Please open your Bible at Psalm 23 I have two aims for this series:
The first is to encourage.
These are days in which many of us feel jaded, tired, flat. It’s easy to get discouraged, and we are looking at this Psalm because God has used it to encourage His people for more than 3000 years.
The reason this Psalm is so deeply loved is that in every verse it lays out the blessings that belong to those who are wholly owned by the Son of God.
The Lord is my Shepherd. He leads me into rest and into righteousness. He restores my soul: He brings me back when I wander. He picks me up when I falter.
The first aim of this series is to encourage. If you are a believer, my prayer for you is that you will find peace, strength and joy in knowing what is yours in Christ.
My second aim in this series is to entice.
If you have not yet surrendered your life to the Good Shepherd. If you cannot yet say, ‘I have been bought and born into the flock of God,’ I want to entice you with what could be yours.
My prayer for you is that as you see what it means to be led into rest and into righteousness. To be brought back when you wander and picked you up when you falter, you will say “I wish these things were true of me.”
These things can be true of you. They belong to the flock of God. And these blessings will be yours when the Lord is your Shepherd.
Today we come to something that should encourage all who believe, and entice those who are yet to believe.
The Good Shepherd who leads you, and restores you will also guard you. 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 23:4).
If you thought that the image of fluffy sheep lying down in a green meadow with water running by was quaint or sentimental, I’m glad you are here to take a fresh look at this Psalm.
The 23rd Psalm speaks to the harsh realities of life. I don’t find it easy to rest. That’s why I need the shepherd to make me lie down. My heart wanders and my faith falters, and that’s why I need the shepherd to restore my soul.
And today we are looking at the harshest reality of all. One day I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Here is the reality that all of us must face, and none of us can avoid. You may not be a believer. You may say, I choose to live my own life in my own way, but whatever path you choose in life, it will bring you to this dark valley and all of us must walk through it.
There’s no avoiding this. Sooner or later all paths lead to the valley of the shadow of death.
1. The Valley
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (Psa 23:4). Notice David that David speaks about the valley of the shadow of death…
Death casts a shadow. David is describing what leads up to death. The prospect of death. What comes before it…the dawning realization that we are going to go into this valley and there is no way we can avoid it.
I have often heard Christians say, “It’s not death that scares me. It’s the process of dying. It’s what I might have to go through to get there.”
Why would we say that? If you belong to the flock of God, the moment of your death will be the most glorious experience you have ever enjoyed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye you will be away from the body and you will be at home with the Lord. This world with all of its pain and conflict, with all of its tears and sorrow will be behind you. At last, you will see face to face the One you have loved and trusted heart to heart.
If you are in Christ, death itself will be glorious for you, but getting there is another business. Your body declining. Your world contracting. Your control of what is happening around you diminishing.
It’s not the valley itself that frightens us. It’s the shadow that lies before it. And that’s what David is talking about here.
The ESV Bible has a footnote that tells us that this phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” can be translated “the valley of deep darkness.” Death is not the only valley that casts a shadow over us. Dying is the last valley, but there are others valleys that we walk through on the way.
The dark valley of depression. The dark valley of unemployment. The dark valley of a business failure, a painful lawsuit. The dark valley of a serious illness or of caring for someone who becomes increasingly dependent on you.
Every Christian knows what it is to walk through times of darkness, and when you find yourself in a dark valley, this Psalm is for you.
The Bible tells us about a time in the life of Abraham when he experienced great darkness. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him, (Gen 15:12).
Some of you know what this is like. A great darkness falls on you. You feel desperately alone. And you may wonder if God has deserted you.
But David says, When I walk through the valley of deep darkness You are with me.
There is a remarkable statement in Exodus 20, where God gave the Ten Commandments. When God came down to Mount Sinai, the whole mountain was covered in darkness. The scene was quite terrifying. There was thunder and lightning, and the whole mountain shook as in an earthquake. Even Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear,” (Heb 12:21).
Then God spoke the 10 Commandments in an audible voice, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Honor your father and you mother. You shall not kill, you shall not steal you shall not covet.” The people were afraid and they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen; But do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex 20:19).
So, Moses climbed the mountain, and then we read these remarkable words: Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was, (Exodus 20:21).
Here’s what I want us to grasp today: God is with you in the darkness as much as in the light.
The Bible speaks both of God dwelling in darkness and of God dwelling in light. God dwells in the light He is, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords…who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16).
God dwells in the darkness.
Then Solomon said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness (1 Kings 8:12). God had made his presence known to His people in the desert in a thick dark cloud. And when Solomon’s temple was dedicated, the cloud of God’s presence came down.
God is with you in the darkness as much as in the light.
In Psalm 139, David asks this question: Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? The point of the question is not that he is trying to get away from God. This Psalm is full of his love for God and His wonder at all that God has done. When David says ‘where shall I go from your Spirit’ he is asking, ‘Is there a place in life or death where you will not be with me?’
He raises four possibilities.
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! I will not be without you in heaven. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
Sheol was the place of the dead in Old Testament times. I will not be without you in death. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me. I will not be without you anywhere in this world, in the air, on the land, or at sea. Wherever I go, your presence will be with me. And your strong hand will hold me.
Then David says, If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you, (Psalm 139:7- 12).
God is with you in the darkness as much as in the light
When you find yourself in a time of great darkness you may not be able to feel the presence of God. Our Lord Jesus hung on the cross for six hours and for three of them he was plunged into absolute darkness And in the darkness, He cried out in a loud voice, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:45).
No one ever knew the love of God the Father like God the Son, but in that darkness, when He bore our sins, Jesus could no longer feel the comfort of His Father’s love.
Was the Father there is the darkness at Calvary? Yes, He was. What was He doing? God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ (2Cor 5:19).
God is with you in the darkness as much as He is with you in the light.
2. The Shepherd
I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4). How it goes with you when you enter the dark valley depends entirely on who is with you. David says, ‘The Lord is with me.” The Lord is my shepherd.
The Lord who walks with you in the valley has already been through it Himself.
Death cast a long shadow over the life of Jesus. The Son of Man came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45). Jesus knew that He had to go through the dark valley of death. Three times He told His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die.
Jesus could say to the Father, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Our Lord entered the shadow of death in the Garden of Gethsemane, where He prayed ‘Father if it be possible, let this cup be taken from me.’ Jesus recoiled at the thought of what lay ahead. So, don’t be surprised if you find yourself recoiling at the prospect of the dark valley ahead of you.
But Jesus said, ‘Father, not my will, but yours be done.’
The Bible speaks about death in two ways: I’m going to call them the first death and the second death:
- The first death is death as we know it. Physical death, where the soul is separated from the body.
- But the Bible also speaks the second death, (Rev 2:11, 20:6, 14; 21:8). The second death is the judgment of God that will be poured out on the last day.
Jesus experienced the first death and the second death at the same time. Wicked men nailed Him to the cross, and over six hours, life drained from His body. And at the same time, God laid our sins on Jesus and poured out the judgment that was due to us on Him.
This is why the prospect of what He would endure was so horrendous to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He faced a double death. His soul was separated from His body. And, at the same time, the judgment for sin was poured out on Him.
Jesus faced death as no on one before or since has faced it. He endured the first and the second death at the same time.
The death of Jesus has changed death for all who belong to Him. So, when you enter the first death, what lies ahead on the other side is not the second death, what lies beyond death for you is a glorious entrance into the presence of God.
That’s why Paul can say in triumph, O death, where is your victory? O death where is your sting? (1 Cor 15:55).
Christian believers will never taste the second death. Jesus endured it for us and He drew its sting. So, your death, when it comes, will not be an entrance into judgment but into everlasting joy.
Death is still a dark valley. But compared to the double death that Jesus endured, what’s left for us is like a shadow. And you don’t need to be scared shadows. Matthew Henry says, ‘The shadow of a snake cannot bite you. The shadow of a sword cannot kill you.’ And the shadow of death will not destroy you.
Death will separate you from your work. It will separate you from your loved ones. It will separate you from your own body. But it can never separate you from the love of Christ.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).
3. The Sheep
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 23:4).
The rod was a club carried by the shepherd to fend off wild animals that might attack the sheep. The staff is the shepherd’s crook that he uses to lift the lambs up into his arms. So, the rod and staff speak of the strength and the love of the Good Shepherd.
However dark the valley may be, you do not need to fear because the Lord is with you. No power can snatch you from His hand. Nothing can separate you from His love. What will it be like when your pass through the valley of death?
Some years ago, a young doctor in our congregation by the name of Mark Lovett died after a major operation at the age of just 28. His father Rod told me about one of his last conversations with his son,
“My son Mark was a doctor” he said, “and I am a surgeon. we both knew there was a chance he might not come out of this operation.”
Rod reminded his son of the time when the disciples were alone in a boat on the lake at night. The wind was against them and the disciples were straining at the oars. Then late in the night, Jesus went out to meet them, walking on the water
Imagine the disciples looking out into the darkness, seeing this figure walking toward them on the water. Mark records, “when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost” (Mk 6:49). When they saw Him, they were terrified. But Jesus said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (v50).
That is a marvelous picture of what happens to the believer at the moment of death. You have been straining at the oars. The wind has been against you. You find yourself in a dark place and you feel that your own life is slipping away from you.
Do not be afraid. Here is what happens for a believer at the moment of death. Jesus comes to take you home. He will come to you as He came to the disciples in the darkness, Take heart; It is I. Do not be afraid. And then you will be on the other side: No more wind. No more darkness; no more straining at the oars.
The first time Karen and I visited the United States we spent some time with a friend of mine who was a pastor in California. There were a couple of men in his church who owned small aircraft, and one afternoon they took us for a flight. We were four couples in two planes. Karen and myself, the other pastor and his wife, the two pilots and their wives.
The pilot of the first plane had been flying for 30 years. Our friends went with him. Karen asked our pilot how long he had been flying. ‘Just a few months,’ he said.
We enjoyed a marvelous afternoon, flying up the coast, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. After about an hour, we landed on a small peninsula, where we enjoyed a meal together.
But after we had been sitting there for a while the lead pilot began to get agitated. He got up from the table, went out of the restaurant, and then he came back in shouting. “We’ve got to go. We’ve got to go!”
A heavy mist was rolling in fast, and so now we were running down the path toward these planes. The lead pilot went first and I have never seen a plane take off so fast. As he disappeared into the mist, our pilot was clearly flustered with panic, and I was saying my prayers.
He revved up the engine, and we left the ground, hardly able to see. Then we heard the voice of the lead pilot. Hold steady. Ten seconds and you will be through. We all counted…
It was scary. But on the count of ten, we burst through the fog, into the most brilliant sunlight. I will never forget it. It was glorious. Christ will not leave you in the darkness. He will bring you safely home.
All the way my Savior leads me, O the fullness of His love.
Perfect rest to me is promised, in my Father’s house above.
When my spirit clothed immortal, wings its flight to realms of day
This my song through endless ages, Jesus led me all the way.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).
© Colin S. Smith
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