Psalm 23:4a Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; …
In the previous lessons on Psalm 23 (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), we’ve studied how this Psalm not only relates to Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but also how it relates to our salvation and walk with the LORD. He takes us from a life of sin and filth to dining in beautiful pastures and watering in cool, clear streams. In the process, He turns us from our own way (repentance), and then leads us in the well-worn paths of making correct decisions.
But, sometime along the way, circumstances become very dark. It may seem as though the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ will never appear. ‘Will I ever make it to the end of this trial?’ you may ask. If you’re going through a time of distress and testing, this is the verse for you. I think out of the entire chapter, the study of this verse was the most fascinating to me in an odd sort of way… maybe because I’d never seen some of the things I’m about to share until I studied this.
In biblical times, when traveling to Jerusalem from the south, one had no choice but to pass through the Hinnom Valley. It is southernmost valley of three that make up the letter ‘shin’ carved in the land of Israel, where God has chosen to write His name. (Deut 12:5, 21). (You may also see the post Where God’s Name is Written for more information.) This route to Jerusalem would be the one that Abraham and Isaac took when they were headed to Mount Moriah for Isaac’s sacrifice.Photo from Holman Bible Atlas – Pg 111
The map above shows the Hinnom Valley in the south. The temple mount of Jerusalem is on Mount Moriah, where the green area is. The Hinnom Valley is also nicknamed the Valley of Burning, and for good reason. This was the area where horrific things took place in biblical times. Pagans worshipped the god Moloch here, and as part of their worship they would take their babies and children to sacrifice them. This is the practice the Bible calls ‘passing through the fire’ (Deut 18:10). The children were either burned alive or sacrificed and then their bodies burned. Great evil took place here on a regular basis, and fires were constantly burning to keep the waste under control.
After the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile, the valley was no longer used for child sacrifices. Rather, it became the garbage dump, where anything considered unclean was thrown. Dead animals and even the bodies of convicted criminals would be put there, along with all of the trash. Again, fires had to be burned here non-stop so the waste would not take over.
Because of the smoke and the darkness, this valley was difficult, and I imagine quite scary to pass through. It was often so dark in the deepest places, it is said one could not see their hand in front of their face.
As rain came down, the waste from the Hinnom Valley flowed toward the Dead Sea. The filth and contamination caused an interesting phenomenon as it traveled down the valley. This is an area where mustard trees thrived, because they liked the contaminated water. It’s interesting to note this when we talk about having ‘faith as a grain of mustard seed’, because faith works the best during the worst and darkest of circumstances. This would also be an area that shepherds would keep their sheep away from. Since mustard trees were known to thrive in unclean conditions, this would not be a place suitable to graze or water sheep.
‘Hinnom’ in Hebrew is translated ‘Gehenna’ in Greek. The word ‘Gehenna’ is where we get the English translation ‘hell’. The Hinnom Valley is a picture of hell…darkness, torment, and constantly burning fire. It is the picture we draw in our minds of the final destination of the wicked ones that refuse Christ.
It’s during those times of the darkest circumstances, when we can’t feel Him, that Jesus is near. He is always with us. Personally, the hardest time in my life was when we lost our daughter Hope in 1999. (You may read the story here.) During that time, all I could feel was pain, anger, and deep hurt. But, at the same time, I couldn’t tell you how many times people commented that I had a glow about me. I sure didn’t feel it…I felt alone and wrapped up in my grief. But, even during that time, when I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face (spiritually, that is), He never left me. Others could see He was with me, even when I couldn’t.
In an earlier post, I likened green pastures, still waters, and the restoration of soul to repentance, and beginning our journey with the LORD. In our relationship with God, we go through a spiritual death, burial, and resurrection just like Jesus did physically. I could see this valley as a picture of baptism…the washing away of all our sin, and the contaminated life we once lived. The old man, in all of his darkness, is put away, washed clean, and fit for use by the King of Kings.
When we’re in our most fearful, scary moments, and we feel like we can’t bear it anymore, that’s the time to remember the Good Shepherd is always with us. He has never left us and never will. We need not fear that we’ll be overcome by any evil, for He is leading us. Although we may be frozen with fear, it’s not new to Him, because He’s walked this road before. We can take comfort in the fact that our Shepherd can keep us from all danger, and through the darkness.