Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).
As a pastor, I have attended the bedside of believers as they passed from this life to the next. There’s something unnerving when a life expires. The intake and exhale of breath, labored but steady. The chest swells and falls as the lungs do their work. And then nothing. No movement. Only then do you realize that you have witnessed a final breath. The body remains. The person is gone.
The Twenty-third psalm provide sound theology and pastoral recourse at such times. As the shadow of death darkens, the pastor can employ these words to shine as a beacon of the light of glory to dispel the darkness and give comfort and hope.
The valley of the shadow of death can be a scary place. Like the dark alleys of a crime-ridden city, we don’t know what dangers lurk. We’ve never been there before. Even the most robust of faith can cringe.
Knowing that trepidation, the Shepherd of our souls ministers to us with words of assurance. He is with us. We need not fear. He exercises pastoral care to tend us, His rod and staff expertly wielded to provide comfort at the most insidious face of evil—death.
Faith forged by His truth and fortified by His grace tells us that, in Christ, death, as formidable as it is, has been overcome. Though it terminates our earthly pilgrimage, it is a door to the enjoyment of life eternal and, most precious of all, Christ Himself. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Nothing in all the created order can separate us from the love of our Father God bound up in Christ.
What is the valley of the shadow of death? Certainly, it finds a place with other poetic imagery of the psalms. A valley communicates descent, a low point. But can death, the epitome of darkness, cast a shadow?
For something to cast a shadow it must have substance. A shadow is never disembodied. It presumes a reality. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the earthy sanctuary of the old covenant sacrificial system being a shadow cast by the heavenly reality found in Christ as both priest and offering.
In addition, a shadow implies a source of light. The publisher of my book, The Prayer of Jehoshaphat: Seeing Beyond Life’s Storms, did an amazing job in their design of the cover. A tree stands in a field, alone, vulnerable. One of its branches hangs broken, a consequence of a violent storm. The tree will never be the same. Dark clouds dominate the sky, taunting and ominous. Yet a close look at the base of the tree reveals a shadow. That means even though the clouds loom, there is a source of light. That source is the Lord of the storm, who governs the tempest for His purpose and sustains us in its wake. He gives the perspective of hope, reminding us that the storm is not the ultimate reality nor is brokenness the final answer.
Death casts a shadow because it is real, a reality of a fallen world into which death entered by virtue of the sin of Adam. We live under the pall of death, decay and destruction. The Bible describes it as darkness.
It is into this darkness that Christ came, the light of the world.
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:15–16).
Notice that the shadow is not merely the period before death. It spreads across lands and worlds and generations. The shadow of death is descriptive not merely of the valley before death, but of this fallen world, this present evil age. The inhabitants of this world dwell in darkness. They are at home in darkness.
Into this darkness the eternal Son of God became incarnate. John in his new creation account puts it this way:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1–5).
That light, prophesied the father of John the forerunner, was
“…to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:77–79).
A shadow testifies to a light source. The direction of a shadow cast by a reality depends on the position of the source of light. Christ, as the Light of the world, is with us to dispel our blindness and direct our steps. But it is the light of future glory that creates the shadow of hope, perhaps darkest at the valley of death.
The valley of the shadow of death speaks not to fear but to anticipation. That shadow might be darkest at death’s door but that’s only because we are closer to the Light on the other side, where the darkness of the fall will be no more.
The believer has had the light of life dispel the darkness of his sin and unbelief. The believer was once darkness, but now she is light in the Lord. And so the believer, for whom to live is Christ and to die is gain, can declare:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6).