The original Hebrew word is somewhat rare in scripture,and its meaning as dark and elusive as the idea it vaguely connotes
■ By Michael Falgout / Contributed
The twenty-third Psalm contains one of the most hauntingly beautiful and memorable verses in all of sacred scripture: “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” (Psalm 23:4).
But before it was ours, the Psalm itself tells us, this verse belonged to David (Psalm 23:1). And David spoke, wrote, and presumably thought all of his Psalms and poems in a different language. As beautiful as the rendering of this verse is in the old King’s English, behind every such translation stands an interpreter’s (or interpreters’) decision. Back in the early seventeenth century, when the Authorized Version of King James’ Bible was written, that meant someone had to decide how to translate the mysterious and wonderful biblical Hebrew word, Tsalmaveth. They decided to call it: “the shadow of death.”
The original Hebrew word is somewhat rare in scripture, and its meaning as dark and elusive as the idea it vaguely connotes. What makes it tricky is the variety of ways it is used in the Bible. In the book of Job, it refers once to the land of the dead, “the place of no return” (Job 10:21). In the same book, it can also be used to describe the prophet’s downcast facial expression (Job 16:16). In the book of Amos, it stands for the darkness of night that makes way for the morning (Amos 5:8). In Jeremiah, it can even represent the wilderness of Sinai (Jeremiah 2:6).
One thing seems clear: Tsalmaveth is a biblical word that requires poetic interpretation. It refers more to a spiritual reality than a natural phenomenon, a shared human experience of darkness, lostness, confusion, or grief–often but not always associated with physical death. To walk through Tsalmaveth is to experience pain, alienation, confusion, or the “dark night of the soul” described so profoundly in the book of Job, the Psalms of lamentation, the book of Jeremiah, and the mystical writers of the early church.
This shadowy place David writes about might not sound like a destination you’d like to visit. Definitely not the kind of place anyone wants to call home. It reminds me a little of what Dr. Seuss called, “The Waiting Place.” But the Bible invites us to go there together, at least figuratively speaking: to share vicariously in the sufferings of Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus (1 Peter 4:13)–to look at our own grief and confusion in the light of sacred scripture, and to have not only sympathy but greater empathy for the pain of others (Hebrews 13:3).
In Psalm 23, David leads us through the vale of shadows, and walk through it we must. But in that same journey, I believe the Spirit leads us toward an even brighter morning: toward the light of a faith that shines in us when there is no lamp or Sun (Revelation 21:23); the light of God that shines even in the darkness (John 1:5). Even though we walk in darkness and feel alone from time to time, David reminds us we need not be afraid because, even here, we really are not alone. We have the words of God to remind us someone has been here before. And, we have the light of God’s presence always as our guide.
Michael Falgout is pastor of the Church of the Nazarene at 42655 E. Florida Ave. in Hemet, recently returned to the valley after 10 years teaching and pastoring congregations in the midwest. He graduated from San Jacinto High School (‘03), earned a bachelor’s in biblical scholarship from Point Loma Nazarene University (’07), a Master of Divinity degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary (’11), and a master’s in English education from Rockhurst University (’15). With the steadfast support of his wife, Sarah, and three beautiful children, he tries to focus his attention on the things that matter most: following Jesus, praying for others, building relationships and communities that reflect God’s kingdom, and sometimes playing tennis with friends at Valley-Wide.