In the immensely quotable and hilariously entertaining movie, “The Princess Bride,” the villain Vizzini again and again says in exasperation, “Inconceivable!” At one point, one of his henchmen looks at him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I have often thought of that scene when studying Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 is the Good Shepherd Psalm. In it, David talks about how the Lord is our Shepherd, and how he provides everything we need for our bodies and life. Then in verse four, David says, “Even 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.”
Almost without fail, when I hear fellow Christians explain that verse, they talk about how God takes away our fears as we face death. For them, “the valley of the shadow of death” refers to when we face our own death or the death of someone we love.
At those moments, I hear in my head the voice Vizzini’s henchman saying, “I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.”
In the Hebrew language, the phrase “shadow of death” is an idiomatic expression which can mean “a really, really dark place.” David’s focus doesn’t seem to be on death, but rather on the darkness.
In other words, David is saying, “Even though I walk through the darkest of valleys, I will fear no evil.” In ancient times, traveling through a dark valley was dangerous. You could get lost or injured. Robbers could hide and attack.
A modern paraphrase might be something like, “Even when I’m walking through a dark alley in the bad part of Houston at 2 o’clock in the morning, I will fear no evil.” When we find ourselves in the darkest and scariest places and moments in our lives, we don’t need to be afraid.
Why? Because our Good Shepherd is by our side the entire way. His “rod and staff” give us comfort. Shepherds used their rods and staffs to chase away predators and keep their sheep safe. Our Good Shepherd is by our side watching over and protecting us every moment of every day.
That’s why we don’t have to be afraid, even in our darkest days. Even though I walk through the valley of COVID or cancer, even though I am going through the dark days of divorce, even when the economy is crumbling or war rages around me, I do not need to be afraid. My Good Shepherd will be by my side, watching over me and making sure it all works together for my good (Romans 8:28).
But in the end, that phrase does also include the dark days of death. Even as we stand at the bedside of our loved ones watching them gasp their last breaths – even as we close our own eyes to death – we don’t need to be afraid. Our Good Shepherd will be by our side the entire time.
Remember, this is the Good Shepherd who gave his life for us, his sheep. This is the Good Shepherd who suffered our punishment in our place so we could be forgiven. This is the Good Shepherd who rose on the third day and conquered death so we could be sure that we will live even though we die. This is the Good Shepherd who, at our dying breath, will take our hand and lead us home to heaven.
So, in the end, I guess it’s OK for people to think of death when they hear the phrase, “the valley of the shadow of death.” But understand, it is saying much more than that.
When you find yourself facing dark days and deep valleys in your life, when you find yourself in danger or even facing death, you never have to be afraid. Your Good Shepherd is there with you every step of the way.