:5; Hag 1:13, 2:4).20

The psalmist will not fear because of the LORD’s presence.21 He will never leave nor forsake His people (cf. Dt 31:6; Heb 13:5, etc.).

Guarding and Guidance

A shepherd’s rod (שֵׁבֶט | šēbeṭ) was a club worn on a shepherd’s belt22 that could be used as a weapon (cf. 2 Sam 23:21).23 Shepherds would use it for their sheep’s protection24 from predators.25

We are not sure if David had a rod, but we read in 1 Samuel 17 that he defended his sheep from lions and bears (1 Sam 17:34-37).26

Also, yet again, the psalmist uses language that is also used when describing the Exodus:

Shepherd your people with your staff [šēbeṭ], the flock of your inheritance, which lives by itself in a forest, in fertile pasturelands. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in days long ago. “As in the days when you came out of Egypt, I will show them my wonders.” (Mic 7:14-15, NIV).27

A shepherd’s staff ( מִשְׁעֶנֶת | mišʿenet) was used as a support for walking.28 In addition, staffs were also used to guide sheep,29 prodding them in the right direction.30

Even shepherds today use a crook to direct their sheep. And, often times, we sheep need directing.

Comfort (נָחַם | nāḥam) here doesn’t mean merely to sympathize, but to practically encourage31 (cf. Is 40:1f.).

Conclusion

In metaphorically dark moments in life, the psalmist fears no evil. Neither should we, for God is with us. This divine withness entails guarding and guidance, as well as practical encouragement. The Shepherd will never leave nor forsake His sheep.

For more commentary, please see the Psalm 23 Bible Study page. The full bibliography can be found here, and the slideshow for this study can be viewed and downloaded here.

Sources

  1. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: With Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit Morphology; Bible. O.T. Hebrew. Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit. (Logos Bible Software, 2006), Ps 23:4.
  2. cf. NIDOTTE, 807; Longman, 135
  3. Waltke, 441
  4. Kidner, 128
  5. Goldingay, 351 cf. Craigie, 207
  6. TWOT, 767
  7. BDB, 853
  8. TDOT, 398; Davis, 507; Job 38:17; Kidner, 128; Goldingay, 351
  9. Futato, 101
  10. NIDOTTE, 809; Waltke, 441
  11. cf.Ps 44:19;NIDOTTE, 809;BDB, 853;Broyles, 125;Kidner, 128;Craigie, 207; Waltke, 441
  12. Longman, 133; Futato, 101
  13. UBS, 233
  14. Motyer, 500; Kidner, 129
  15. Goldingay, 346
  16. cf. Jacobson, 243
  17. cf. Is 7:14; TWOT, 675
  18. Jacobson, 243
  19. Jacobson, 243
  20. Jacobson, 243 cf. Goldingay, 351
  21. cf. Longman, 136; Waltke, 441
  22. Matthews et. al. IVP; Kidner, 129; Goldingay, 351
  23. TWOT, 897
  24. TWOT, 897; UBS, 234; Motyer, 500; Wilcock, 86; Kidner, 129; Jacobson, 244; Craigie, 207; Waltke, 441
  25. (Walton, 340; Futato, 102; Longman, 136
  26. Kidner, 129 cf. Ex 2:17-19; Goldingay, 348; Waltke, 437
  27. TWOT, 897; Broyles, 124; Longman, 134
  28. UBS, 234 cf. Ex 21:19; Motyer, 500; Kidner, 129; cf. Zec 8:4; Goldingay, 351
  29. Matthews et. al. IVP; Wilcock, 86; Futato, 101; Kidner, 129; Goldingay, 351; Craigie, 207
  30. Walton, 340; Longman, 136
  31. Waltke, 442
About @DannyScottonJr 218 Articles
Imperfect Servant ✝📖⛪ | Husband | Princeton U. Alum | M. Div. | Assistant (to the) Pastor | Sound Doctrine & Apologetics @catchforchrist