The Valley of the Shadow of Death

For anyone who has experienced depression the passage in Psalm 23 v.4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” may have particular meaning.

Over the last month or so I have been taking my local Church through a series of talks based on the passages in the Bible which relate to Sheep and Shepherding and Psalm 23 is an obvious passage which will always leap to mind in the context of God being our Shepherd. Throughout my consideration of the Psalm my mind has kept returning to verse 4 as it struck a resonance in my mind regarding depression.

I cannot say that David ever suffered from clinical depression albeit in other passages, in particular a number of the Psalms, he is in states of guilt, distress, and despair, however, for me the language of verse 4 is just so powerful.

Anyone who has suffered from a deep depression knows what it is like to experience the blackness, darkness, and closing in of the world around. It can truly feel like one is going through a steep sided ravine with dark clouds above or even worse a smog coming down upon them. The sky might still be there but it can not be seen, there may be a way out but the end is not in sight, to the left and the right there are scree slopes or sharp jagged rocks, the ground is strewn with boulders leading a person to stumble and fall. One loses any idea of which way to go or even whether it is worth going anywhere anyway.

This closing in feels like one is becoming entombed, a sense of darkness, even of evil, the valley of the shadow of death has come upon the person and for some death may seem to be a real option or alternative, as opposed to continue in this state of mind. All hope is gone; the longing is for escape, for sleep, for an end to it all.

For me this passage in the Bible brings a glimmer of light to this darkness. Hope to a situation of despair and bleakness.

The starting point is that the passage recognises that any of us, whoever we are may experience this “shadow of death” experience. It is not confined to the worst sinner ever. It is something that is included in the Bible to ensure that we al are prepared for the fact that it can happen to you and me alike. It makes it feel to be a normal part of life, the flipside to the love, joy and peace mentioned in the same Psalm.

One question is why does this happen. It could be argued that the silly sheep has wandered off and got themselves into trouble and it is all their own fault – yes, of course, this can be the case, and has been the case in many people I have known, David himself knew this as is shown in Psalm 51. Yet, I do not believe that is what the passage is talking about. Sometimes a shepherd has to see his sheep through the mountain pass to reach the pastures beyond. Going through the mountains is a normal part of life. The road may be narrow but it is going forward. I believe that for many the depression may come down of them like a fog or low cloud cover experienced by so many hill walkers for no fault of their own even if they have taken every effort to prepare and take advice. It is in this situation that we need a guide to help us through; the sheep need a shepherd to protect and direct them.

The verse continues, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The power of this verse is that David knows from his experience that when the shadow of death arrives he has nothing to fear for although the mountain sides are steep, the sky is dark and closing in, the Lord, his shepherd is there with him and will not leave him alone even if he cannot see him. The shepherd will be there to both protect and also to comfort. He comforts by his rod to poke and nudge and push – similar to the idea of the Bayeaux Tapestry where the king is represented comforting his troops by give them a pointed push from behind. However, David also refers to the staff or crook which with a hook could get hold of the sheep from the front and pull them forward and out of danger. The rod and staff could also be used to fight off any attackers and defend the sheep. These tools are used in addition to himself, the shepherd who knows his sheep, speaks to his sheep, calls them and will do anything to keep them from harm.

For me this passage is truly one of hope in the darkness of depression. The knowledge that it is normal to go through the valley of the shadow of death and the reassurance that we are not alone when we do. God has promised to be with us and will not leave us even if the fog has fallen and our way ahead is obscured. The loving shepherd will comfort his sheep and lead them through to the pastures beyond where there is life and hope and peace.

Jonathan Clark, 23/10/2009
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