Valley of Shadows and Death?

(Dedicated to TF.  A very sweet lady I met in North Carolina)

I’d always heard people talk about mountaintop experiences as being the end-all-be-all—the only events to strive for. I’d also heard an ancient song (Psalm 23) describing “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” I’d heard this valley portrayed as a dark, treacherous place with no purpose other than to serve as a path to other mountains.

So I’ve always dreaded ‘seasons in the valley.’

Until recently.



For those of you who haven’t heard this song, here’s the basic imagery:

  • The writer says, if he’s a sheep, then he has a good and loving shepherd. In doing so, the writer admits he’s in need of something greater than himself.
  • This shepherd takes care of his needs well—so well, in fact, that the author no longer needs anything.



This lyricist showed vulnerability in comparing himself to sheep. Why? Because sheep aren’t very smart. In fact, they’re quite stupid. They will eat their way off the side of a cliff if someone’s not watching.

They need constant attention in order to stay healthy. Here are some facts:

  • Sheep only stay at optimal health when they’re at peace.
  • In search for satisfaction, sheep will re-graze the same area, finally pulling vegetation out by the root, leaving it a barren wasteland.
  • Sheep run or freeze when frightened. If they run they can end up lost. If they freeze they become easy prey.
  • Sheep won’t drink from loud, rushing waters; it scares them too much.
  • Sheep can get stuck on their backs. They kick and fight to stand up again. Then gasses build up in the stomach, freezing their legs and further preventing them from standing. They can suffocate within hours if they’re left like this.
  • Some sheep are stubborn. Not wanting to be guided by anyone, they’ll wander off, becoming separated from the flock.


To be a good shepherd, he has to do the following just to keep those animals from killing themselves:

  • Because sheep eat up all resources, the shepherd leads them to new fields, free of poisonous plants.
  • The shepherd leads them to quiet rivers to keep them from dying of thirst.
  • If a sheep is stuck on it’s back, the shepherd sets it upright, gently massaging its legs to restore circulation, keeping it from becoming the victim of predators.
  • And sometimes, in order to keep a willful, wandering sheep from harming itself, a good shepherd will break its leg. But this is only because he cares for it. Right after breaking the leg, he wraps it in a splint, and carries the sheep around at his chest or draped around his neck. During the following weeks, this sheep smells his scent, hears his voice, and learns his heartbeat. Afterward this bond causes the sheep to stick by the shepherd’s side, where it’s safer.



Taking a closer look at all this information, I had some new insights:

  • None of this happens on the mountain.
  • There’s food in the valley. Most plants can’t grow in mountainous, rocky soil.
  • There’s shade in the valley. Trees can’t grow above a mountain’s oxygen line.
  • There’s quiet water in the valley. Mountains have rushing water. And if water on a mountain isn’t moving, it’s probably toxic.
  • And even though the sun goes behind the mountain, creating a ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ the valley itself is not deadly. It’s actually life-sustaining. It’s the shadow that’s deadly.
  • Death can linger in the shadows, but sheep are only unsafe when there’s no shepherd.



So how does this work in my own life?

I, too, can be like stupid sheep, grazing on things that aren’t the best for me. I, too, need someone bigger than myself—someone to save me from myself.

I’ve had seasons of seeking too much pleasure—over-eating and shopping too much. In confusion and hopelessness, I’ve been cast down in a suffocating depression. In my impatience to find solutions, I’ve wandered away from the fold, only to find myself isolated and alone. In becoming discontent with the quiet waters of life, I’ve distracted myself in adrenaline-fueled busyness.

But mostly, I’ve hidden in the shadows in fear, forgetting there is a Being wise enough, strong enough, big enough and kind enough to help me.

And he does help me.



My change in perspective can be summarized this way: Even though the lofty height of the mountain can make for some awesome experiences, it’s not where life exists. There are too few resources to stay up there forever.

Plus, it’s lonely, and the air is thin.

And if I tried to live at that height, it’s not longer a mountaintop experience. If I live there, my life would plateau, really. The only way to even higher peaks is through the valley.

This song taught me to stop fearing the valley—to value it, even. Because a good shepherd provides for his sheep no matter where they are, but he provides especially well in the valleys.