Old Testament Psalms Psalm 23 Shadow of Death

Shadow of Death

If 1 Corinthians 13 would be called the wedding chapter; by this I mean that is the most common chapter of the Bible to be read at weddings. Then Psalm 23 might be known as the funeral chapter. We can understand why. Even Jacob at the end of his life, as he was on his death bed spoke to Joseph, “God has been my Shepherd all my life long to this day” (Gen 48:15). You could put the first and the last lines of Psalm 23 and form the same sentence, “The Lord is my Shepherd… I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.” We can see why this has become the most popular Psalm and even the most popular Psalm to be read at Funerals. All though we find comfort in this Psalm in other lines, quite possibly today’s line is the line that gives the most comfort to those mourning the loss of a loved one, “Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” I pray that today we see this line is not merely comfort for those mourning but comfort for the sheep of the good shepherd.

I. Darkest Valley

Although we understand the poetic nature of this Psalm I think we can often overlook what this Psalm tells us about the life of the believer. The line in this Psalm tells us something that we should be prepared for in this life, that is the believer has difficult seasons and moments in their life. These difficult seasons and moments come because they are the sheep of the good shepherd. Now we often read this as “The valley of the shadow of death.” This is how this word is translated the four times it appears in the Psalms, but the other 14 times it appears in the Bible it is translated differently. Now, I often point out translation variances, and as you can often tell they do not drastically change the meaning of the passage, but I hope it gives us a broader understanding of the Passage. I think this is true with this word. Shadow of death is a poetic way to word this but it literally would be translated, as “valley of deep darkness.” Now, this carries the idea of death, you can see this in the book of Job (where this word most frequently appears).

“Why did you bring me out from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. Are not my days few? Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer before I go—and I shall not return— to the land of darkness and deep shadow, the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness.” (Job 10:18–22)

The word can mean death, but I think it can carry a broader meaning not only related to death, but the deep darkness of sorrow, grief, sickness, and other difficult seasons in our life

We have no inclination that this moment in the life of the Psalmist has anything to do with David’s sin. Now David did receive discipline from the Lord with the matter concerning the wife of Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba. This might be why he continues following this line, “your rod and your staff comfort me.” This might explain the season of his life as death and destruction came upon his house, the death of his unnamed son, Ammon, and Absalom. This might be the Dark Valley he speaks of. This season of his life is the discipline of the Lord, however, David’s life is marked with suffering because of the sin of others. His years of fleeing Saul in the wilderness stemmed not because of his own sin but his jealousy of Saul. He would walk through a season of his life marked with death, Saul, Jonathan, Abner, and Ishbosheth. This is true not only of David but the great cloud of witnesses; Abel was murdered because of the sin of Cain, Abraham and Sarah had years of waiting and infertility, Jacob had tension within his house, some self-inflicted, but also through his father-in-law, Laban. I mean you could almost pick any believer and see that their life is not smooth sailing, their life is marked with darkness, even their life is more darkness, such as Jeremiah. You turn to the New Testament, and this continues to be the case, for Paul, Peter, John, and the other Apostles. The Psalm teaches us that the life of the believer has seasons of green pastures, and still waters but also seasons of deep darkness. Iain Campbell shows the melody of the believer’s life has both highs and lows, “There are good and pleasant things in the Christian life. But the melody that makes up the tune of the believer’s life has low notes as well. The bass notes and the minor keys also play a role.”[1]

II. No evil

But this Psalm also teaches us that during those seasons of deep darkness we have nothing to fear. This is one of the challenges of the Psalm, not that we walk through valleys of deep darkness, but as we walk through them we do not have any reason to fear any evil.  John Stevenson makes a great distinction between feeling and fearing evil.”

“He does not say, “I will feel no evil,” but, “I will fear no evil.” He knows that trials await him, and that flesh and blood must feel them. He fosters not any false courage, by a vain concealment of the truth. He never deludes himself with the idea that there are no difficulties and no terrors in the valley. Oh, no! He is fully aware that sorrows and pains, shrinkings and agonies, assaults and temptations, may befall him, but he exclaims, “While I feel them, I will not fear them. All things shall work together for my good, why then should I fear any ‘evil’ from whatever I may encounter? I will fear no evil in the valley of the shadow of death!”[2]

The believer will have evil present in their days. Again, of our own sin, but also from the sin of others. Again, Jacob told Pharaoh, “Few and evil have been my days… (Gen 47:9)” but he would later tell Joseph that he was redeemed from all evil (Gen 48:16). When we fear God we have no reason to fear anything else. We understand the word, shadow. We have nothing to fear in a shadow. David speaks of the same shepherd in verses 1-3, that is in verse 4. The same truth found in “I shall not want…” is to be found in “I will fear no evil.” When we grasp the statement the all-powerful, sovereign Lord is our shepherd, we have no reason to fear evil. Now, just because we have no reason to doesn’t mean this is what we always do. Paul tells the church in Philippi, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). Paul does not just tell the Christians, “Don’t be anxious, just stop it.” He tells them how to handle their anxious thoughts, and hand them over to God. Often when we focus on the problem we forget about God, but when we start to focus on God, we see how small the problem is for God. This Psalm has often been my late-night Psalm, when I wake up in the middle of the night and my mind starts to spiral into thoughts that lead to anxiety, I recite the 23rd Psalm over and over. I am reminded that I have no reason to fear any evil that might befall me because The Lord is my Shepherd.

III. With Me

The comfort for the sheep is knowing that the shepherd is close by. The verse before Philippians 4:6-7 (quoted above) says, “The Lord is at hand…” Jacob is about to set off to Padan- Aram, and the Lord speaks to him, he promises Jacob many things, but one of the great promises is “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen 28:15), later when he confronted Laban, his father in law, about the rotten way he had been treated over the last 20 years, he finishes by saying, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed” (Genesis 31:42). He can look back on his life and say If God had not been with me my life would have a different ending to it. Even as he is about to leave the promise land and go down to Egypt, he is comforted once more by God as he tells him, “I myself will go down to Egypt with you” (Gen 46:4). The sheep who has the good shepherd by his side has nothing to fear when walking through the valley of shadow of deep darkness. Isaiah writes to the people of God in chapter 46 saying, “fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

Charles Spurgeon said, “The presence of God in the flood is better than a ferry boat.” When we fathom that of the good shepherd and know that he is good, then we know he does not lead us down these deep dark valleys for no reason. Without having an enormous study it is hard to say these are the facts, but I could say that when the believer walks through the dark valleys of their life are the times when they seek God fervently. Looking back on those times you see that although many things in your life were difficult, your understanding and love for God grew deeper. James Montgomery Boice said, “We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.”[3] We would never seek to put ourselves in those situations but we grow exponentially in those times. Samuel Rutherford said, “grace grows best in winter.”

IV. Through

I think the greatest comfort in this verse is found in one word, “through.” The believer has comfort that the sheep follow the shepherd and not the other way around. We might think that the shepherd is by the side of the sheep, we think this gives us comfort, but I think our great comfort is that the shepherd walks in front of the sheep, leading them through this dark valley. This then changes this line of the Psalm to be not merely a comfort that someone else is with us in the valley of death, but Christ has gone before us in the valley of death. As Christ died, darkness fell on him, and the whole land. He walked through the valley of death and was victorious. Through his sacrifice, he made the valley of death into the valley of the shadow of death. Made the grave a way, not a cul-de-sac. He defeated the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26). Spurgeon said, “Jesus has transformed death from a dreary cavern into a passage leading to glory.” The comfort for the believer is that we walk through a valley. That no sign is posted at the entrance “No Through road.” The valley is a passageway. The dark season is just that, a season. The trials and tribulations have an end date. Now, we do not know how long a season will be, we know winter will end when spring comes, but the seasons of life are not marked by the length of days, they are marked by God’s plan and purposes. But the comfort we have is that they will end. But even death, for the believer, is not the end of them. It is the end of sickness, sorrow, sin, and pain, but it is the ‘birthday’ of eternity. Christian, the good shepherd has laid down his life for his sheep so that they might walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Death is defeated it has no victory, death has lost its sting because Christ has gone before his sheep. Then we truly understand why we have no reason to fear, Richard Baxter illustrates why we have no reason to fear,

Oh! if we did but truly believe that the promise of this glory is the word of God, and that God does truly mean as he speaks, and is fully resolved to make it good; if we did truly believe that there is, indeed, such blessedness prepared for believers as the Scripture mentions, surely we should be as impatient of living as we are now fearful of dying, and should think every day a year till our last day should come.… If a man that is desperately sick today did believe he should arise sound the next morning; or a man today, in despicable poverty, had assurance that he should tomorrow arise a prince; would they be afraid to go to bed, or rather think it the longest day of their lives, till that desired night and morning came?”[4]

This not only is a great verse to think about at a funeral but all moments in our life on this earth. We need to be reminded of this truth every day, that even the believer may face difficult and dark seasons in this life, it is only in this life they will have to face them. We do not need to fear because the good shepherd has gone before us, the hope of the resurrection is upon us, and the last enemy is defeated.

[1] Iain D. Campbell, In the Care of the Good Shepherd: Meditations on Psalm 23, First Edition., Reflections (Leominster: Day One, 2009), 57.

[2] John Stevenson, The Lord Our Shepherd: An Exposition of the Twenty-Third Psalm (New York; Pittsburg: Robert Carter, 1846), 131.

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 211.

[4] Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Puritans, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).

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