This short poem is one of the most well known passages in the entire Bible. We have come to associate it with funeral services and perhaps its familiarity has made us a little deaf to the beauty of its message, so let’s take a closer look.
Who wrote Psalm 23:4?
About half the psalms in the Book of Psalms are attributed to King David and this is one of them. As a boy, David was a shepherd and this psalm begins with the simple assertion: ‘The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.’
It is an analogy, which for centuries would have needed no explanation. It is a single sentence, which contains within it the core of our faith, but how many of us today, in the 21st century, are familiar with the tending of sheep? Not too many I reckon. So, let’s consider how this analogy works.
What is the meaning of Psalm 23:4?
Psalm 23:4 New International Version
‘Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff
They comfort me.’
There will be times when all of us walk through dark valleys, times when we feel danger or despair. David looks toward these times and is absolutely confident that God will protect him, for ‘the Lord is my shepherd’. Whilst we may assume that ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ describe the same thing, previous generations would have understood the different practical and symbolic function of these tools. David himself had used a rod to protect his sheep from attack by lions and bears; it is a symbol of authority and protection. The staff, we might know it better as a shepherd’s crook, is a slender stick with a hooked tip, which was used to guide sheep and keep them on the path. In many churches today, bishops carry a crosier, a shepherd’s crook, to signify that they are guardians of their Christian flock. The ‘rod’ and ‘staff’ are then symbols of God’s protection and guidance.
Psalm 23:4 King James Version
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; they rod and thy staff they comfort me.’
This is the version of the Psalm with which I encountered as a child and the charm and charge of the language stayed with me long before I understood the meaning of the words.
‘The valley of the shadow of death,’ is an unforgettable utterance and for me this visual image captures those times when we are gripped by a fear of our mortality and what lies beyond death.
Psalm 23:4 New American Standard Bible
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.’
As I find so often with the NASB version, the key phrases of the KJV have been retained intact and the archaic language stripped back without any loss of meaning, effectively removing barriers to understanding for the modern reader.
Psalm 23:4 The Message
‘Even when the way goes through
I’m not afraid,
When you walk at my side
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
Makes me feel secure.’
In order to connect with modern readers, The Message asks us to imagine a literal location: Death Valley, California, often reckoned to be the hottest place on earth. Does the substitution of a real location for an abstract image help our understanding? What do you think? The protective symbolism of the rod is removed from this version and we are given a ‘trusty shepherd’s crook’ instead. Is this a helpful clarification or a diminution of David’s meaning?
Psalm 23:4 in context
This verse is the center point of the psalm. In the preceding verses, David has talked of a pastoral Eden, of ‘green pastures,’ ‘still waters,’ and ‘paths of righteousness’ but it is as if a cloud passes over the scene at this point and David is forced to confront the darkness. The absolute certainty of the assertion ‘I will fear no evil,’ drives away the darkness and the psalm soars to its triumphant conclusion.
‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.’
Reflections on Psalm 23:4
This is a verse which takes us right back to our roots: our relationship with the earth, the animals upon it and our relationship with God.
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