Question: "What does it mean to walk through the valley of the shadow of death"
Answer: Psalm 23:4, which reads, “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” (ESV), is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. It is commonly used during funerals or by those approaching death. The message of Psalm 23:4 is one of comfort. We do not need to fear. God is with us, and His presence gives us strength and hope.
However, “valley of the shadow of death” is possibly not the most accurate translation of the original Hebrew text. The NIV, NLT, and HCBS translate the phrase as “darkest valley,” resulting in Psalm 23:4 reading as, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley . . . .” The Hebrew word for “shadow of death” is sal-ma-wet, which means “darkness” or “dark shadows.” It contains the same root as the Hebrew word for “death” (ma-wet), so it is easy to see why some Bible translators include the mention of death in Psalm 23:4.
In addition, the concept of darkness fits much better in the context of Psalm 23. Psalm 23, especially verses 1–4, uses the language of a shepherd and his sheep to describe our relationship with God: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. . . . 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 23:1–4).
Sheep do not understand the concept of death. They do understand, though, that entering a dark valley can be dangerous. The point of Psalm 23:4 is that, even when we might have reason to be afraid, we do not need to fear, because God is with us, and He will take care of us. He, like a shepherd, knows what He is doing and has our best interests in mind.
So, it does not appear that “valley of the shadow of death” is the most accurate translation in Psalm 23:4. A “dark valley” connects much better with sheep lying down in green pastures and beside quiet waters. However, the main point of Psalm 23:4 still definitely applies to death. Many people fear death, and those facing death certainly feel as if they are in a “dark valley.” But even in death we do not need to fear, for God is with us, and He will protect and comfort us through it all.