I Will Fear No Evil

June 23, 2013 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: Psalm 23

Topic: Expository Scripture: Psalm 23:3–4

The LORD is my shepherd.

In this series of messages, I have been emphasizing the fact that to understand the impact of that claim, we have to understand shepherding from the context of the Middle East, and the model of sheep and shepherding that David experienced during his youth as a shepherd tending his father’s sheep in the Judean hills.

We must continue to keep this background in mind again this evening today as we come to the next section the Psalm, starting with the second part of verse 3:

He leadeth me.

We must keep several things in mind. First is the point I made previously, that sheep in Israel were taken to graze in the marginal areas of land. Land that was not suitable for farming and the growing of crops. In fact, this point was so strongly made, that some of the background reading I did even mentioned the use of muzzles on the sheep when they were being led through farming areas, to prevent them from grazing and damaging the crops. Only when they were out of these areas were the muzzles removed and sheep allowed to graze. I don’t know how common that was, but it gives us the picture that the areas for sheep were away from the farms and the villages; up on the hills, on the edges of the desert.

Within that context, we must remember that the sheep were not kept in fenced pastures or fields as they are in some parts of the world. They were grazed in areas that were not privately owned by any one person. Also, the grazing was often so scarce that one day’s grazing in one area would deplete the grass and plants, and they were forced to move on to find new, ungrazed areas the next day if they were to have enough to eat. So David would have found it necessary to keep his flock of sheep constantly on the move to find sufficient food and water.

Now let’s factor in the terrain. Picture rugged hills, frequently cut by deep wadis or ravines, hills that often folded around and back, creating a maze that was very difficult to find your way through. And winding over, through, and around these hills were often many paths, cut by other sheep and other shepherds.

Some years ago, on one of our visits to Scotland, Esther Ruth and I were hiking in the hills near Stirling. We were following a well marked path that was to take us across the shoulder of several hills to another village. After a while we realized that the path we were on was not going to take us up on the brow of the hill for the view we wanted to see. But we saw another trail that was going in the direction we wanted to go. So we tried that one. It too petered out. Eventually we made our way to the top of the hill. After enjoying the view for a while, we set out to continue on our way. But we were not longer sure where the real path was. We eventually gave up on our original destination and just tried to find our way home amongst the maze of different paths – often finding ourselves at a dead end at the edge of a steep drop off. We finally abandoned the paths entirely and simply cut our way cross country; a journey that included contact with some electric tape and a tumble into a thicket of Scottish thistle. The point I am making is simply that following a path made by sheep is not a good way to get anywhere.

Now the hills of Judea are not lush and green, unless it’s right after the rain. But one of the resource books I used in preparing for this series showed several pictures of rugged terrain, bisected by countless “paths” cut by many sheep. Now, how can the sheep know which path to take? Which path will lead them to new grazing or fresh water? And which ones will lead into some barren dead-end? The fact is the sheep don’t know. But the shepherd does. And one of the principal jobs of the shepherd is to lead his sheep safely, day after day. This is the picture in David’s mind as he wrote this psalm.

Life is a lot like the Judean hills, isn’t it? Sometimes hot and dry and barren, often very confusing, always offering a whole variety of paths to choose from, and a host of voices calling us to go this way or that way. But how can I know which path will lead me safely to my destination, and which ones will lead me into frustrating cul de sacs, or even worse, into terrible danger?

The Lord is my shepherd. He leadeth me…

What a wonderful, reassuring phrase that is. Stress the emotional impact!

Prayer for God’s leading is a common theme in the Scripture, and especially in the Book of Psalms. Let’s just consider a few examples:

Psalm 5:8 says: Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

Psalm 27:11: Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.

The longer I walk with God, the more I find my daily, almost moment by moment prayers being condensed into two words: “Lead me!”

But I want to look more closely at this issue. When we speak of the Lord’s leading and guidance, what kind of leading is the Bible talking about? What kind of guidance can we expect?

Usually we talk about God’s guidance and ask for his leading when we are facing a major cross-roads in life. The issue of guidance raises its head when we face things like a job or career change, or health concerns, or family needs or other major changes or uncertainties.

Now the question is: Does God care about these kinds of issues, and does he promise to lead us in making these kinds of decisions? Clearly the answer to these questions is, “Yes!” God cares about every facet of our lives, and he invites us and wants us to take every concern and question to him.

BUT, I also want to stress that this is not the primary kind of guidance that is talked about in Scripture, and it is not the most important kind of leading we need.

Let’s take the next part of this statement:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.

What does this phrase tell us? First of all, this is more than simply saying God will lead us in the right path. It is more than saying he will help us make the best choice. The word righteousness here comes from a root meaning straight. In the OT it has a very strong moral and ethical component. It is a word that is used first and foremost to describe God himself. God is righteous and holy and utterly without sin or any contamination of unrighteousness. And he desires us as he followers, to demonstrate that same righteousness. To live lives that are straight and consistent with his standards and his holiness.

So when David writes here: He leadeth me in paths of righteousness, he means, he leads me to do the righteous thing. To make the choice that is morally and ethically right and consistent with God’s standards and God’s own character.

Let me say it this way: Requests for God’s guidance should always be first and foremost requests for moral and ethical guidance. And true guidance from God will always be consistent with his righteousness.

God is concerned about the big, crossroads decisions of our lives. But he is also concerned about all the many paths we walk that make up the pattern of our lives; all the small, daily moral and ethical choices we make. Lord, help me to do the right thing in the many daily decisions I make. If I am not seeking and following his leading in all those myriad small choices, how can I expect to get the big decisions right in the moment of crisis?

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Why do you think he adds that?

For the sake of his name is like saying: for the sake of his reputation and glory. Let me read a couple verses which elaborate on it a bit.

Psalm 106:8 Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
that he might make known his mighty power.

(He acted to make his mighty power known)

Ezekiel 20: 9 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt.

You see, if we belong to God, if we are his sheep and he is our shepherd, then his reputation is at stake in what we do, how we live, the choices we make. People will look at the sheep and draw conclusions about their shepherd. My life, my choices, my actions are not just about me. As a Christian, I bear the name of Christ. What I do reflects on him. Will my life cause his name to be profaned? Or to be honored?

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Now, let’s move on to verse 4:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

The area in which David cared for his sheep, as I’ve pointed out, was a hilly, often barren landscape. It was terrain that also had many valleys. Now, I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word “valley”. Most of us are probably conditioned by the valleys we have experienced in our home countries. Often these may have been broad, gently sloping expanses. (Relate to Rift Valley)

In trying to put ourselves in David’s sandals, we have to put those pictures out of our minds. David’s choice of word for valley in Psalm 23 is more akin to the Middle Eastern term “wadi”, a steep sided ravine, cut by the erosion of seasonal rainfall and flooding.

As David led his sheep through the hills, seeking the next water hole or grazing spot, it was often necessary to pass through these wadis or steep sided valleys. In the glaring dazzle of light reflecting off the rocks and cliffs all around, such valleys were often marked by dark shadows, looking pitch black to the undilated eye, still squinting in the bright glare. It was not uncommon for the sheep to shy away from entering such shadowy depths. It was difficult to see into the valley, to see where the chasms and crevasses might lie. And such valleys held a host of hiding places for predators. It took all of the shepherd’s skill to gently persuade his sheep to go with him into the valley.

This is the real life picture that David drew on as he wrote the 4th verse of Psalm 23.

It is this particular line that has made this Psalm such a common choice for recitation at funerals and memorial services. It is interesting to look more closely at the background and uses of the word itself, because shadow of death is only one word in the Hebrew language. While it can be literally rendered “death-shadow”, the word is often used in contexts where physical death is clearly not in view, and is used with parallel words which emphasize darkness and gloom.

My edition of the ESV puts in the footnote the alternative translation, “the valley of deep darkness.” Or another way of rendering it might be, “through the valley of deepest shadow.”

I point this out, not to rob this verse of its comfort at a funeral, but rather to expand its comfort to other difficult times in our lives. Surely facing the nearness of death, either our own, or that of someone near and dear to us, is one of the deepest, darkest valleys we will ever face. But it is not the only valley we will traverse on our journey through life. I believe the truths of this verse are applicable to all the valleys, all the dark and scary and painful times in our lives.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of deepest shadow.

I wonder what was in David’s mind when he penned those words. David had his share of valley experiences to choose from, didn’t he? The day King Saul grabbed his spear and threw it, trying to nail him to the wall. The years spent fleeing like a common fugitive from Saul. The day he heard that all the priests at the tabernacle who had given him bread to eat had been slaughtered for helping him. The day he and his men came back from battle to Ziklag and found their village burned and all their families taken hostage. And his men blamed David for it, and talked of stoning him. Does that sound like a valley to you? Or the day the message came that his best friend Jonathan was dead, slain in battle by the Philistines. Or what about that painful time in David’s life, when his son Absalom tried to overthrow him in a coup, and David had to flee for his life. And then the report of the battle came back, David’s forces had carried the battle, but his son Absalom was dead, and David wept bitterly: “O Absalom, my son, my son! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son!”

Oh, yes, David walked through his share of dark, shadowed valleys. How about you? Have you been through any valleys? We all have, haven’t we? Some of you may be walking through some pretty dark valleys right now.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of darkest shadow, I will fear no evil.

This is the second of three confident, personal assertions that David makes, growing out of his basic premise: The Lord is my shepherd. The first one is: I shall not want. I do not lack anything. I have everything I need. This is the second one: I will fear no evil.

What does he mean? Does he mean that nothing bad will ever happen to him? Obviously that would be absurd, based on the list of David’s true life experiences that I have just mentioned. Clearly David does not mean that there won’t be scary times, hard times, dark times in our lives. What he does mean is, we don’t have to be afraid of those times or be afraid in those times.

How can that be? How can we go through those dark valleys of life without being afraid?

The next phrase gives the answer. For thou art with me.

I want you to notice something. David has changed the person of address in this verse. In the first 3 verses he has talked about God in the 3rd person. The Lord is my shepherd. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul, he leadeth me in paths of righteousness.

Now suddenly, he turns from speaking about God to speaking directly to him. This is the sheep directly communicating to his shepherd. I will fear no evil for thou art with me.

This is the key to facing life’s valleys, life’s hard times without that soul-paralyzing fear, that awful sense of despair, that terrible sense of loneliness and abandonment that fear brings. “God, you are with me. I am not alone.”

This has been the ultimate promise of God to all of his people down through the ages. I will be with you.

I was amazed at how consistently this note resonates through Scripture.

Remember the story of Jacob? As he left his father’s home, leaving all that was familiar behind him, God appeared to him in a dream. What was God’s great promise to Jacob? Look at Genesis 28:15: 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…

Remember Moses? God appeared to him in the burning bush and commissioned him to go to Egypt and lead the nation of Israel to freedom. Moses was afraid! I would have been afraid. What did God promise him? Look at Exodus 3:12: And God said, “I will be with you.”

How about Joshua? After 40 years of ministering in Moses’ shadow as his second in command, the day came when Moses died. The whole weight of leadership now rested on Joshua’s shoulders. Not just leadership, but conquest. He was commissioned to lead the people into the Promised Land. He was afraid! How did God reassure him? Look at Joshua 1:9: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

And then there was Jeremiah. God gave Jeremiah one of the toughest assignments in the Bible. He told him to go and tell the nation of Judah that God was going to punish them and send them into captivity and the people were going to hate him for it. Jeremiah didn’t want the assignment. I wouldn’t have wanted the assignment. But look how God reassured him Jeremiah 1:7-8: But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ 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.

Are you starting to see the pattern here? God doesn’t promise us an easy path. He doesn’t promise us that there will be no danger. He doesn’t promise that there will be no pain. But he does promise us this. I will be with you.

This is the promise of the Shepherd to the sheep as he leads them into the valley. And David, as one of God’s sheep, takes this comfort to heart. Yea though I walk through the valley of deepest shadow, I will fear no evil. For you are with me.

When I was about 7 years old, my Dad took me on a hippo hunt with him. We lived on the edge of Lake Victoria, and occasionally when a large church conference was planned, my Dad would shoot a hippo, because it was a great way to feed a large number of people. One day he took me along.

I was excited as we climbed into the African canoe. My father and I sat in the middle and a couple Tanzanian men sat in the front and back to paddle the boat. We paddled out to where a herd of hippos was floating in the lake. All we could see was their eyes and nostrils above the surface of the water. The men paddled the boat as close as they could, my Dad took careful aim and, “Boom!” The hippo sank from sight, leaving a dark trail of blood. We sat waiting in the boat, when suddenly, about 10 feet away, the hippo came rearing up, almost entirely out of the water, his jaws wide open, and blood streaming. With a tremendous splash, he fell back into the water and disappeared again. Just a few seconds later, he came rearing up out of the water on the other side of the boat! Again he fell back with a great splash. I was gripping the edge of the boat. The thought crossed my mind, “What if he comes up under the boat next time?” He made a couple more desperate plunges before he sank for the last time. That day is still vivid in my mind. I remember being excited, even nervous. But I also remember that on another, much deeper level, I was not afraid. Do you know why? Because my Dad was in the boat with me. I had total trust that my father would not allow me to come to any harm.

It has occurred to me since then, that if that hippo had decided to attack our boat, there probably wasn’t much my father could have done about it!! But here is the difference. In the boat that day, I felt safe because I trusted my father, and my father was with me. I realize now that my father was not omnipotent and that there were limits to his protection. But here is the thing; My heavenly Father is omnipotent. He has no limits. Yahweh is my shepherd. I will fear no evil for he is with me.

In this psalm we have already seen two of the primary tasks of the shepherd. The Shepherd is the Provider. I shall not want. The Shepherd is the Path-finder: He leadeth me. Now we see the Shepherd is the Protector. I will fear no evil. And the essence of the Good Shepherd’s protection is his presence. He doesn’t promise that nothing bad will ever happen. He does promise that no matter how dark the valley, he will walk through it with us. He promises his presence.

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Why does he add that? I believe he adds this line to convey the truth that God’s presence is not passive. The active role of the shepherd and his commitment to the welfare of his sheep is clearly visualized in the tools of his trade.

I wish I could give you a clear and precise description to differentiate the functions of the rod and staff. Some commentators try. But the reality is that both words are used in a variety of non-technical ways in different contexts which makes it impossible to draw conclusions about the differences between the two terms and the exact function of these two implements in the shepherd’s arsenal. But we can say that the use of a stick, rod, or staff is universal to shepherds.

They serve a variety of uses. The first and most obvious one is protection. (Show knob-stick) In Swahili they call this a “rungu”. No self respecting shepherd would be without one. David knew what it was to protect his sheep. In the course of his duties, he told Saul, he had killed both a lion and a bear that had threatened and attacked his sheep. We’re not told what he used, but the text says he “seized the lion by its hair and struck it and killed it.” Maybe he used his “rungu” or rod to strike the blow! We know he thought enough of these simple shepherd’s implements to carry one into the battle against Goliath. He didn’t actually use it, relying on his sling instead. But the text says he carried his staff with him. Remember Goliath’s mocking challenge: “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?”

Another use of the staff is to rescue the sheep when they get caught or trapped in dangerous places. The shepherd’s staff is often portrayed with a crook at one end which could be used to pull the sheep back from danger. The rod and staff were also implements of guidance, as they could be used to either gently turn a wandering sheep into the right path in the valley’s darkness, or even give a stinging blow to warn and discipline a rebellious ewe or ram.

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Yes, the shepherd goes with the sheep into the valley. But he doesn’t just promise his presence. He is active. He has in his hands the implements of his trade, the means to protect us from enemies, and guide us back from the cliff edge and even to turn us from the path of our own foolishness. And to rescue us when we go astray. We can trust such a shepherd. We can take great comfort from his presence.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the deepest shadow, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

I do want to focus on one final application. While I have gone to some lengths to broaden the application of this verse, and to extend its comfort to all of life’s valleys and dark times, I don’t want us to lose the reassurance that these verses have brought to many over the years. That is the comfort they bring to those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death, to those who are facing the end of their life’s journey.

There is a reality that faces all of us as human beings, and that is the reality that, barring the Lord’s soon return, we shall all die. Whether we will die of illness, or accident, or old age, we do not know. But we shall all die. As Christians who have trusted Christ as our Savior from sin, we know that our future in Heaven is secure. But one honest Christian once confided in me: “I am not afraid of death, because I know what comes after. But I am afraid of dying. I am afraid of the process of passing from this life to the next.” Maybe you share this same fear. It’s like a dark, shadowed wadi, isn’t it? We can’t see into it. We don’t know what lies in there waiting for us. Will there be pain? Will there be struggle?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. The valley’s shadow is as dark for me as it is for you. But we can take comfort from this. As followers of Christ, we shall not pass through that valley alone. When your turn comes or my turn comes, we can cling to this confidence: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

When our son Dennis was about 8 years old, we were on vacation in Mombasa on Kenya’s coast, when he fell out of a tree he was climbing. It was no great fall, but somehow as he fell, his ear caught on a branch, and tore a strip out of the edge of his ear. It was just hanging there, bleeding all over his shoulder. We took him to a local clinic for stitches, but were very unimpressed with the kind of care that was on offer there. So we drive through the night to get to a mission hospital where we trusted the doctors and the nurses. We arrived in the early morning. Everything was prepared for us. But after hours of thinking about needles and stitches, Dennis was afraid. I couldn’t promise him it wouldn’t hurt. But I could promise I would stay with him. When the doctor took him into the operating room, I went along. As Dennis lay on his side on the table I got a stool and sat where I could look into his eyes, just a couple inches away. I held up my hand, and he gripped it. As the first needle was pushed into his ear to deaden the pain he winced and gripped my hand even harder. I looked deep into his eyes and I gripped back. And I didn’t have to say anything.

This is God’s promise to us in the valleys of our lives. Whether it is the valleys of disappointment and painful circumstances along the way, or the final valley of physical death, this is the promise of God to his children. “I will be with you. You don’t have to be afraid.” Think of God as sitting on that stool, looking into your eyes, and gripping your hand.

I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.


More in Psalm 23

June 30, 2013

I Shall Dwell in the House of the Lord

June 16, 2013

I Shall Not Want

June 9, 2013

The Lord is My Shepherd