THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW: The Wounded Life
Henry Ward Beecher said that the 23rd Psalm is the Nightingale of the Psalms. For as you know, when the night is the darkest, the Nightingale sings the sweetest. This verse four is the holy of holies of the Psalms. It might well be the most personal verse in all the Bible for it speaks to us of the end of life.
Picture David, an old man now, looking back over his life, sees the valleys and the mountain tops and knowing the wounds that he received in the valleys, and yet, he ascended back to the mountaintop. He writes giving us instructions on how to walk through the valley.
David remembers his experience with death. When he was just a young lad, his best friend, Jonathan, was killed in battle, along with his father, Saul. But perhaps the darkest and deepest valley that David experienced was in the loss of his child that he had with Bathsheba. When the prophet Nathan pointed out his sin, he told him that the son would become sick and die. David went into deep depression and great anguish as he walked through the valley. In this verse, he tells us four things he did to get through the valley.
STAY CLOSE TO THE SHEPHERD
You will notice that the Psalm changes when we get to verse 4. In the first three verses, it is as though the sheep are talking to each other about how great the Shepherd is – “Look at my Shepherd. My Shepherd comes and gets me when I wonder away.” And then there is a change. No longer are the sheep talking to each other. Now, the sheep are talking to the Shepherd. We come to the “I” “Thou” portion of it. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – Thou art with me.
When we are going through the valley, we must stay close to the Shepherd. It is the nature of the sheep who are sick to go off by themselves thereby having difficulty staying with Shepherd. We tend to withdraw into ourselves in the same way. When grief is the deepest, we tend to withdraw from the church, even from our families and friends. We withdraw into ourselves. To get out of the valley we must stay close to the Shepherd. The valleys we walked through are filled with shadows and are sometimes treacherous. David remembered how he would take his sheep down through the valley and up to the top of the hills. Some important things had to happen in the valley for that is where the water was. The very same water that cuts the ravine in our lives is that which refreshes us. The same water that flows like a torrent also enables us to understand and to help others. In the valley, we must stay close to the Shepherd. The second suggestion is to
“Even though I walk through…” We must talk to ourselves and say, “Grief is something that we will get through enough to carry on with life. It will not always be like this. I will not always feel as I do now. I will come through it. I will get out of it. I will come out on the other side. There will be an end to my darkness in my grief over a loved one. I will always miss that person and hurt when I think of our relationship. I will always be wounded by the loss – but I will come out of the valley. There will be an end to my darkness. There will be sorrow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
The valley can mean many things, not just death. It can mean the depths of depression, the loss of hope, lower levels of life. We live in a society where most people live in the valley but want to be up on the mountain. People use artificial ways to get on the mountain – drugs of various kinds and perhaps alcohol is the drug of choice. Millions use drugs every day. One of the greatest problems that we are facing as Americans is the influx of drugs through our southern borders. The lesson many are learning is that the “high” in the brain will not take you to the mountaintop.
Russell Conwell wrote a little book called, “Acres of Diamonds.” He tells of how his father bought a plot of land in new England and started to build a house in the valley. The neighbors said, “Mr. Conwell, you must not build here in the Valley for in the spring when the floods come, they bring so many snakes down from the upper levels. We build our houses higher up on the hills above the snake line.” We must all learn to live above the snake line for the bite of the serpent is strong.
Not only are there physical dangers in the valley, there are emotional dangers. Grief is one of the most terrible experiences in life. It is that experience of high anxiety and sorrow that comes when we have lost someone significant in our lives. We must learn some things about grief as we keep walking through the valley.
We must learn that grief recovery is slow, but we can be healed of it. The average person will take at least 18 to 24 months for life to balance out again. There will be times when emotions are so disturbed that you may feel that you are losing your mind. Life goes on around us and we feel like exclaiming to those about us, “I am hurting, don’t you understand! Do you not care that I am hurting deep down within?” And life just moves on. Above all, when we walk through the valley, we must keep walking for the Lord never meant for us to dwell there. We must learn that there are spiritual dangers in the valley where Satan unleashes his fury upon us. He comes to us at the time when we are the weakest and tries to distort our minds and pull us away from the Lord. The third thing to do in the valley is
CLAIM THE SHEPHERD’S PRESENCE.
“I fear no evil for Thou art with me.” You see, the great thing is that we do not have to face this experience alone. Of course, there are times when we feel terribly alone, but for the Christian we have the privilege of His presence.
I think she knew she was dying, but it did not appear to us that it was imminent. Janice and I had a good evening visit with my mother, Julia, at Grand Strand Hospital in Myrtle Beach. She had lived with us for the past four years. She said, “Before you leave tonight, read me the 23rd Psalm.” I read the Psalm and had a prayer with her. As we walked out of the room, her eyes followed us all the way until the door was closed. About an hour after we got home, a nurse called and said, “Your mother has just passed away.” We rushed back to the hospital and I stood by her bed and held her warm hand until it got cold. A few days later we had a service in Myrtle Beach and then transported her to the family plot in the Harmony Baptist Church churchyard in South Georgia. She passed from this life into the Shepherd’s presence. As she had claimed His presence throughout her life, she entered His larger presence in the afterlife. The fourth lesson is
ACCEPT HIS COMFORT.
“Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” The rod was the emblem of authority. Two instruments the Shepherd carried were emblems of Authority and Defense. It was just a long stick with a crook at the top. But the Shepherd used this rod for the welfare of the sheep. It expressed his intent and authority over the plagues and the terrors of the valley. Sometimes the sheep would try to eat poison weeds and the Shepherd would throw it at the sheep. Sometimes an animal of prey would get too close to the sheep and he could throw it and drive them away. Sometimes the sheep would wander, and he could throw it at them to bring them back by cutting off their path. It was used for discipline. The rod is the symbol in Scripture of the Scripture itself. “Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
Through the Scriptures we find discipline. The third use of the rod was in examining the sheep. There is an Old Testament saying in Ezekiel 20:37 to “come under the rod.” That meant to be counted. Every sheep would come one at a time and the Shepherd would push back the wool to examine the skin underneath. “Search me, O God and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”
God defends us with the rod, the Book. He examines us through its truths. You remember when Jesus suffered the assaults of Satan, He quoted from the Scriptures and drove Satan away. Where on earth can you find comfort like this? The Book reveals to us the truth of God about eternal life. The staff was the symbol of concern for the comfort of the sheep. It was used for three major things: the first was to draw the sheep to Himself. As the sheep would be having lambs they would get separated from their mothers and the Shepherd would simply put the staff down with the crook under the sheep’s body and lift it close to its mother. For if the Shepherd were to touch it the mother would reject the Lamb. Later he would use it to lift the sheep to himself. The staff is the emblem of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And so you can see, our Shepherd is saying, “Through the Scriptures I discipline your life, through the Holy Spirit I draw you close to Myself.”
The second use of the staff was to guide. The Shepherd would simply touch the sheep with it and guide them little by little. He would point them in the way that he wanted them to go. Through the Holy Spirit He guides us and makes Jesus real to us. Finally, the staff was used to free a sheep that was caught in a bush and he would simply pull them out with the staff. Can’t you see how the Holy Spirit in our lives does the same thing? He draws us to the Father. He guides us and makes Jesus real to us, and He frees us from entanglements.
Psalm 27:13-14 is closely associated with these thoughts: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord.”
There will be times when it seems like we will never get out of the valley but listen to what He says – when we wait on the Lord, He strengthens our hearts and gives us courage. Did you notice in our text today a statement of absolute trust? Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for Thou art with me.” This is one of the strongest statements in all of Scripture that nothing evil can harm us. Nothing evil can ruin our lives. David faced all the human emotions that we face. He experienced the agony of grief. And looking across his life and seeing the valleys and the mountain peaks, he would say to us, “STAY CLOSE TO THE SHEPHERD, KEEP WALKING, CLAIM THE SHEPHERD’S PRESENCE, and ACCEPT HIS COMFORT.”
Praise be to The Good Shepherd – who gave his life for the sheep!