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The 23rd Psalm is probably the best known, most loved, and most quoted chapter in all of Scripture.
However, because this Psalm is often requested by the dying and spoken at funerals, we may tend to associate this Psalm with death and dying.
In fact, I was advised at seminary, not to use this Psalm when visiting someone in the hospital – unless they request it or else they happen to be on their death bed, for in doing so I may cause people who aren't gravely ill to go into a panic that they are about to die even when they are not.
But this Psalm isn't just meant for the dying, it is meant for the living, as well! For it speaks to all the children of God, no matter what state in life they happen to be in.
Roy Campanella was a baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and is recognized as one of the best catchers in the history of baseball. In 1958, he was involved in an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. In his autobiography he talks about the many nights he cried himself to sleep, of the pain that racked his body, and his sinking into a deep depression.
He writes, "All my life whenever I was in trouble, I had turned to God for help. I remembered my Bible and asked the nurse to get the one from the drawer in the night table. I opened it to the 23rd Psalm and read the words, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me'. "From that moment on I was on my way back. I knew I was going to make it!"
And there are myriads of testimonies like that – of how persons have found in this Psalm the comfort, strength, and the assurance that in spite of what they happen to be going through, ‘They are going to make it!' (perhaps, you have your own personal testimony of just how meaningful this Psalm has been in your life)
Psalm 23 is steeped in the language and customs of shepherding sheep in ancient Palestine. And if you don't realize the unique relationship that shepherds had with their sheep back when it was written (around 1000 B.C.), you may not fully comprehend all the unique nuances contained in its six verses.
To save on the word count for this article, I invite you to join me in focusing on verse 4, where we read, "Even though I walk in a very dark valley, I fear no harm because You are with me; Your rod and Your staff give me comfort."
According to tradition, ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death' was a real place in Israel. It was a valley, or a mountain pass between Jericho and Jerusalem that enabled the shepherds to lead their sheep from one mountain pasture to another. It got its name from shepherds because of its' steep sides and shear rock walls and was terrifying place for skittish, defenseless, fearful sheep. For on both sides of the valley there were numerous caves and rocks and crevices that were perfect hiding places for animals of prey, as well as for people who meant harm to passing travelers. On top of this, sounds would echo and amplify in the valley, making the sheep even more petrified than they already were.
Earlier in the Psalm we read the words, "The Lord is my shepherd", He makes me lie down in green pastures", "He leads me beside quite waters", and "He guides me in paths of righteousness", but now the sheep are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
But, how did they get there? Why, it was none other than the Good Shepherd Himself who had led them into this valley. The Shepherd is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we read in John 10, where Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. Consequently, we, as God's redeemed people, are the sheep.
And what is the Valley of the Shadow of Death? It is those terrifying, dark, lonely, and frightening times in our lives – times of sickness, tragedy, stress, uncertainty, economic hardship, confusion, loneliness, pain, etc., when God seems far away.
But our Psalm reveals to us that it is the Good Shepherd who has led His sheep into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but He has a purpose for doing so, no matter how dark and treacherous the terrain. For the shepherd leads his sheep from pastures that are barren and parched and where food is scarce into fresh, lush, and green meadows.
However, in order to get there, the Shepherd and His sheep have to pass through a dark valley. The sheep don't understand this and don't fully understand why the Shepherd is leading them through such frightening and unpleasant surroundings. But the shepherd knows. He has a loving reason and purpose for leading His flock in the direction they are going and the sheep have learned to trust their Good Shepherd. As Jesus says in John 10, "My sheep listen to My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give them everlasting life. They will never be lost, and no one will tear them out of My hand" (vss. 27-28).
The sheep have grown to trust the Shepherd, who is willing to give His life for them (vs 11). Hence, the Shepherd has proven to be so trustworthy that His sheep follow Him, even though He is leading them through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and so the sheep follow the shepherd even through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, "fearing no evil".
And so, our Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, has a reason and purpose for leading us through the troubling, lonely and difficult times in our lives: in order to take us to the greener pastures of His good and perfect will for our lives and giving us an even deeper faith in Him. Knowing that He loves us so much that He willingly offered up His life for us that we may be His own, He calls us to trust in Him and follow Him even when we cannot always see His plan or purpose. We simply trust our Good Shepherd, because He has proven that He is trustworthy.
And another thing we should realize is that there is a world of difference between death and the shadow of death. The shadow may be frightening, dark, lonely and cold, but it's just a shadow, not the real thing. For what is death anyway? Death – real death – is the separation from being aware of God's love and grace. Death is being afraid of God.
It doesn't matter how strong, healthy, wealthy, safe, or secure you may think you are. If you do not know God's love for you, if God is someone you do not know, and have come to fear, then it's as if you are living in death.
In contrast, 1 Corinthians 15:54 tells for those who trust in the Good Shepherd, "death is swallowed up in victory'". Christ has taken up our death into the resurrection life prepared for all who believe in him.
In John 11, when Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus, and he met his sisters, Mary and Martha, He said, "I am the Resurrection and the Life. Anyone who believes in Me will live even if he dies." The promise that we Christians have every day of our lives is that we will never die. We will never be separated from the love of God that we have through Jesus Christ (see Romans 8:39).
This doesn't mean there won't be time when we experience the Valley of the Shadow of Death – and perhaps you are experiencing such a time right now in your life. There will be times when you might feel forsaken, abandoned, alone, rejected, troubled times when you may wonder where God if He has forsaken you.
But, God assures you in His Word that you are not forsaken. Along with God's promises, you have experienced His grace through the forgiveness of your sins Christ won for you on the cross and have the assurance of His unconditional love for you and that He is with you always.
Dear member of the Good Shepherd's fold, a lamb of His flock, a sinner of His own redeeming, I want to assure you that no matter what is going on in your life in this crazy mixed up world we find ourselves living in, GOD LOVES YOU!!!
As St. Paul, prayed for the Christians in Ephesus, I continually pray for the members of Messiah by name that "you and all the holy people can grasp how broad and long and high and deep His love is, and know how Christ loves us — more than we can know — and so you will be filled with all that is in God."
When you are in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, you may feel as if God is far away, but rest assured, God is right there in the Valley with you. He promises an abundant life in this world and in the world to come. For children of God don't die. He simply calls us from one life to another.
The ‘hour of our death' can be a terrifying experience. But should our Lord tarry and that time does come for you, keep in mind that your Good Shepherd is leading you to green pastures, where He will restore your soul. And He is preparing a table for you, a table that consists of the bread of heaven and the wine of everlasting and abundant joy.
As you read together verses 4 and 6 of Psalm 23, listen to the voice of your Good Shepherd, whenever you find yourself in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and be comforted and assured that He is leading you to a better place:
"Even though I walk in a very dark valley, I fear no harm because You are with me; Your rod and Your staff give me comfort….Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all my life, and I will live in the Lord's house forever."
And so, I conclude with the following words of Blessing:
"The God of peace – who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant – make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight; through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever."
Your Under-Shepherd under the Good Shepherd, Jesus our Lord and Savior,
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