If you have ever attended a funeral service, you have almost certainly heard the reading of Psalm 23. It’s quite possibly the most famous psalm in the Bible (and there are 150 of them!), almost certainly because of its connection to funerals and ultimately death. And there’s no question that it is a comforting passage in that regard. But over the years I’ve come to believe – strongly – that Psalm 23 is a psalm about life, not death.
A deeper reading of the psalm makes the point, so let’s go through the verses one at a time.
I’m not a fan of the King James version of the Bible, but it has a poetic flow to it that works with certain passages, and Psalm 23 is definitely one of them.
The Psalm 23/Death Connection: “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”
My sense is that the connection between Psalm 23 and death is contained in a single verse, or actually only part it. Verse 4 begins with…
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
As mortal human beings, the very mention of the word “death” takes on exaggerated meaning. We see that word, fixate on it, and it becomes the focal point for everything else in the entire Psalm.
Now it’s not well known today, but the Valley of the Shadow of Death was an actual geographic location in Israel. 1bread.org describes it this way:
“This is a nickname for the Qidron Valley, since it was the only place in Yerushalayim not illuminated by the four great lights in the Temple at the feast of Sukkoth. David had to cross over it when he had to flee Yerushalayim during Avshalom’s revolt. Y’shua’s impending death also weighed heavily upon him right in that valley. Exodus 27 specifies that only pure olive oil, given willingly at the first crushing, can be used to light the lamps in YHWH’s sanctuary. The place Y’shua said “not my will but Yours be done”, Gath Shemen (which very appropriately means “an oil press”), was in this valley as well.”
The blog The Wild Olive Branches provides this description of the location, as well as the reason for the name:
“It is along the road GOING DOWN from Jerusalem towards Jericho, which is located in the Jordan River Valley. It is still there today. It is a steep, winding road, with rocks and a huge cliff on the right side. Shepherds would walk in the deep valley below, in order to get from one place to another. Thieves and bandits could hide along the top of the hill, by the road, or in crevices along the slopes of the hills. Looking down, they would wait for shepherds to pass through, and attack them and steal their sheep.”
When David (of David and Goliath fame) wrote Psalm 23, it’s quite possible that he actually was referring to that dreaded place where death may have been more than a reasonable possibility. Because the road between Jericho and Jerusalem ran through the valley, it was probably well understood as a place where people of the day came face-to-face with death.
None of this is to suggest that the use of the description “Valley of the Shadow of Death” is purely a geographic reference. In fact, the Bible sometimes uses geographic locations to describe certain spiritual conditions. For example, the ancient city of Babylon is used to describe sin, pride and idolatry, since all were known to flourish there in ancient times. Babylon is mentioned in this capacity several times even well after the city and its empire have collapsed and no longer existed. A prominent example is in the last book of the Bible, Revelation (verse 17:5), which was written many centuries after the fall of Babylon..
Was David mentioning the feared Valley as a metaphor for death, or as an actual place where death was likely to occur? It can go either way, but that may not be the primary meaning of Psalm 23.
Most of Psalm 23 Deals With Life
Psalm 23 is actually a short passage, comprised of just six verses. We’ve already covered the part of verse 4 that references the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and we’ll cover the second part of that verse in the next section. We’ll cover verse 6 separately, because I think it means something really special, and something that most of us miss.
Verses 1, 2, 3 and 5 are centered on life, and that’s what makes me think that common interpretations of Psalm 23 are not entirely accurate. Let’s break down each of the four verses, and see if there is any connection to death.
Verse 1 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
“Shepherd” is an agricultural reference that the people of the day – who were mostly farmers – readily understood. The shepherd was the protector of the sheep. “Shepherd” is a metaphor for God, while “sheep” is a metaphor for his people. That’s a common metaphor, particularly in the New Testament, where Jesus often refers to himself as the Shepherd, and his followers as the sheep. It’s even possible that this verse foretells the coming of Jesus, The Good Shepherd.
That being case, this verse really refers to God’s protection of his people, and not specifically to death. That protection is something that we are provided in life.
Verse 2 – He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
A shepherd leads his sheep to just such a place. For sheep, green pastures and still waters imply provision – food and water. But this verse also paints a picture of a place that is safe and secure – protection, once again – which is what God promises us when we are walking with him. There we can rest from our troubles, and rest is another of God’s promises to us.
Verse 3 – He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
It’s likely that this is the verse that most directly relates to living this life. We have the word restores (OK, restoreth in the Old English), and that speaks of renewal and refreshment. Who among us hasn’t been so worn down by the stresses and battles of life, and hasn’t been in need of renewal or refreshment? Again, God promises us this if we walk with him.
The second part of this verse may offer even more evidence that the emphasis is on life. “…he leadeth me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,” implies that God still has a mission for us in this world. We can think of ourselves as an important chess piece that has been knocked down, and God is picking us up and preparing us for more work ahead. And it’s very important work because it is for his name’s sake, implying a mission that he wants us to carry out for his own glory.
Verse 5 – Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
This verse takes us beyond restoration, and brings us to a place of victory. The table is referred to as a place of honor, as if we’re important guests. It is in the presence of our enemies, which implies that we either achieved peace with them, or victory over them.
Anointing the head with oil was a symbolic gesture declaring one’s appointment to an important position or assignment. This once again reaffirms that God is guiding us in life because he has more for us to do while we are here.
My cup runneth over once again suggests God’s provision – that we will have all that we need as we go forth and live out our anointing.
All of it speaks of an ongoing mission, which we can only have if we are alive.
Psalm 23 is Really About God’s Protection
Look at the second part of verse 4, the part after the reference to 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.
This part of the verse takes all of verse 4 and the whole psalm in a different direction, and I think one that represents the primary focus of the entire passage. This brief half of a single verse emphasizes God’s protection in the face of evil. It promises us that God is with us, and that he will comfort us. And as we’ve discussed above, protection is a recurring theme in the psalm.
Protection is a particularly significant promise. Whenever we are facing troubles, particularly those that are especially overwhelming, our faith in God can desert us. We may even repeat the oft-expressed question of doubters and nonbelievers, how can there be a God if this awful thing has happened?
That’s actually a reasonable question, but here’s where we have to distinguish the critical difference between protection in the face of trouble, and exemption from trouble.
God tells us in Scripture that we will have troubles in life. It is the basic message of my favorite verse in the Bible:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
I believe that we have troubles because it is only when we are feeling weak and vulnerable that our hearts are open to a serious relationship with God. It’s all about coming to the end of ourselves, and being prepared to approach God on bended knee. That’s the only way that a human being can reasonably approach a holy and all-powerful God.
Trouble will find us in life, no matter who we are and how invincible or innocent we believe ourselves to be. It’s then that we need to seek God’s protection, with a full understanding that we will never be exempt from troubles. Verse 4 promises us that protection, and it is something that we all need in this life.
The sermon Terror By Night by Pastor Levi Lusko of Fresh Life Church in Montana, does the best job with this important but poorly understood topic (protection vs. exemption in the face of trouble) that I’ve ever seen or heard, and it’s well worth the investment of 41 minutes of your time:
The Happy Ending – And MAYBE Another Reference to Death
The final verse of Psalm 23 is one that addresses both life and death, and even bridges the two:
Verse 6 – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
The first part of the verse is clearly about life, using the words all the days of my life. It references God’s presence in our lives, since he is the very provider of all goodness and mercy.
But the verse takes a sharp turn at …and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. “Forever” implies eternity, and here is the second likely reference to death in the psalm.
But it doesn’t reference the grim side of death, certainly not like the term “valley of the shadow of death”. That valley, whether an actual physical location, or a metaphor for death, is a violent place where death is likely to be the outcome. But in the last part of verse 6, we have David referring to eternity. That means that even when our lives come to an end in the physical sense, we will then move on to eternity with God.
This is a win-win outcome. During life, we have God’s protection, provision and peace. But when this life ends, we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
That’s a comforting promise at the moment of death, but it’s also a brilliant inspiration in the face of a life that’s often saturated with troubles.
I’m certainly okay with the reading of Psalm 23 at funerals, but I find it at least as comforting as I go about my life in this world.
Have you ever considered that Psalm 23 isn’t just about death? Have you ever seen it as a treasure trove of God’s promises in six short verses?