The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death
A Repeated Experience
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.—Psalm 23:4
By Carl Hagensick
The twenty-third Psalm was probably one of David’s early Psalms, written while he was still a shepherd boy watching the family flocks on the Judean highlands. Living in the environs of Bethlehem, the imagery of the Psalm suggests that he was pasturing the sheep to the east, near the deep wadis that go into the Great Rift valley of the Dead Sea. There the steep cliffs and deep crevices could aptly be named valleys of the shadow of death.
Later, when fleeing from Saul it was in caves in these same deep valleys he had known so well as a shepherd that he took refuge. The combination of cool waters flowing through the sheer cliffs of En Gedi formed a natural hideout for David and his refugee band. Once again, sought by the skilled soldiers of King Saul’s army, he walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Victorious at last, with the crown on his head and all twelve tribes pledging their allegiance, it would seem that such “valley” experiences would be behind him. But such was not to be the case.
The Kidron Valley
Having conquered Jerusalem and establishing it as his capitol, another valley was to take on this significance. Just to the east of David’s capital city lay the valley of the brook Kidron. Even then it was a vast graveyard, and is much more so today. The fact of its use as such in David’s day is born out when his son Absalom has a memorial pillar raised there in his memory. “Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king’s dale [the Kidron valley]: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom’s place” (2 Sam. 18:18).
While it is debatable as to whether it is the original, Absalom’s pillar stands today as one of the more marked monuments in the Kidron valley. In later times, it was called the Valley of Jehoshaphat, or valley of decision, with much the same import as the term, the valley of the shadow of death.
The Absalom Rebellion
Perhaps the most trying experience of David’s reign over Israel was the attempt of his son Absalom to usurp the throne. Adding to the bitterness of that rebellion was the defection of David’s chief counselor, Ahithophel, to the cause of Absalom. Following the bold strategy laid out by Ahithophel (who was incidentally the grandfather of David’s wife Bathsheba) Absalom laid claim the royal harem and quickly put the king to flight in complete disarray.
The account of the flight is given in 2 Samuel 15. In that account we read: “And all the country wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over: the king also himself passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over, toward the way of the wilderness” (2 Sam. 15:23).
It was while passing through this valley that David heard the news of the defection of Ahithophel. “And one told David, saying, Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom. And David said, O LORD, I pray thee, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31). The bitterness of this traitorous act of Ahithophel is commemorated by David in Psalm 55:12-14, “For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.”
The rebellion was short-lived with David regrouping his forces at Mahanaim and regaining his throne, howbeit at the loss of the life of his son, Absalom, who he bemoans in 2 Samuel 18:33: “And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Once again God had walked with David through the valley of the shadow of death and once again David found it to be true that thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
A millennium would pass before there would be a counterpart to David’s crossing the Kidron, and it would be by a greater than David, Jesus of Nazareth.
It was on the last night of his life, in deep agony of soul, that he took but three of his closest disciples and resorted to the Garden of Gethsemane. “When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples” (John 18:1).
Even as David had his Ahithophel, Jesus also had his betrayer—Judas Iscariot. “And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples. Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons” (John 18:2, 3).
It was in preparation for this betrayal and the events that would follow—his trial and crucifixion—that Jesus knelt in prayer, even with “strong cryings and tears.” “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Heb. 5:7).
With Jesus, as with David of old, his God was more than equal to the dangers of his valley of the shadow of death. “And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).
Our Valleys Of The Shadow Of Death
Our Christian courses, as those of our Master and of David before him, may traverse dark valleys—valleys of depression; valleys of fear; yea, even “valleys of the shadow of death.”
It is at times like these that we feel the strength of the words of our Psalm, “I will fear no evil for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
From him in the night of his trial,
Both heaven and earth fled away;
His boldest had only denial,
His dearest had only dismay.
With a cloud o’er the face of the Father,
He entered the anguish unknown;
But we, though our sorrows may gather,
Shall never endure them alone.