Chances are that if you’re a Christ-follower, you know Psalm 23. You may be reciting the whole thing in your head right now even as you’re reading this. But if you’ve never read it in the Bible before, you’ve probably read it somewhere on a pillow, or a quilt, or on a bookmark, or hanging on someone’s wall.
If I said to you, “The LORD is my Shepherd”, I’m betting that you’d be able to quote the next line. It’s a Psalm that’s easily recognizable and gets used so often because it brings such great comfort to the reader.
But today it brought me comfort on a whole new level, and my prayer is that it does for you too.
Every verse of this Psalm is a delicious morsel of comforting truth that helps the reader taste and see that the Lord is good, but today verses 3 and 4 tasted differently to me.
Not in a bad way, like that burnt potato chip you get in a handful of good ones. But in a richer, more delicious way, like biting into a chocolate chewy brownie that has creamy fudge and chocolate chips inside. Today the Lord helped me savor the richness of these two verses.
He renews my life; he leads me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. (Psalm 23:3-4 CSB)
In this Psalm, David (the Psalm’s author) describes the LORD as a shepherd who cares for his sheep (vs. 1-4) and as a host who cares for his guests (vs. 5-6). And here in verses 3-4, the LORD is a shepherd who leads his sheep.
David says the LORD leads him “along the right paths for his name’s sake”. Some translations call them “paths of righteousness”. Either way, the important thing to understand here is that God always leads us (his sheep) in the way that is correct and good, and he does it for his own glory.
This truth may be one you already delight in, but when you couple it with verse 4, you’ll start tasting the chocolate inside the chocolate.
Even when I go through the darkest valley…
Wait. What? You just got done saying that the way of God is always correct and good. What’s correct and good about “the darkest valley” (aka, “the valley of the shadow of death”)?
When you go through “the darkest valley” as a Christ-follower, it doesn’t mean that God has led you astray. If you’re walking with the Lord, you can take comfort in knowing that you’re on the right path. Sometimes the way that is right and good will go through the darkest valley, and you must walk it.
Now, I’m not talking about the effects of our own sin leading us astray here. For that, Psalms 32 and 51 are extremely comforting and helpful in getting us back on the path of righteousness.
I’m talking about the trials, the pain, and the unknown that we experience in life. Events or seasons that leave us wondering and fearful of what’s lurking in the dark shadows that seem to choke the path in front of us as we try to walk in faithfulness to God.
A debilitating illness, the loss of a loved one or a job, depression, persecution, financial hardship, a wayward child, relational strife, and many other things that seemingly shroud our lives.
Why would God’s path of righteousness ever travel through valleys like those? Why wouldn’t he keep that path running on high ground?
Because the path is always right and good, no matter where it’s found. And it’s always right and good because it’s the path of the Lord. (See Psalm 25:10)
See, the path and the valley are not the same.
The path is where you find God’s love and comfort and instruction, even as the valley looms with frightful and uneasy things. The path always remains lit (Psalm 119:105), even as the valley is swallowed in darkness. The path reveals a way to glorify God, even as the valley beckons you to question his goodness. The path helps you see the purpose of your pain, even as the valley echoes with voices of confusion and blame. The path puts a firm foundation under your feet, even as the valley crumbles and crashes in the darkness around you.
Believer, if there is no unconfessed sin in your life and you’re walking humbly with the Lord, then you can be sure that the path you’re walking is the right path, even if it’s surrounded by darkness.
And perhaps the sweetest morsel from this whole passage comes from these words: “for you are with me”.
God is not just showing you the path to take; he’s walking it with you. In the comforting touch of his rod and staff, he will lovingly and gently prod you forward and keep you from straying as he helps you navigate the trials of your life so that you can cry out to a watching world, “the LORD is my shepherd”, no matter how dark things get.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, gave himself up as the sacrificial Lamb of God. The Light of the World endured the darkness of our sin, but that darkness did not overcome him. Three days after he died on the cross in our place, Jesus rose from the grave, and light burst forth from the darkness. He ascended to heaven and left his followers with his indwelling Spirit and a promise that he would be with us always.
David wrote this about the Lord in Psalm 139:
Where can I go to escape your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I live at the eastern horizon or settle at the western limits, even there your hand will lead me; your right hand will hold onto me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will be night” – even the darkness is not dark to you. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to you.
When you walk through the darkest valleys of your life, the One who sees through the darkness is right there with you, leading you and guiding you in love along the path that he himself has laid out for you. The way is right and good because he is right and good. He has a purpose for it, and that purpose is to grow your dependence upon him so that you will grow in righteousness and glorify him to the very end.
The Lord is indeed the Good Shepherd who never leaves us and always leads us. Believer, I am praying for you in the valley that you’re in. And when I go through the next valley, won’t you pray for me too? Pray that we might walk closely with the Lord through the darkness and trust him to lead us in a way that uses our trials, no matter what the outcome, to shine the light of the gospel to a darkened world, for his glory and for our good.
And surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
For further reading: Psalm 25