Bible Study

Very Deep Shadows: Fear Not

David draws even closer to us on the paths of righteousness even as we navigate through very deep shadows. by Lt. Colonel Dan Jennings

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

Psalm 23:4

Verse 4 of Psalm 23 is one of the most quotable in scripture. The danger with familiar passages is that we can read over them quickly and miss some of the nuances. Two words in this sentence are intriguing: “shadow” and “although.” When we read about the valley of the “shadow” of death, it brings to our minds the bleakest of places. Even as you read the words, you can feel a heaviness on your spirit. One can imagine the deep darkness of a foreboding valley and the thick and putrid aroma that would accompany a place associated with death. I wonder what David had in mind as he wrote down these ominous words. What place or situation would have inspired their use?

This darkly shadowed valley stands in sharp contrast to the sun-drenched green pastures and still waters of the earlier verses: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”

The Hebrew word salmawet that David uses here can be translated as “very deep shadow.” This is a hard place, a cold place, an inhospitable landscape.

A less harsh form of the word is used in other places in the Old Testament. Isaiah often uses Sel for shadow, which simply denotes shade or covering (Isaiah 30:3; 49:2; 51:16). This softer use of shadow is typically used to describe places of protection or places of rest. David also used Sel to speak of the shadow of the Lord’s wings (Psalm 57:1; 63:7; 97:1).

Salmawet, or very deep shadow, appears in the Old Testament a total of 18 times. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos use it a total of seven times to describe a deep darkness. It is found in the Book of Psalms and Job 10 times. It is clear that David, as well as the others, used this word to add emphasis to the extreme severity of a situation. As an example, in the book of Job, the writer captures Job’s lament over ever having been born.

“…Would that I had died before any eye had seen me and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave… to the land of darkness and deep shadow [salmawet], the land of gloom like thick darkness”

Job 10:18-22 ESV

Perhaps David is borrowing something of Job’s heart-wrenching lament to help emphasize the most difficult and terrible of circumstances.

Over this past year, we have faced a number of very deep shadows. A global pandemic, a volatile economy, unrest and anxiety have taken us in to the valley of very deep shadows.

The second word David uses to compound the severity of the notion of very deep shadow is “although.” It seems like such a gentle and benign word. However, a closer look at how it is used here makes it more ominous. When connected to the preceding “though,” it is a marker of both emphasis and concession. David is affirming that he will walk in these deep shadows. Oh, how we wish it said “if” we walk in the deep shadows. But the implication here is that we will each have times in which we find ourselves in the deep valleys. It would be wonderful if, as a follower of Jesus, we did not have to be subjected to such times. The opposite is true. Followers of the Lord are not exempt from walking through shadows. Following the Lord may lead us through these shadows. As S. J. Lennox suggests, “The Shepherd may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but this too is one of His right paths.” Following the Shepherd on the paths of righteousness involves following the same Shepherd through these very deep shadows. As one writer puts it, “The path through the valley is also one of the paths of righteousness in which God leads.”

While this is not a welcome thought, there is a saving grace. We do not walk through these very deep valleys alone. David provides us with the comforting assurance that the Lord is with us. He draws even closer to us on the paths of righteousness even as we navigate through very deep shadows.

There are three things to remember when you find yourself in times of very deep shadows.

  1. Movement. Note that David says that he walks “through” the deep shadows. “Through” gives us a sense of movement. It offers hope that any deep shadows pressing on us are temporary. It does not mean that we escape from having to spend time in the deep shadows, but it does lead us to anticipate a time when we will no longer be in the current situation.
  2. Mission. Consider that the Lord Himself is not only with us but also is leading us through these very deep shadows. Samuel Logan Brengle reflected on Christians who are hindered in their walk with the Lord by seeking more pleasant paths of service. He notes that, “Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, they say, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here’ (Luke 9:33), not knowing that Jesus wants to lead them down into the valley to cast out devils.” Some of the most impactful ministry in the Army happens in places of very deep shadows. If you are finding yourself overshadowed with difficulties, ask the Lord to show you His purpose and mission in these times.
  3. Muster. Deep shadows have the ability to induce great anxiety and fear. There are dangers associated with the shadows. However, because the Lord is with us, we can say with David, “I will fear no evil.” In scripture, God’s presence is closely associated with casting out fear. It was the promise given to Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Isaac (Genesis 26:24), Joshua (Joshua 1:9) and even to the New Testament disciples (Matthew 17:7-8). It is a promise that God extends to us today. We can face our unavoidable very deep shadows knowing that our Shepherd is by our side, and we can set aside our fear because of His presence.

Lt. Colonel Dan Jennings is Divisional Commander for the Army’s Northern Division, with headquarters in Roseville, MN. He earned a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. 

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