A Study in the The Twenty-Third Psalm
Death is not a popular subject. In fact, when you mention death, people will change the subject like they change TV channels.
Man is the only creature who knows he's going to die, and he's trying desperately to forget it. We do everything we can to avoid thinking about death. We don't like the idea of dying.
Death is a fact, but it's something the believer in Christ is not to be afraid of. David must have had that in mind when he wrote Psalm 23 and spoke of “the valley of the shadow of death.”
In the Holy Land, there is such a valley. It starts between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, about 2,700 ft. above sea level, and flows down to 1300 ft. below sea level to the Dead Sea. This canyon is called “the valley of the shadow of death.” It’s narrow—at the bottom in some places it's only 12 feet wide. Even at high noon, it's full of shadows. In Bible times there were bears, hyenas, leopards and robbers in its caves.
There were steep places where sheep might fall. It was such a frightening place, shepherds named it “the valley of the shadow of death.”
But it was a useful valley. In winter when there was not much grass, shepherds would take their sheep down to Jericho where the sheep would winter-in and feed on the lush grass that would grow even in winter. When spring came, the green Judean hills would grow bright with verdant color, and the shepherd would lead his sheep through that valley to greener pastures in the highlands.
Surely David had that in mind when he wrote this beautiful psalm. Perhaps David himself many times led his sheep through that valley, the valley of the shadow of death.
In Psalm 23, David is saying, “The Lord is to me what I've been to my sheep. The Lord is my Shepherd. And even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” David had learned to smile at death. I want you to learn to smile at death.
Three principles will help you to do that.
ACCEPT DEATH AS A DECIDED FACT
“It's appointed unto man once to die” Hebrews 9:27 says. That's an appointment we all have. “Wherefore, as by one man, sin entered into the world and death by sin, so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned” Romans 5:12. The only exception to whether or not you might die is if Jesus returns first. But if He doesn’t, you’re going to die. The statistic on death is: one out of every one person dies.
Death is an uncertain fact. Walking through the valley, David doesn't know from one moment to the next what’s going to happen. You don't know when you're going to die. We live one step at a time. The Psalmist said there is but a step between me and death. You don't know when you're going to die. Old men die, but sometimes young mothers kiss their babies good-bye and leave them. Sometimes even a little child drops his toys to grapple with the iron strength of death. You do not know what will happen tomorrow. “For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” James 4:14.
Life, a gift from God, is like vapor on a frosty morning, here for a moment, then gone. You see, God doesn't have to take your life. All He has to do is stop giving it. “It is because of the Lord's mercies that we're not consumed.” (Lamentations 3:22)
Death is a personal fact. “Yea, though I walk.” Each of us is walking in the valley of the shadow of death, just as David was. You may die at any moment. You say, “Well I'm healthy right now.” Perhaps, but cars run over healthy people also. You are living on the edge of eternity.
SEE DEATH AS A DEFEATED FOE
You can look death in the face and say, “I will fear no evil,” because Jesus Christ defeated death.
There can be no valley without mountains.
Psalm 23 is the valley psalm between two mountain psalms:
To the left, the blood-drenched slopes of Mount Calvary. To the right, the sunlit peaks of Mount Zion. Between the crucifixion and the coronation, we are living in the valley.
The Lord Jesus Christ is described as a shepherd three times in the New Testament:
the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
the Chief Shepherd who is coming for me. (1 Peter 5:4)
the Great Shepherd who now lives for me. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
The Good Shepherd rose from the dead. He conquered the valley of the shadow of death.
Are you down in the valley? Then look at the mountains. Look to Mount Calvary and to Mount Zion.
There can be no shadow without light.
The valley of the shadow of death is just a shadow if you know the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus pulled the sting out of death, the gloom out of the grave, the dread out of dying, and has given us a hope steadfast and sure. A shadow may frighten you, but a shadow cannot hurt you. God made us to walk through shadows.
There was a preacher whose wife died when she was still a young woman, leaving behind a little daughter. The little girl didn't understand the intricacies of life and death and Jesus dying for our sins. After the funeral one day, she and her father were downtown in their car, and she looked over on the wall of a department store and saw the shadow of a truck. Because the sun was setting, the shadow was even larger than the truck and made a huge shadow. The little girl said, “Daddy, look at the big shadow of the truck.” And he saw then an opportunity to help her understand.
“Sweetheart, if you had your choice, would you rather be hit by the shadow of the truck or by the truck?”
“Oh, that's easy, Daddy. I'd much rather be hit by the shadow.”
“That's right, darling. It was only the shadow that hit mama. The truck hit Jesus 2000 years ago at Calvary.”
The truck hit Jesus. Jesus has become our victor.
Are you in the valley of the shadow of death right now? “The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shine.” Isaiah 9:2. If you'll look to the light, the shadow will fall behind you. You won't even see it.
RECOGNIZE DEATH AS A DELIGHTFUL FRIEND
Death a friend?
Listen to the apostle Paul: “For me to die is gain” Philippians 1:21. Paul sees death not as an enemy but as a servant to help us.
Death is not an enemy if it helps me to come to a place like that. David thought of it as a friend.
The presence of my Shepherd
“I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Nothing will bring you face to face with God more than the dark valleys of life. When you get there, you're going to know what He meant when He said “I will never leave you nor forsake you” Hebrews 13:5. “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” Matthew 28:20. You will know what “Thou art with me” means. I won’t have to cross Jordan alone. I'm not going to have to die alone. When that moment comes, my Lord is there with me.
The power of my Shepherd
“Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” His rod protects the sheep; His staff lifts the sheep. The Lord will be with you. He will strengthen you. His rod will be there to protect you from all of the powers of evil. His staff will be there to draw you up close to him as you walk through that valley.
The purpose of my Shepherd
He will bring you through the valley. It's a valley, not a box canyon. Jesus has kicked the end out of the grave, and He’s bringing us through. David knew that a shepherd would never lead his sheep through any place like that unless he's leading them to a better place. You may be in difficulty today. It’s for a season and a purpose.
Are you still fearful of death? Hebrews 2:15 says that the devil keeps people in bondage through the fear of death. You are not ready to live until you're no longer afraid to die.
“But what about my sins?” you ask. Here’s what to do with your sins. Put your faith where God puts your sin: on Jesus. I want you to come to this place where death has no more terrors for you; to be able to smile at death; to settle the death question, so you can now begin to live the life question.
If you're not certain you are saved, may I invite you to pray a prayer like this? “Dear God, I know You love me, and I know You want to save me. Jesus, You are the Good Shepherd. You died for this lost sheep. You died for me. Lord, You are the Great Shepherd. You’ve been raised from the dead. And You are the Chief Shepherd. You're coming again. And I want you to be my Shepherd.”
You will be raised to eternal life.
When we come to Him in repentance and faith, we are empowered-and expected-to live the Christian life not by trying, but by trusting. Faith is not only how we receive salvation, it is how we walk, day by day, in grace. Only by faith can we extend forgiveness to others, share God's truth, and leave a godly legacy. As the tapestry of your life unfolds, may you begin to see the wonders of living each day, moment by moment, a life of faith and forgiveness.