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March 31, 2019

Sermon Psalm 23:4 ..“Bible songs:  The Valley of the Shadow”

“Bible songs:  The Valley of the Shadow”

Psalm 23:4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Death Valley is the lowest, hottest, and driest place in all of North America.  It’s a long, narrow basin, surrounded by high, steep mountains, 300 feet below sea level, and 130 miles long.  And oddly enough, not far to the west is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48-states.

So why do they call it “Death Valley”?  It’s not because a lot of people die there.  Actually, the leading cause of death isn’t dehydration--it’s car accidents!

They call it “Death Valley” because it’s hot there, really hot.  That narrow stretch of land holds the record for the highest temperature for the longest period of time.  Back in the summer of 2001, for example, they had 154 days, over 100 degrees, in a row!  That’s hot!

And while many of us sweat it out when it’s 90, last July, Death Valley’s Furnace Creek weather station recorded an average temperature of just over 108 degrees.  And if that’s not hot enough for you, it’s highest recorded temperature ever is 134 degrees, which, according to the World Meteorological Organization is the world record!

No wonder they call it “Death Valley.”

The Bible has its share of valleys.  Joshua chapter 7 talks about the Valley of Achor, a word that means “disaster” and “calamity.”  Psalm 84 tells of the Valley of Weeping.  David defeated Goliath in the Valley of Elah.  And Hosea mentions “Trouble Valley.”

And here, in the words of Psalm 23, we find one more valley, truly the most frightening valley of all--the Valley of Deep Darkness, the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Please turn in your Bible to page 581, as I read the words of our text.  Psalm 23, starting at verse 1:  “A Psalm of David.  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.”

It’s been said that if you’ve ever memorized a psalm by heart, it’s almost certainly Psalm 23.

Nineteenth-century preacher Henry Ward Beecher called it, “the nightingale of the psalms, singing in the dark night of loneliness.”  He wrote:  “It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, oh! it has filled the air of the whole world with melodious joy, greater than the heart can conceive.  Blessed be the day on which that psalm was born!”

And what comfort we find in this psalm!  Author Kyle Yates wrote:  “Because He loves me as the good Shepherd, I shall never want for rest, refreshment, sustenance, forgiveness, restoration, fellowship, guidance, deliverance from fear, comfort in sorrow, victory over enemies, security in troublous hours, joy in the Lord, power for service, or a home at the end of the earthly journey.”

No wonder some have called it, “the pearl of the psalms,” and “the psalm of psalms.”  No matter if you’re young or old, no matter what your troubling or terrifying life-experience might be, Psalm 23 is here, full of  strength and soul-soothing simplicity:  “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

And it’s in the fourth verse that King David writes this:  “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.”

Now at first glance, those words might seem awfully strange.  After all, up to this point, David has described how good life has been for the sheep.  He’s talked about what a good Shepherd God is, and how He’s supplied all his needs.  He’s talked about how the Lord led him to green pastures and beside still waters.  He’s even walked beside him in righteous paths.

But now, all of a sudden, there’s a major shift, a change in tone.  Before, the psalm was in the third person--”The Lord, He is my Shepherd...He makes me lie down...He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul.”

But now in verse 4, it’s no longer in the third person, “He.”  Now, it’s in the second person, “You.”  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”

To put it another way, no longer is the sheep boasting across the fence to other sheep.  Now he turns and talks directly his Shepherd.

Even more, there’s a sudden shift in circumstance.  No longer is the sheep resting in green pastures or beside still waters.  Now he’s in a dark valley, a death valley, and he can’t help but be afraid.

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, author Tim Keller writes:  “In the winter, the sheep spend all their time in the safety of the ranch.  But in spring, just as soon as the weather begins to warm, the shepherd leads his flock up the mountain, following the receding snow.  And as summer wears on, he leads his flock further and further up the mountain to the most remote meadows.  And later, when the snow again begins to fall, the shepherd leads his sheep back down.”

And while the sheep are away from the ranch, they’re completely alone with the shepherd, and their well-being is entirely in his hands.  Still, the sheep trust him to lead them up safe paths and to find fresh food and water.  No matter where they go, they know he’ll keep them safe.

But a problem with leading sheep up a mountain is that they can’t go straight up.  They’re not goats, they’re sheep.  So the shepherd has to take the gentlest grade possible to lead them higher up the mountain.  And the only way to do it is to walk through a valley.

But that’s the way it has to be.  The sheep have already grazed the spring grass down to the ground, so they have to seek out fresh, new fields.

So with a rod in his belt and a staff in his hand, he leads them to the deep, green grass of the hillsides.

And what a beautiful picture--a shepherd and his sheep.  And it will be that way for weeks, and even for months to come.

But finding that fresh new grass isn’t easy.  The trip is long and the path is dangerous.  Besides, as beautiful as those valleys might be, they’re also known for their threats and dangers, like rocks and mud slides, flash floods and poisonous plants, and predators, (like lions, bears, and wolves), that hide behind craggy rocks.

A valley is the most dangerous place to be, but it’s the only way up the mountain.

 Just as sheep have their deep, dark valleys, so do we.  They say that, in this country, one person is murdered every 31 minutes.  One person is assaulted every 37 seconds.  One person is killed in an alcohol-related traffic accident every 40 minutes.  One man is abused every 3 ½ minutes.  One woman is abused every 52 seconds.  One home is broken into every 18 seconds.  One person becomes a victim of identity theft every 5 seconds.

Even more, think of global terrorism, financial uncertainty, downsizing, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, super viruses, pandemics, automobile accidents, airline accidents, house fires, carbon monoxide leaks, and children kidnapped.

And if that’s not enough, we have relational fears--will she forgive me?  Will they accept me?  Will he stay?  Will she stay?  Why did he say that?  Why did she do that?  What’s wrong with me?

The world is a scary place.

Also, notice David didn’t say, “If I walk through the valley.”  He said:  “Even though I walk through the valley.”

It’s been said that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes.  But, in a way, that’s not entirely true.  If you’re smart enough and have an awfully good accountant, you can find ways to avoid most taxes.  But no one escapes death.  

Here in our United States, for example, 7,452 people die each day.  That’s one in every twelve seconds.

When death comes knocking, you can’t sneak out the back door.

But as fearful and terrifying as the valley of the shadow might be, it’s not a place any of us has to stay.  Notice David didn’t say, “Even though I walk into the valley,” nor did he say, “Even though I get trapped in the valley.”  Instead, he said, “Even though I walk through the valley.”

A pastor by the name of George Everett Ross once said:  “I have served in the ministry for almost thirty-one years, and I have come to understand that there are two kinds of faith.  One says ‘if’ and the other says ‘though.’  One says, ‘If everything goes well, if my life is prosperous, if I’m happy, if no one I love dies, if I’m successful, then I will believe in God and say my prayers and go to church.’  The other says, ‘Though--though the cause of evil prosper, though I sweat in Gethsemane, though I must drink my cup at Calvary--nevertheless, precisely then, I will trust the Lord who made me.’”

As David wrote in the words of Psalm 46:  “Though the waters roar and foam, though the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea, the Lord of hosts is with me, the God of Jacob is my fortress.”

But just as a shepherd would never lead his sheep to a place he’s never gone before, so it is with our Savior Jesus.  For our Good Shepherd, that Carpenter from Nazareth, once left the nails and wood of His carpenter shop, only to find those nails and wood again--on Calvary, in the shape of a cross.

And there, one Friday, He silently and unmistakably proved to His dear, lost sheep, that He Himself would walk through that valley.  Alone, despised, and rejected, stricken, smitten, and afflicted, pierced and crushed, punished and wounded, beaten, bruised, bleeding, oppressed, cut off from the land of the living, and assigned a grave in His death, He entered the deepest, darkest, and most terrifying valley of all.  Yet never once did He fear evil, for He took all evil on Himself.

And why does He lead you through valleys?  Because He cares more for your character than He does for your convenience or comfort.  Because He’s more interested in your holiness than He is in your happiness.  Because He wants to lead you to the mountaintop.

And why will we “fear no evil”?

Because of the five most precious words of all:  “For You are with me.”

As Jesus said in the book of John:  “In the world, you will have trouble.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”


In death’s dark vale I fear no ill, with You, dear Lord, beside me.  Your rod and staff my comfort still, Your cross before to guide me.  And so through all the length of days, Your goodness faileth never. Good Shepherd, may we sing Your praise, within Your house forever, for Your sake.  Amen

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