I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. When riding in a military vehicle in a combat zone or walking from my automobile with its flat tire to a pay phone in one of America’s neighborhoods where one is most likely to be murdered, I have reflected on that phrase from Psalm 23 about fearing no evil when in the valley of shadow of death. On those occasions, and recently when hospitalized, I had the sense that my life might end quickly. The prayer of the psalmist became mine, and I gained the confidence to endure.
The psalm begins by affirming God as provider and protector; it ends by rejoicing in the reality and safety of his care. The heart of the psalm is a call for fire, a prayer for protection:
“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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:4-5).
A shepherd uses his staff to guide the sheep; he uses it also to protect his flock. God is the shepherd who protects. He also is the host who provides. He honors his guest, who never needs a refill. When I come close to death, the prayer of Psalm 23 restores my soul. It beats back fear that threatens to consume, shock that promises to paralyze. In the darkest moments, Psalm 23 reminds me that God provides even when I question whether he will.