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THE TWENTY-THIRD PSALM IN THE
THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS.
“ Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
I HAVE named the topic suggested by this verse of the Twenty-third Psalm “The Valley of Shadows.” The phraseology of the common version has tended to associate the verse very deeply and almost exclusively with the human experience of death,— with bereaved hearts and darkened homes, and the mysterious passage of familiar friends to some other and unseen sphere of existence. But to the Hebrew the structure of the language suggested a much broader meaning; namely, any perils comparable to the dark mystery of death. The key-phrase of the verse is "shadow of death "; and in the Hebrew idiom "shadow," or "shade, is the leading noun, and the adjunct “of death' performs the service of an adjective. The Hebrew language is very poor in adjectives, and nouns habitually are used for descriptive epithets; and the common version too often follows the Hebrew rather than English idiom in this respect, and hence frequently leads to misconception of the original meaning. A more exact rendering of the meaning of this phrase would be “deathly shadow rather than “shadow of death." It is not an infrequent phrase in the poetry of the Old Testament; and the context, as well as the structure of the language, shows that the general idea is that of deathlike darkness in opposition to the light and cheer of life. There is another word in the verse which may be improved in the interest of exactness; namely, the word “rod.” It means here the shepherd's crook. But it has another meaning in the Hebrew as well as in English, by which it becomes an instrument of chastisement and terror. This, of course, cannot be the meaning in this verse. Making these changes, so as to get nearer to the actual thought and imagery of the Psalmist, we should have: "Yea, though I walk through a valley of deathly shadows [or, still stronger, deathly darkness], I fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy crook and thy staff, they comfort me."
This translation, while more literally exact than the common version, gives us a phraseology equally poetical; and, you will note also, it is a rendering that harmonizes much better with the metaphor of the shepherd guiding his flock. For the common version here, as in the phrase "paths of righteousness” of the preceding verse, has the defect of passing from the metaphor to the human side of the
comparison, which the metaphor should vividly suggest to the imagination, but not express. Nor, it may be added, is it probable that any Hebrew poet would have ventured to assert of a dumb animal that it could be led into a pen of actual slaughter, with the sight of death-struggles before its eyes and the terrorizing smell of blood in its nostrils, and show no signs of fear. It could be led through dangers and darkness, confiding in the shepherd's care, but not without terror to the extremity of death. This is a victory over the animal instinct of life-preservation which is reserved only for rational and moral beings.
Following, then, the changed translation I have offered (which is very nearly that of Professor Noyes, and of which, let me say in passing, the moral lesson for mankind would remain essentially the same as that conveyed by the common version, only enlarged), following this changed translation, what was the idea imaged to the Hebrew poet's mind in this verse? We can present it as a picture, for doubtless it was pictured before his mental vision. He had imagined the flock led by the shepherd from the green pastures and still waters where all their wants had been more than supplied, and as then gathered and guided, with their refreshed animal spirits, along paths of safety as if bound homeward to their folds. But the homeward paths of safety suggested the further thought that even these safe paths must often pass through ways of seeming danger. For his people, to whom his
song was to carry its moral lesson, the poet knew that the safe paths often thus lay through imminent perils. His thought of a safety full and complete, therefore, in order to reach its climax must be tested, not merely by ways of comparative smoothness and ease, where all was light and cheery, but by ways of difficulty and darkness, where unseen dangers might lurk and life be menaced by secret foes. His metaphor was adequate to the need. It is not unlikely that there came to his mind and to his poetic vision the vivid remembrance of some actual valley which was known to him, a narrow defile, with rocky but wooded heights looming precipitously and darkly up on both sides; a valley of shadows even at noonday, damp and deathly with its malodorous atmosphere, but at twilight, with its deepening darkness, a place of terrors, suggesting wild beasts watching in ambush for their prey; a place ghostly with the mystery of evil, and hinting every imaginable form of it. The poet had probably seen a flock following their shepherd through such a defile. He had seen the sheep of the flock, as they struck the dampness and darkness of the valley, instinctively huddling closer together, as if for mutual protection, and crowding closer upon the heels of the guiding shepherd, no one of them there lingering to nibble a tempting blade of grass, nor to quench thirst at any wayside spring, yet the flock moving onward in perfect order, without panic, as if massed in one bodily organism, only with a little quicker and
more regular step than elsewhere, and with animal spirits subdued under the darkening shadows, moving steadily onward after their shepherd and apparently with entire confidence in his power to lead them safely through, either to the morning light and the joy-giving pastures or to the sheltering folds of their nightly rest. Very literally, perhaps, by some actual experience they may have learned that his crook and his staff could be trusted for their defence against foes along this way of dismal shadows.
Some such scene as this was probably pictured to the Psalmist's mental vision; and the Hebrews, for whose inspiration to patriotic faith and heroism he sang this song of trust, could not fail to understand the lesson, however little they may seem to have profited by it. In this verse, especially, the poet's phrases were rich in meaning for them. Well they knew that their actual ways were not often ways of pleasantness, nor their paths peace. Well they knew that their national road was often narrow, devious, and difficult; that it was beset with perils and lay under great shadows of mystery and darkness. Secret and open enemies awaited them on either hand. Battle and death had to be faced. Their pathway was marked with a trail of blood. Jehovah they trusted as their God, and that they were his peculiar charge was their faith. Yet Jehovah's purposes were sometimes veiled from them in thick clouds of darkness, when he seemed to have left them to their fate. But the