Because the setting in which we most often hear the 23rd Psalm is a funeral, we automatically and naturally understand this verse to refer to the literal end of life, for loved ones, or for ourselves one day. While I do not wish to suggest that this is not a legitimate application of this verse, I think that when read in connection to the rest of the Psalm, this verse applies to more than just a literal death. It applies to life as well, especially the life to which we are called when we follow Christ.
Last weeks focus verse, [the Lord] lead me in paths of righteousness/justice for his names sake, allows us to understand the daily life lesson in the hear and now, of Psalm 23:4. When we allow ourselves to be lead by Christ, to obey, as he did, God the Father and Creator, go where Christ went, to the poor and oppressed, and do what he did, serve them, become one with them, advocate and defend them, a new understanding of Psalm 23:4 comes to us. The pursuit of righteousness or justice, is not always an easy task. It is risky and costly. The lives of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer both exemplify for us, the meaning of this verse. It does not apply primarily, I believe, to literal death, or to the troubling and traumatic events that simply sometimes happen to us. It applies primarily to the cost of following Christ, of joining with and advocating for, the oppressed and the suffering people that we find. Both King and Bonhoeffer accepted great risks and experienced a traumatic toll not only in the sacrifice of their lives, but in the sacrifices they offered of their daily lives.
As I have said, I don’t believe that this psalm applies only to literal death, so I do not believe that we are ALL called to make the exact sacrifices that King and Bonhoeffer did. But their stories do exemplify the point of this verse. When we allow Christ to lead us on the path of righteousness/justice, we will experience loss, their will be risks and costs. Psalm 23 is terribly honest about the cost of discipleship, of being faithful to God in a world that does not honor or obey God.
The story of Jonah illustrates what the first ‘death’ may be, the first cost, and that is the ‘death’ of faith, the death of our most dearly held beliefs, desires, the death of the ‘god’ that we have made of God. The valley of the shadow of death is the phenomenon in which we experience something that causes a shaking of our foundational beliefs. The story of Jonah suggests that in order to grow in faith, to grow into the image of God that we have been created with, to grow closer to God, we may need to experience this kind of death. In order to fulfill the vocation to which we have been called to by God, to participate in God’s mission in the world, which is to rescue the poor, we may indeed need to experience the shadowy valley.