David was familiar with the shepherd’s annual trek, his sheep on the mountain ranges during the summer, and the pitfalls and dangers in the valleys. He chose to use the following metaphor, under the inspiration of God, to describe his own experiences of growing more intimate with the Lord: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
For the Living
What is “the valley of the shadow of death”? Some say it is a real place—a steep, deep, and narrow canyon. The sun only hits the bottom of it when it is directly overhead at high noon. The rest of the time, the bottom of the canyon is dark. It is purported to be between Jerusalem and Jericho and is the location of the actual road where the story of the Good Samaritan took place. Considering where Bethlehem is, David would likely have led his sheep through the valley of the shadow of death as he was growing up. Is that what David had in mind?
I do not think David was thinking of an actual, physical place. Instead, I believe the valley he wrote of represents any difficult life experience that makes us afraid, especially death. In essence, David was saying, “Even though I am going through this very dark, difficult, and scary situation, I am going to trust that you will enable me to get through this, in the same way that sheep trust their shepherd.” Sheep lack good vision and are easily frightened in new circumstances, especially when it is dark. It is the presence of the shepherd that keeps them calm. Though it has become a tradition to read this psalm at funerals, this psalm is not about the dead; it encourages the living.