Connie and I have said goodbye to several friends who have died this year. We will attend memorial services for two more of them this weekend. We hope that somehow our presence and assurances of our prayers will be of some comfort to their families.
An old proverb says that “death carries a king on its shoulders as well as a beggar.” Another says, “Death answers before it is asked.” These tell us that death is as inevitable as it is unexpected.
The Twenty-third psalm has a familiar statement about death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (v.4). David, who wrote this shepherd psalm, was thinking about his own mortality (as we all do). He knew he was setting forth a profound theological affirmation. This is more than merely a poetic sentiment. It is a statement of faith in an ultimate reality.
“I will fear no evil.” David gives us some reasons not to fear death.
- Believers experience the shadow, not the sting of death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” ( 1 Corinthians 15:55).
F. B. Meyer wrote, “Christ met the substance, we encounter but the shadow. The monster is deprived of its teeth and claws. Our Shepherd has destroyed him who has the power of death, that is the Devil. . . . A shadow is the exact counterpart of its substance but it is not in itself harmful. The shadow of a dog cannot bite. The shadow of a giant cannot kill. The shadow of death cannot destroy.”
David is not denying the darkness and gloom of death. In fact the Hebrew word for “shadow” in Psalm 23:4 is the strongest word for darkness. Job 3:5 uses this word to refer to the underworld, the realm of the dead. But the valley is not called the valley of death. It is the valley of the shadow of death. This is an important distinction. The power has been removed from death for those who are in Christ, who conquered death to give us eternal life.
2. Believers go through the valley, they do not stay in it. The Bible says that death is not an end to life, but an entrance to life. It is not a terminus, but a transition. Death for Christians, is not just a route to the grave, but a passage into eternal glory.
The valley is dark. It may be difficult to follow the path of the Shepherd. It may be lonely and disorienting. There may be pain. There is no denying or avoiding the fact that every one of God’s sheep must pass through this valley. This reminds me to say that it is vitally important to prepare for death by making sure you are in a right relationship to God through his son Jesus Christ.
“God has given us eternal life and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13).
C.H. Spurgeon wrote these comforting words for those who are trusting in the Lord Jesus as their Good Shepherd. “The dying saint is not in a flurry; he does not run as though he were alarmed or stand still as if he could go no farther; he is not confounded or ashamed. . . . We go though the dark tunnel of death and emerge into the light of immortality. We do not die, but sleep to wake in glory. Death is not the house, but the porch, not the goal, but the passage to it.”
3. Believers are not alone. The Shepherd is nearby. David has been talking about the Shepherd. Now he talks to the Shepherd: “You are with me.” If there is a good purpose in the darkness of the valley, it is that it causes us to draw closer to the Shepherd and depend more fully on him.
Psalm 23:4 is a promise that is reaffirmed elsewhere: “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5).
So this weekend, as I pay my respects to the families of my friends who have gone to be with the Lord, it will be with the confidence that they have passed through the valley of the shadow of death into the light of eternity. I am encouraged by the promise that the Lord, who is their Good Shepherd, accompanied them through the valley, safe home to the other side.
Pastor Randy Faulkner