The shadow of death in light of a sovereign Shepherd

Faye Morgan died on October 20, 2017.

Four days later, I preached her funeral at Montlawn Memorial Park in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her husband, Victor, of 48 impressive years requested that I speak on Psalm 23. I was happy to oblige.

 

For good reasons, Miss Faye’s favorite passage of the Bible was Psalm 23. Many of you probably know it by heart. David writes:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
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 23:1-6)

The suffering psalmist

Overlooking the beautiful simplicity of this psalm is easy. Perhaps no part of the Bible more powerfully expresses the confidence of someone who finds himself in the depths of despair. These words do not come from a man who knows nothing about grief. They are written by one who has faced terrible fears and tremendous sorrows which David so concisely described as “the valley of the shadow of death.”

David, the author of this psalm, was a good man, but he wasn’t perfect. He was faithful but not without fear. He was full of joy, but he suffered at times as we all do. In other words, David was human. That’s helpful to remember when we read these words. While we tend to be most familiar with David’s triumphs such as his victory over Goliath, he also spent time hiding from his enemies, fearing for his life. Without that context, we may miss the profound confidence David had in God through even the darkest days of his life.

One of the most remarkable things about this psalm is the absence of such words as us, we, or they. Instead, David uses intimate, personal language. He says, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He is not speaking theoretically or generically. This man has a genuine relationship with the God of heaven. He speaks to God. He trusts God. He relies on God daily for everything. To him, God is more than a potential deity in a realm far, far away. He is real, and he is here.

Drawing upon his experiences as a boy tending his father’s sheep, David refers to God as his shepherd. Why a shepherd? First of all, a shepherd guides his sheep. Second, he provides for his sheep. Third, he protects his sheep. In the end, the flock is fulfilled and lacking nothing. That is why David says, “I shall not want.” Put another way, “I shall not be in want.” There is nothing left to crave when God provides for his people.

The Shepherd’s sovereignty

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” No matter where God the Shepherd led David, David could always count on him to find nourishment and places to rest. That’s not to say David never felt hungry or thirsty. There were plenty of times when he felt far removed from anything resembling rest, but when David absolutely needed it, God provided.

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Despite the personal nature of this psalm, David understood God’s higher purpose. It’s not about David. It’s not about us. It’s about God. Everything he does is “for his name’s sake.”

If we lose sight of that, life itself ceases to have any discernible meaning. We’ll become like the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes who lamented, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). But when we realize that God is sovereign—he has a plan, and he’s in full control of everything that happens—we can be at peace. We don’t have to know why he does what he does. All we have to do is trust him. After all, he knows far more than we ever will.

David believed in the sovereignty and providential oversight of God. He says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” What possible comfort could David have if God was leading him through the valley of the shadow of death?

The benefits of pain

In this situation, I would love to give you a quick remedy for your pain, but there isn’t one. As cliche as it sounds, suffering is a part of life. More importantly, suffering can be a positive thing because it is a means by which God draws us closer to him.

Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecc 7:2). Why? It is because times of mourning force us to reflect on some of the most important lessons we can learn. For instance, we learn that we don’t have much control over what happens. We have to depend on God and his grace.

We also learn something about the terrible consequences of sin in our world. The Bible says, “While we are still in this [earthly home], we groan, being burdened” (2Co 5:4). As a result, Scripture says of believers, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Co 5:8). Suffering causes us to look forward to a place beyond the sorrow of this world, a place where grief cannot exist.

The eternal house of God

David has this thought in mind as he finishes Psalm 23. Swapping the shepherd analogy for another, he says:

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
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 23:5-6)

He will dwell in the house of the Lord not for a fleeting moment, but forever.

Right now, we are standing in the house of mourning, and it’s hard to see past this place, but I want you to imagine the scene which David describes here.

The Bible tells us that when Jesus died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, he sat down at the right hand of God. Not long after, we read of a man by the name of Stephen being stoned to death for his faith. As he is dying, he sees a glimpse of heaven, but Jesus is not sitting; he’s standing. We’re told, “[Stephen] … gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Ac 7:55). Why was he standing? I believe he was standing to welcome Stephen home.

On another occasion, Jesus told his disciples:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. … In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)

First-century homes in Israel were often constructed similarly to apartment complexes. When a child married, the father would add more rooms to his home. Every room or apartment would be connected by a central courtyard where the entire family would gather and have meals together. Of course, the Bible often describes heaven as a banquet. It’s like a meal shared by family members.

Welcome home, Miss Faye

A few days ago, Miss Faye left us after faithfully enduring illness and every other burden she was made to carry. After a lifetime of smiling, hugging, and caring for others, God called her home. She didn’t necessarily say goodbye to her husband of 48 years or her daughter. More accurately, she said, “I’ll see you later.”

So, what happened next? I believe she woke to see Jesus Christ himself standing with his arms wide open. He said to her, “Come, my sweet sister. Welcome home.” He then led her into an open courtyard and gave her a seat right next to him at the dinner table. She’s sitting so close to the Savior that she can lean on him.

Maybe the cup in front of her is overflowing with Diet Pepsi. Why not? Maybe she’s wearing a clip-on rose. Regardless, she’s happy. I’m not talking about a fleeting moment of happiness either. She is thoroughly satisfied. She is dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

Mr. Victor, Jimmy, Eloise, let that be the mental image you leave here with, and may you look to God as your shepherd now as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death. May God give you comfort.

Spend Sunday evening with me

Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *