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I heard a preacher talk about Psalm 23:4:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

She made an interesting point about that word, through, that we don't stay in the valley but that we should read that word through as, in the English, implying not only "being in" but also "coming out of" [the valley of the shadow of death].

However, when I checked Strong's I don't find that word in the original Hebrew.

So is this understanding of the word through, to include "coming out of" reasonable from the original text?

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up vote 13 down vote accepted

Interesting - the relevant bit of Psalm 23:4 is:

גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת
gam kî-ʾēlēk gêʾ ṣalmāwet

As Briggs & Briggs translate, "Yea, when I walk in a gloomy ravine..."

The preposition bĕ- has its basic meaning as "in" (in Brown-Driver-Briggs, and Driver did the "bĕ-" entry). The meaning "through" isn't listed, although it is by far the most common translation of this verse.

The idiom used here, "HLK + B-" ("walk [qal] + in"), occurs ~163 times in the Hebrew Bible. I only spotted once when the preposition needed to be "with" and that was Exodus 10:9 ("we will go with our sons and daughters"). Otherwise, "in" was in the vast majority of cases (whether literal, as in "paths", or metaphorical, as in "laws") the most natural translation.

And bĕgêʾ as a prepositional phrase occurs 14x in the Hebrew Bible, but only here is it translated "through the valley". One might have thought this is because of the verb of motion which most of the others don't have (but compare Jeremiah 2:23 where there is plenty of "motion", but still "in the valley").

Interesting, too, is that the fairly (but not slavishly) wooden translator in the Septuagint rendered it this way:1

(Rahlfs) ἐὰν γὰρ καὶ πορευθῶ ἐν μέσῳ σκιᾶς θανάτου...
(Brenton) Yea, even if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death...

I'm not sure that "through" quite captures it, in fact, and the preacher's point that "through" implies "coming out of" is not a nuance of either the Hebrew or the Greek.

In Mark Smith's analysis, such an understanding seems to counter the "flow" of the poem. He (persuasively to my mind) points out this movement (p. 62):

  • vv. 1-3 = God before the psalmist
  • v. 4 = God with the psalmist
  • vv. 5-6 = God's goodness and mercy follow the psalmist

He sees v. 4 as pivotal to this structure (p. 63):

The recognition of this pattern ... highlights v. 4, the turning point of the psalm. Verse 4 especially creates a sense of this presence by speaking to God rather than about God as in the previous verses.

On this reading, the point is that it is precisely in the dark place that the LORD's presence is experienced. To draw attention (at this point) to the "coming out" seems to me to undercut the force of the psalmist's evocative language.


  1. This may be an Aramaism, however. This is the only place in the Psalms that gêʾ "valley" appears, but it looks a lot like Aramaic gêw, "amid"; see Jastrow, vol. 1 p. 216. This is the only place in the Tanak where this equivalence occurs (I believe).
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I would argue that "through" as it appears in Psalm 23:4 does not include "coming out of" as its primary meaning. The theme of Psalm 23 is about trusting in G-d during adversity, but not necessarily after it. The majority of the psalm is set in the imperfect tense, which implies incomplete actions happening in the present, or actions which will occur at some point in the future. In my argument I assume the speaker is King David, which many scholars have suggested.

Psalms 23:4 reads:

גַּם כִּי אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת לֹא אִירָא רָע כִּי אַתָּה עִמָּדִי שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ הֵמָּה יְנַחֲמֻנִי
Even though I am walking in the valley of darkness, I will not fear evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Here I have translated אֵלֵךְ as "I am walking" to emphasize that the author is describing himself actively walking in the valley of darkness. The next verse, 23:5, reveals why the author finds himself in this situation:

תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי | שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי דִּשַּׁנְתָּ בַשֶּׁמֶן רֹאשִׁי כּוֹסִי רְוָיָה
You will set a table before me opposite my enemies; You annointed my head with oil, my cup is overflowing.

As is a common theme in the Psalms, David is worried about his enemies. Many of David's enemies, such as Saul, were repeatedly trying to kill him throughout his life. In this light, Psalm 23 represents David's struggle for his life, and his faith that G-d would save him.

In addition, 23:5 contains the verb דִּשַּׁנְתָּ, "you annointed," which is the only perfect tense verb in the entire Psalm. David describes being annointed in the past, since it already happened. This shows that the author was aware of both the perfect and imperfect and chose the latter to emphasize that the actions were in the process of happening.

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