The shadow of death

David’s famous Psalm 23, which is titled, “The LORD Is My Shepherd,” contains a verse that refers to a dark period in David’s life that was likely near the end of his reign as King of Israel. David said:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

The rod and the staff were familiar tools to David because of his own experience as a shepherd (1 Samuel 16:11). The rod in particular was significant due to its connection with the rule of Israel’s Messiah. The Hebrew word that is translated rod in Psalm 23:4, shebet (shayˊ-bet) appears in Genesis 49:10 in reference to the Messiah coming from the tribe of Judah. “Because of the association between smiting and ruling, the rod became a symbol of the authority of the one bearing it; thus, this word can also mean a scepter (Genesis 49:10; Judges 5:14; Isaiah 14:5). Also, the connotation of tribe is based on the connection between this term and the concept of rulership” (H7626).

David recognized that God’s rulership over his life meant he would have to submit to the Lord’s authority even when doing so might result in his death. Absalom’s conspiracy against David caused him to flee Jerusalem. After the Ark of the Covenant was brought to him, David told the priest Zadok to take it back, and said, “If I find favor in the eyes of the LORD, he will bring me back and let me see both it and his dwelling place. But if he says, ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him” (2 Samuel 15:25-26). David may have thought that God was going to deal with him the same way he had King Saul, whose reign over Israel ended when he was killed in battle (1 Samuel 31:1-4). The thought that he would never return to Jerusalem might have felt like death to David. The phrase the shadow of death implies that death was near enough that it was casting its shadow on David. It could be that David sensed the presence of evil spirits and was aware that they meant to do him harm. In response to walking through the valley of the shadow of death, David said, “I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4).

It says in 2 Samuel 15:30 that “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered.” The Mount of Olives played a significant role in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ prominent Olivet Discourse was spoken on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3-25:46) and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was initiated on his way down from the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:37-38). The Mount of Olives was just east of the Old City of Jerusalem and was separated from it by the Kidron Valley. “Jesus crossed the valley many times traveling between Jerusalem and Bethany. The valley contains the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified” ( David’s walk through the valley of the shadow of death likely included passing through the Garden of Gethsemane. It could be that as David fled Jerusalem and headed toward the Mount of Olives that he thought of his need for redemption and realized that his Messiah was using his experience to make him aware of what he would have to go though one day in order to save him. David said of his experience, “For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The shadow of death may be thought of as a grim reminder of the consequences of our sin nature. Isaiah said of Jesus:

He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3)

This may accurately convey David’s experience when Shimei cursed him as he came to Bahurim. Second Samuel 16:13-14 states, “So David and his men went on the road, while Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went and threw stones at him and flung dust. And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan.” Isaiah when on to say:

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

David wrote about his experience when he fled from Jerusalem in Psalm 3. David said, “Many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God” (Psalm 3:2). Even though others may have thought that David had lost his salvation when he fled from Jerusalem, David continued to put his trust in the Lord. David said, “But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD and he answered me from his holy hill” (Psalm 3:3-4). David’s assurance of salvation was based on the fact that he had repented of his sins and was told by Nathan the prophet, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13). The Hebrew word that is translated put away, abar (aw-barˊ) means “to cross over” (H5674). David’s sin was put away when he walked through or rather, crossed over the valley of the shadow of death and experienced his Savior’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemene.