The Valley of the Shadow of Death

by Tom Wacaster

To many a man, death is the final farewell, the ultimate defeat at the end of life’s long journey toward the unknown. With each tick of the clock we draw ever closer to death and eternity. Herbert Lockyer is credited with having said, “As soon as a child is born it begins its pilgrimage to the grave. ‘He that begins to live begins to die.’” I do not know who wrote the following, but it is certainly thought provoking: “Death is the separation of a person from the purpose or use for which he was intended. It deprives him of that for which he was created. This definition will fit the word death in whatever connection it is found. Man was created to live forever—physically. Physical or natural death deprives him of that. He was intended for the presence of God—spiritually. Spiritual death separates him from that. He was created to dwell with God forever—eternally. Eternal death robs him of that privilege” (source not recorded). James boiled it down to eight words: “The body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). The unbeliever knows that death is an inevitable reality. Every time he passes a cemetery he is reminded of his limited time upon this terrestrial globe. With each issue of the daily paper he is made aware that the obituary column he reads today may contain his name tomorrow.

While the reality of death surrounds us, how we view death depends to a large degree on our view of the world and eternity. The hopelessness of the unbeliever has been captured in the sentiments expressed by renowned men of the world. Voltaire was the leading voice of French infidelity in the 18th Century. Near the end of his life he declared, “I wish I had never been born.” Robert Ingersoll, famed atheist of the 19th century, once wrote, “I am afraid of the land of the shadows—the dim ‘beyond’ is filled with frightful shapes or appears perfectly empty, which is still more frightful.” At the funeral of his brother, Mr. Ingersoll spoke these words: “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud—and the only murmur is the echo of our wailing cry.” Finally, the agnostic Bertrand Russell declared: “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.”

Now compare those sentiments with that of the faithful child of God. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only but also to all them that have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). “I know him whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to guard that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12b). One missionary to Burma expressed his happy anticipation when he wrote: “I am not tired of my work, neither am I tired of the world; yet when Christ calls me home I shall go with the gladness of a school boy bounding away from school.”

To the Christian, death is merely a casting off of the mortal for immortality, and the gateway that leads the saint into the presence of God. James tells us that “the body apart from the spirit is dead” (James 2:26), thereby giving us an inspired definition of an otherwise undefinable event at the end of our earthly existence. And the Hebrew writer reminds us that “it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh the judgment” (9:27). Indeed, “Death, that mysterious door of departure from this life for every earthly creature, is as insoluble, inscrutable and inexplicable as its concomitant, life. From the occasion of its first tragic occurrence in the race until now, though the wisest, greatest and most thoughtful of men have philosophized, conjectured and speculated concerning it, we know but little regarding an experience ultimately characteristic of all men. The worldly wise of all ages, the scholars, scientists, and philosophers of this, the most glorious age of achievement, stand in awe before it and confess defeat in fathoming it. It remains that the best, indeed, the only satisfactory definition of death is to be found in an affirmation of James, the design of which was not really to advance a definition but rather to describe the condition which follows it” (Guy N. Woods, Gospel Advocate, April 18, 1985, page 226).

I find it interesting, therefore, that the Psalmist speaks of the “valley of the shadow of death.” Let’s look a little closer.

Having expressed his great confidence in the ability of God to provide and to guide, the Psalmist now expresses courage and hope, even in the face of danger and despair. There is a cause and effect under consideration. The absence of the fear of evil is due to the assurance that comes from following God. It may be that God’s guidance will take us through the valley of the shadow of death. The confidence and assurance that God will not betray us will give us courage so that we fear no evil when following him. Even if it leads us into situations that threaten our life. The notable Albert Barnes wrote, “The idea is that of death casting his gloomy shadow over that valley…Hence the word is applicable to any path of gloom or sadness; any scene of trouble or sorrow; any dark and dangerous way. All along those paths God will be a safe and certain guide” (Volume I, page 211).

Now look at the remarkable serenity of the saint that finds himself staring danger in the face. Does he run? No, he walks. He does not quicken his pace when he comes to the end of his earthly sojourn. He is still calm; he is still under the control of his God. Interestingly, it is not IN the valley, but THROUGH it! We are not overwhelmed by the last enemy, but we pass through the experience and emerge on the other side safely on eternity’s shore. Yes, “the storm breaks on the mountain, but the valley is the place of quietude, and thus…often the last days of the Christian are the most peaceful in his whole career; the mountain is bleak and bare, but the valley is rich with golden sheaves, and many a saint has reaped more joy and knowledge when he came to die than he ever knew while he lived” (Spurgeon, page 355).

And notice, if you will, that it is not the valley of death, but rather “the valley of the shadow of death.” Men do not fear the shadows; nor does the Christian fear that which has no more power than a shadow that is cast by turning. Death has been defeated. To the child of God it can only cast its long shadow on the road to heaven, but it cannot block the gate that will usher us into eternity’s bliss. Consequently, the child of God can boldly claim, “I will fear no evil.”

Lest we conclude that all such peace is an exercise in self-will and human determination, please take a close look at the Psalmist’s closing words in this verse. “For thou art with me.” God will go with us down the long valley toward eternity, but only if we are willing to go with him through life itself. I have often contemplated the meaning and significance of these words, especially as the moment of death approaches for the child of God. When facing death we have our loved ones and friends to comfort us. But they can only go so far as we walk through that valley. Into the realms of the eternal they cannot enter. The psalmist was confident that when it came his time to walk through that valley, God would be with him. We have been told by our Savior that we will not “see death.” When that time comes to cross the bar into the eternal realms beyond, I am convinced that Jesus will take our hand and guide us through the valley unscathed by death’s evil influence. The hope that we have as God’s children is a source of comfort that is available to none other. The uncertainty of what lies beyond, and the ultimate journey through that valley on the part of the unbeliever is bleak indeed. That fear and uncertainty is reflected in the statements they make with regard to death and the hereafter. But the believer can affirm as did Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

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