Posted in theology

The valley of the shadow of death

By Elizabeth Prata

EPrata photo

Psalm 23

The LORD, the Psalmist’s Shepherd.
A Psalm of David.

The LORD is my shepherd,
I will not be in need.
He lets me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For the sake of His name.

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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Certainly goodness and faithfulness will follow me all the days of my life,
And my dwelling will be in the house of the LORD forever.

This is a most familiar Psalm to many people. It’s beautiful poetry and solid comfort, too.

As with any scripture, just asking a simple question of the scripture will lead you on a path deeper and deeper into God’s truth. The question today is, What IS the valley of the shadow of death? How can I describe it?

The phrase is familiar to us and it makes sense- at first. The valley of the shadow of death is understandable both on a cognitive level and a poetic level. But when you really try to grasp what it is, then suddenly it seems as if we are standing on the precipice of a light-filled mountain so tall we cannot see the top. What is it exactly?

Did you know the phrase ‘shadow of death’ was a common Hebrew poetic phrase? As such, one might expect to find it in numerous scriptures besides the well-known 23. And it is. It’s in Psalm 107:10, Luke 1:79 (repeating it from Ps 107:10), Isaiah 9:2, Job 38:17, and others.

There were those who lived in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Prisoners in misery and chains
, (Ps 107:10)

To shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Luke 1:79)

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9:2, KJV)

This is the best explanation I could find about that exactly the shadow of death means. It is from Barnes’ Notes on Isaiah 9:2-

In the land of the shadow of death – This is a most beautiful expression, and is special to the Hebrew poets. The word צלמות tsalmâveth, is exceedingly poetical. The idea is that of death, as a dark substance or being, casting a long and chilly shade over the land – standing between the land and the light – and thus becoming the image of ignorance, misery, and calamity. It is often used, in the Scriptures, to describe those regions that were lying as it were in the penumbra of this gloomy object, and exposed to all the chills and sorrows of this melancholy darkness. Death, by the Hebrews, was especially represented as extending his long and baleful shadow ever the regions of departed spirits; Job 38:17

By the way, the definition of penumbra is – the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object.

In Job 3:1-5 we read

Job Laments his Birth: After this opened Job his mouth, and cursed his day. And Job spake, and said, Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. (KJV).

Barnes again explains the phrase ‘shadow of death’,

It occurs frequently in the sacred Scriptures; compare Job 10:21-22Psalm 23:4Job 12:22Job 16:16Job 24:17Job 34:22Job 38:17Amos 5:8Jeremiah 2:6. It is used to denote the abode of departed spirits, described by Job as “a land of darkness, as darkness itself; of the shadow of death without any order, and where the light is as darkness;” Job 10:21-22. The idea seems to have been, that “death” was a dark and gloomy object that obstructed all light, and threw a baleful shade afar, and that that melancholy shade was thrown afar over the regions of the dead. The sense here is, that Job wished the deepest conceivable darkness to rest upon it.

I can’t read Hebrews (or Greek) 2 of the original languages the Bible was written in (the others being Aramaic and a few words in Ugaritic). Knowing the verses in the original language would indeed illuminate the poetic qualities of our Lord who is the author and the Spirit who inspired it. But just knowing the phrase’s origin, its use in many verses, and reading Barnes’ explanation of the phrase, is enough to make me praise the Lord, author of the written, eternal word.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.