Walking Through the Valley

Psalm 23:4

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Dear Friends in Christ,

If our group was smaller this morning and you had time to think about it, you know what I’d like to do?  I’d like to pass a sheet of paper around to everybody and have you write down your favorite Bible verse, that one verse in Scripture that is more near and dear to you than any other.  But since we don’t have time to do that today, let me toss out to you a few verses that might just be included on that list of favorites.  How about Rom. 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  And while we’re in Romans 8, let’s go back to v. 1, which gives us this incredible promise: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Or how about Phil. 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”  Or Rev. 2:10: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  And then there’s perhaps the best known verse in all of Holy Scripture, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Indeed, the list of most beloved verses in Scripture is virtually endless, isn’t it?

And this morning we have the privilege of examining one of those verses that maybe wouldn’t be the first to come to your mind, but I think you’ll all agree with me when I say that it is one that deserves to be on the list.  It’s Ps. 23:4 where David writes, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

If you’ve ever attended a funeral service, you have probably heard those words spoken there.  If you’ve ever walked through a cemetery, you have probably seen them on a tombstone.  They’re quoted at the gravesides of princes and paupers and engraved on the headstones of kings and queens.  Those who know little or nothing about the Bible are usually familiar with these words.  In fact, I read them at just about every committal service I do at the cemetery because I typically read the entire 23rd Psalm at that time.  Sometimes I invite the people to join me in speaking the words of this psalm and I’m always amazed at how many of them know them by heart.

Why is that?  Why are these words so treasured and revered?  I can think of a couple of reasons that I’d like to cover with you this morning.  Only I share them with you not just to impart information to you, but to give you hope and to remove from your heart any fear or doubts or reservations you might have about the grave.

And the first point that I want to make is that we all have to face the grave sooner or later.  Unless Christ comes back first, we will all have to walk through the valley.  We will all have an appointment with death.  I remember some years ago I had an appointment with my dentist, just a routine check-up.  I had posted the appointment card on our refrigerator and marked the date on the calendar that sits on my desk just so I wouldn’t forget.  But guess what?  I forgot.  I got so busy that day with other things that that appointment completely slipped my mind.  Well, the next day I got a phone call.  As soon as they said, “This is Dr. Barnfield’s office,” I knew what had happened and apologized profusely for missing that appointment.

Well, we might be able to inadvertently miss a dentist’s or doctor’s appointment, or maybe even an appointment with the pastor, as has happened to me multiple times in my ministry, but there is one appointment we will not miss.  And that is our appointment with death.  Heb. 9:27 puts it this way: “Everyone must die once, and after that be judged by God.”  Oh, how we’d like to change that verse.  Not all of it, but just a word or two.  Wouldn’t it be better if it read “Nearly everyone must die…” or “Everyone but I must die…” or “Everyone who forgets to eat right and take their vitamins must die…”  But those are not God’s words.  Rather he says everyone must die, even those who eat right and take their vitamins.

Now I could have gone all morning without reminding you of that grim reality, couldn’t I, because the truth of the matter is that most people don’t like to think about death or talk about death, especially their own death. However, Solomon, the wisest man to ever live next to Christ himself, encourages us to face it squarely, to not sugarcoat it, to not deny is impending inevitability.  In Ecclesiastes 7:2 he says: “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.”  Please understand Solomon isn’t urging us to have a morbid obsession with death.  He’s simply reminding us to be honest about its reality.  Moses does the same in the only psalm attributed to him, Psalm 90.  In v. 12 he says, and I’m going to read this to you from the Jerusalem Bible: “Teach us to count how few days we have and so gain a heart of wisdom.”

In other words, the wise understand and remember the brevity of life.  Exercise may buy us a few more heartbeats.  Medicine may grant us a few more breaths.  But in the end, there is an end.  So the best way to face life is to be honest about death.

That’s exactly what David was doing when he wrote this part of the 23rd Psalm.  He may have been able to slay the giant Goliath, but he had no illusions about slaying or sidestepping the giant of death.  And while David’s initial reminder that we all have to face death may sober us a bit, his 2nd reminder in our text encourages us.  For David goes on to say that we don’t have to face death alone.

I want you to notice something that I know I never noticed before until I was working on this sermon.  Up to this point in the psalm, you and I have been the audience that David is addressing and God, our heavenly Shepherd, has been the topic.  “The Lord is my shepherd.” “He makes me lie down.” “He leads me beside the still waters.” “He restores my soul.” “He leads me in the paths of righteousness.”  For the first 3 verses, David says all these wonderful things about God and we listen. But suddenly in v. 4 all of that changes.  And David is no longer speaking to us, but rather to God.  It’s as if David’s face, which was directed toward us, now lifts heavenward toward God.  And just like that, his poem becomes a prayer.  For he says:  “Even when I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death, Lord, I have nothing to fear for you are with me.”

I think the point David is trying to get across to us here through this subtle shift is that even though we must all face death sooner or later, we should never think of facing it until we have shifted our focus toward God.  This can especially be seen in famous last words that people have spoken.  For example, Thomas Paine was an American author and unbeliever who wrote a book called The Age of Reason in which he promoted a very humanistic, man-centered rather than God-centered way of looking at life.  In that book he discounted many of the beliefs that we Christians hold near and dear to our hearts.  But as he found himself staring death in the eye, he said: “I would give worlds, if I had them, that ‘The Age of Reason’ had never been published.  O God, what have I done to suffer so much?  But there is no God!  But if there should be, what will become of me hereafter?  Stay with me, for God’s sake!  Send even a child to stay with me, for it is hell to be alone.  If ever the devil had an agent, I have been that one.”  Note the confusion and despair that clouded his mind as he lay on his deathbed.  And contrast that with 2 men who had their focus fixed upon Christ throughout their lives.  The first one is the great preacher Dwight L. Moody, who said on his deathbed: “I see earth receding.  Heaven is opening.  God is calling!”  You can sense relief and anticipation in his last words.  And then I love the words of Adoniram Judson, the great American missionary to Burma.  He said: “I go with the gladness of boy bounding away from school.  I feel so strong in Christ.”  I like what he doesn’t say there.  He doesn’t say, “I go with the gladness of a boy bounding to school.”  When you see kids going to school, they are usually less than enthusiastic.  But just watch them come out of school at the end of the day, and they’re leaping and bounding and full of excitement.

So the words of our text bring comfort, hope, and assurance as we all face the impending reality of our own death.  Years after David wrote these words, another Bethlehem Shepherd named Jesus spoke words that would bring us even more comfort as we heard in our Gospel reading before: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  Note the promise Jesus gives you there: “I will come back and take you to be with me.”  This is a task he does not delegate.  Though he may send pastors to teach you, angels to protect you, teachers to guide you, singers to inspire you, and physicians to heal you, he sends no one to take you.  That’s a job he reserves for himself.  That’s the kind of personal Shepherd he is.

And because he is present when one of his sheep dies, we can say what David said, “I will fear no evil.”  Those words make me think of the time when I was a freshman in high school and my buddies and I attended a basketball game at nearby Mt. Olive, IL.  For some reason the guys from that school just didn’t like us guys from Staunton.  And I guess my friends and I looked like easy prey for as soon as we walked in the door we found ourselves surrounded by a gang of Mt. Olive thugs who flat out told us they were going to take us out back and beat us up.  As I tried my best to reason with them, I spotted my big brother Steve and his buddies coming in the door, so I called out to him.  He immediately came over and sensed what was going on.  So he, being about 6 feet 3 inches tall at the time, looked down at these punks from Mt. Olive and said, “Is there a problem here,” to which they replied, “No,” and then they took off running like a pack of dogs with their tails between their legs.

Well, when we find ourselves coming face to face with the bully of death, we could very easily be frightened just like I was that night.  But thankfully, we don’t have to be.  For we have a big brother whose name is Jesus and he has promised that he will be there for us.  And as we call out to him and reach out to him and place our faith and trust in him, all our fears disappear because the One whom we know can be trusted more than anyone or anything else is with us.

Let me close then with a true story about a chaplain in the French army years ago who liked to use the 23rd Psalm to encourage soldiers before battle.  He would urge them to repeat the opening clause of the psalm, ticking it off, one finger at a time.  The little finger represented the word the; the ring finger represented the word LORD; the middle finger, is; the index finger, my; and the thumb, shepherd.  Then he asked every soldier to write the words on the palm of his hand and to repeat the verse whenever he was afraid or needed strength.

The chaplain especially emphasized the index finger which stood for the word my.  He wanted the soldiers to understand that God is a personal shepherd with a personal mission – to get his sheep home safely.

Did the soldiers take the chaplain’s words to heart?  At least one of them did.  For after one battle one young man was found dead, his right hand clutching the index finger of his left.  “The Lord is my shepherd.”  I pray that whenever your final hour comes, you will be found doing the same thing, clutching the same truth, the same hope, the same Shepherd.