Most of us are aware that this psalm is read quite frequently in memorial settings. The use of the psalm is no accident, and neither is the frequent use due to habit. The psalmist has provided for us a word of hope that goes beyond the limits of life into the shadows which appear for every human being.
Assuming that David is the author of this masterpiece, one must consider the background he brought to his words. David was a mortal creature with joys and frustrations. He was a powerful person physically and politically. He was a king and a servant of God. He was also a man of confidence because he had allowed life to teach him well the lessons of faith. He not only had confidence in himself, but as a man of great faith he had tremendous confidence in God.
We can only speculate as to the immediate circumstances of this psalm. Whatever the immediate occasion it was one of those times when the very foundations of life seemed to be threatened. Yet the psalmist spoke with such assurance, an assurance for which most of us hunger.
Consider his carefully chosen description of death. Not a word was wasted as he pointed us to the only Source of confidence in those times. He spoke of death in several ways.
He talked of his “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” The fact that he described the place as a valley is significant. Of all the possibilities of places, the psalmist selected the visual image of a valley. He did not describe death in terms of a violent sea, a stormy mountain, nor a lifeless desert. He painted the image of a valley, that area at the foot of a peaceful mountain. It is not far from the mountain where we can more easily envision the omnipotent God of peace.
The psalmist continued the sermon in his description of death as a shadow. The image he offered is such a powerful one. While others of his day spoke of the chambers of death or the gates of death, David became a pioneer as he defined the tense power of death by relegating it to only a shadow.
Do keep in mind that a shadow exists only as long as there is light to cast a shadow. The Lord was not only David’s Shepherd who supplied his wants but also the only Source of light. Regardless of its nature, death only temporarily stands in our light. The light is still there. A shadow is evidence of its existence. What a reassuring image of this force we seem to fear!
Yet, one of the most significant words in Psalm 23 is one that we frequently read past without giving much thought to the reassurance which is offered. The psalmist spoke of a walk through the valley. It is not a walk into the valley. It is not a walk in the valley. It is not even a walk around the valley. Instead, the journey is, through the valley. This image has to be one of the most powerful in all of Scripture.
The journey is temporary. The writer did not go into detail concerning time. The length of the walk becomes insignificant once the discovery is made that the journey is only temporary. We can persevere as long as we can see light at the end of the tunnel. That light is always there.
The walk you are experiencing today is a temporary one. The valley of the shadow is all about you. But you must keep in mind that this segment is not an endless journey. You, too, will soon walk into the light which has only been momentarily blocked.
The basis for our hope is found in the fact that the Shepherd is walking with us. We are not alone in these circumstances or in any other. The Shepherd has not only walked before us but preparations have been made for our necessities, even now as we meet here. There is little in life more frightening than loneliness. Our walk is not a solo. There is the best of company for our journey. A caring Shepherd will comfort us with his rod and staff.
There is little in life that isolates us more than the pain of grief. Yet this psalm is a vivid reminder that His rod and staff are providing for our needs this very moment. A loved one for whom there is genuine grief will not return on this side of the door. But, in the meantime as you adjust to that absence, the Shepherd will be caring for you and your loved one every moment.
There is no mystery as to why this great psalm is embraced so frequently in this setting. In this moment there are great needs for green pastures and still waters. The psalmist pointed us to a Shepherd who does more than just tend to us. He laid down His life for us. The path we walk today is not an uncharted way. Preparations began long ago as He seeks even now to restore our souls.
So it is with our loved one in whose memory we gather. Remember, the Good Shepherd has not only carried this one into, but through, the shadow.
Prayer: Lord, help us to see death as it really is—only a shadow. Most of all, help us to trust the Shepherd who has experienced and understands all mysteries—in whose name we offer our prayer. Amen.