Psalm 23 Series, Part 6

Through the Shadows

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” —Psalm 23:4

WE HAVE previously considered the psalmist’s reference to the “paths of righteousness” through which the Good Shepherd leads his sheep. We found that oftentimes these paths are narrow and difficult to walk along. In our present lesson we find ourselves still traversing these difficult paths of righteousness, and we discover that they lead through what David describes as ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. It is emphasized not only that the paths themselves are rugged, but that the territory through which they lead is fraught with danger. But if we have faith in the ability of the Good Shepherd we fear no evil, because we know that he is ever near, abundantly able to care for us in our every time of need, “a very present help in trouble.”—Ps. 46:1

The expression ‘shadow of death’ suggests great peril—the possibility of death is always present. To walk through such a valley safely is possible only by keeping close to the Good Shepherd. It is well to rejoice in the green pastures to which the Good Shepherd leads us, and we are strengthened and satisfied as we drink the still waters of refreshing truth which he finds for us; but we must also learn to depend upon his protecting care when danger is near; and in reality there is no time when a Christian is not endangered.

The world of mankind has been in the valley of the shadow of death ever since our first parents transgressed the divine law, and the sentence fell upon them, “Dying thou shalt die.” (Gen. 2:17, Margin) It has been a dark valley indeed, in which the dying race has groped along its way as best it could, but all the while getting farther and farther away from God, and from the source of life he has provided through Christ. The valley has been so oppressively dark that the entire period during which mankind has been walking in it is described in the Bible as a nighttime.

And it has been a night of weeping for the poor groaning creation. David speaks of it, saying that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5) To each generation of the fallen race there has seemed to be no end to the night, no morning of brightness and joy. Man himself has utterly failed to dispel the gloom with which he has been surrounded. Despite his best efforts to overcome the curse under which he dwells, mankind has continued to suffer and to die. David wrote that in God’s favor is life, and since man lost God’s favor, it is impossible to escape death, except through a provision of grace whereby divine favor is restored.

And it is just this that ultimately will scatter the mists of darkness that enshroud the valley of the shadow of death. It can be accomplished only through the provision made by the Creator. That is why it is well to seek the Lord, for he alone is able to lead one through the valley of death and darkness into light and life. The prophet writes, “Seek him that … turneth the shadow of death into morning.” (Amos 5:8) What joy will come to the sin-sick and dying world when the valley of death, with all its darkness and gloom, will be turned into morning through the rising of the “Sun of righteousness,”—the dawn of the glad new day of Christ’s kingdom!

But by faith the followers of the Master, the Good Shepherd, even now escape the great enemy, Death, which stalks up and down in the valley of the shadow of death. Through faith in the Redeemer they pass from death unto life—death has no more dominion over them. Nevertheless they are still in the valley, and still surrounded by death. They are in the world, but not of it. As the world views these, they are not different from others, for they “die like men.” (Ps. 82:7) Actually, however, what the world does not know is that the Lord’s sheep die, not because they are under condemnation, but because they lay down their lives in sacrifice, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

While the Lord’s people, the sheep of the Gospel Age, have passed from death unto life, they are still in danger of death—not Adamic death, but the second death. Even Jesus, the perfect one, who walked through the valley before us, was aware of this real danger. Near the close of his life of sacrifice, when the possibility of failure bore down upon him, Jesus “offered up … strong cryings and tears,” and the apostle tells us that he was heard in that he feared. (Heb. 5:7) He did not fear the Jews, nor the Roman soldiers. He did not fear the cross. But he did fear that if he had not been wholly faithful to his vows of consecration he would lose his life altogether, as well as fail to redeem mankind. When he was assured of victory, Jesus was calm and satisfied.

As new creatures in Christ Jesus we stand in a somewhat similar position. However, we have the advantage of enjoying the good offices of Jesus as our “advocate with the Father.” (I John 2:1) We, therefore, do not have the same need of fear. As the psalmist puts it, we “fear no evil,” for the Lord, the Good Shepherd, is with us. We are not endeavoring to find our way alone through the valley of death; even our need for forgiveness when we come short of the glory of God is abundantly supplied.

Our lack of fear is not because we are not surrounded by danger, but because our faith is very strong in the ability of the Good Shepherd to protect us against all the threatening evils which, without his help, would be certain to engulf us. Our faith is based on the assurance of his love for us as his sheep. Knowing of his great love which caused him to lay down his life for us, we can say with the apostle, “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”—Rom. 8:38

With such a blessed assurance there is no room for fear. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” says the apostle. (I John 4:18) “Fear hath torment,” he declares. If through lack of faith in the Good Shepherd’s loving care, we become fearful of the enemies which threaten from every side, we certainly will be robbed of the joy and peace which properly is our heritage as new creatures in Christ Jesus.

Fear originates with a lack of faith. Neither the Heavenly Father nor his beloved Son, our Good Shepherd, create fear. The apostle wrote, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (II Tim. 1:7) We learn the spirit of love through the exhibition of his divine love toward us. It is shed abroad in our hearts by the realization we have of the self-sacrificing interest of our Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us. The more we contemplate the love of our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus, the more determined we become to be filled and governed by that same Spirit of love.

We have also been given the “Spirit of power.” The source of our strength is the Lord. “My grace is sufficient for thee:” he said to the beloved Apostle Paul, “for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12:9) This same blessed assurance applies equally to all the sheep who are following the Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death. When we think of self we tremble, but when we look to the Lord and depend upon him, we feel secure. We are able to say with the apostle, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”—Phil. 4:13

The Lord has also given us the “Spirit of a sound mind,” the apostle declares. There is nothing which contributes more to fear, hence to ultimate defeat, than unsoundness of mind. This does not imply insanity, in the ordinary sense of the word, but rather, a condition in which a Christian fails to properly consider the issues involved, and becomes panic-stricken when surrounded by danger. But terror gives way instantly to peace when one hearkens to the reassurances of the Good Shepherd, saying, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”—Heb. 13:5

There is no time when one is in greater jeopardy of falling than when seized by fright. Under such conditions a Christian is unable to weigh the issues and thus to be assured that “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world,” and “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (I John 4:4; Rom 8:31) When a Christian is filled with fear all he can see are the enemies which surround him, and all he can think of is the fierce attacking power and the deadly intent of those enemies. The more his mind dwells upon these, the more insecure he becomes. There is only one escape from this tragic condition of mind and heart, and that is by faith in prayer to lay hold more firmly upon the exceedingly precious promises, and to focus attention more resolutely upon the Good Shepherd, knowing he is indeed a very present help in time of trouble.

There is a fear which serves as a very valuable asset to Christian faithfulness in following the Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death. The apostle wrote, “Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.” (Heb. 4:1) Here the word fear does not have the thought of dread, but rather of extreme carefulness and watchfulness lest we fail to carry out any part of the divine will for us. It implies earnest watchfulness and prayer, that we may be alert to every move of the Good Shepherd, and to the slightest indication from him as to the direction in which we should go.

Spiritual alertness is most essential if we are to walk safely through the valley of the shadow of death. It cannot be done in a listless, indifferent sort of way. It is not a part-time undertaking. It is not a journey with stopovers nor resting places. It is not a case of following the Good Shepherd merely when we are in the mood to do so—and going our own way when it suits us better. We cannot insist on having liberty to wander through the valley at will. Attitudes such as these will lead to disaster, for there are many enemies ready to pounce upon us, to strike us down, the moment we fail to follow the Good Shepherd attentively.

Let us therefore be on the alert to give heed to every instruction of the Lord, to obey every command, to fulfill every condition of the narrow way, in order that, as we follow him through the valley of the shadow of death, we will be safe and secure from all harm. Many promises have been left to us, but conditions are attached to most of them. If we come short of the stipulations, the promises become ineffectual. Let us make certain that we do not come short. Let us make sure by watchfulness, by prayer, by earnestness, and by zeal for knowing and doing the will of the Good Shepherd.

The psalmist wrote, “I will fear no evil.” No evil can befall those who trust fully in the Good Shepherd and walk obediently in the way he leads. The Apostle Peter asked, “Who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?” (I Pet. 3:13) This great fact of divine care has been true of the Lord’s people in every age, but it is manifested differently now than it was in the Jewish Age. The natural house of Israel, dealt with by God under the terms of the Law Covenant, were cared for and blessed along material lines in proportion to the degree of their faithfulness. But material blessings are not promised to spiritual Israelites—the Lord’s sheep of this Gospel Age.

When we take to ourselves the promise that no evil shall befall us, we must understand it to apply along spiritual lines. To appreciate this thought fully we need only to consider Jesus, who is not only our Good Shepherd, but our exemplar as well. We are following in his footsteps, and we should not expect to fare better in this present evil world than he did. (Gal. 1:4) The Heavenly Father permitted the cruel hand of persecution to come down upon Jesus, crushing him even unto death.

Nevertheless, it was true of the Master that no evil befell him. Jesus was a ‘follower of that which was good’, even as Peter counsels the Master’s followers to ‘be. (I Pet. 3:13) In fact, Jesus laid down his life doing good. It was true of him also, that none could do him harm, although we know that Jesus was persecuted. He was tried and falsely accused; he was spat upon and beaten; a crown of thorns was placed upon his bleeding head; he was cruelly nailed to a cross; jeered at, and mocked; he died upon that cross—killed by his enemies. Yet Jesus was not harmed as a new creature—no evil came upon him, in the sense that his spiritual, eternal interests were not impaired. The worst that the enemies of Jesus could do to him, was unwittingly ‘to change his cross for a crown’. When viewed by the vision of faith, this certainly could not be considered an evil.

So it is now with those of us who follow the leadings of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. No evil can befall us—no one can do us harm. This does not mean that we will be spared from material loss or physical suffering. Following the leading of the Good Shepherd does not bring immunity from any of the things which the world or the worldly construe to be evil.

As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we will have much the same experiences as those which are common to mankind in general. Viewed from the standpoint of the natural man, we will eventually succumb to the same difficult experiences of the valley of death as do our neighbors and friends. We will die like men. None of the experiences, nor the sum total of them all, can do us harm, but rather, good. The mason for this is that while the outward man is perishing, we have the assurance that the inward man is being renewed day by day. (II Cor. 4:16) And this is the important consideration for us. Let the hardships come, if they will. Let the world, the flesh, and the devil combine to inflict trials upon us, yet we will fear no evil, for no evil can touch the new creature.

Instead of viewing the hardships which may befall us as evils, we will be thankful for them, knowing that these are the very means by which we are being tested and prepared for heavenly glory in joint-heirship with the Master. We will die in the valley of the shadow of death, but by grace and power divine we will triumph over death. Being planted together in the likeness of Jesus’ death, we will also be in the likeness of his resurrection.

So we continue on through the darksome valley of death, where fear blights the happiness of nearly all who traverse its hazardous path. We do not fear because we know ‘that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”—II Cor. 4:17,18

“I will fear no evil,” David wrote, because “Thou art with me.” What solace there is in this thought! Can any harm come to us while in the company of the Lord? Knowing that he is near, we can abandon ourselves entirely to the enjoyment of his sweet fellowship. We cannot know what experiences await us from day to day. All we know is that if we follow closely where the Good Shepherd leads, he will be with us in our every time of need. And this is all we need to know. Truly did the poet write:

“So on I go not knowing,
         I would not if I might;
I’d rather walk in the dark with God
         Than go alone in the light;
I’d rather walk by faith with him
         Than go alone by sight.”

How comforting indeed is the assurance of the Lord’s presence with us while walking through the vale of shadows. To us he is more than a friend. His fellowship means more than worldly comforts or pleasures, more than fame or riches. The allurements of the world are nothing compared to the blessedness of his presence and fellowship.

Earth-born clouds may arise to temporarily obscure our vision of the Good Shepherd, dimming our realization of his presence with us. It is at such times that we need to lay hold afresh upon God’s promises more tightly than ever, for faith banishes fear. It can part the clouds so that we will again see the smiling countenance of the Good Shepherd, and hear his loving and reassuring words, “Follow me.”

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